The old train is gone. What memories will SGR bring?

Wednesday May 31 2017

Passengers ride the new train on its maiden trip from Mombasa to Nairobi. PHOTO | AGGREY MUTAMBO | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Legend has it that in the original design of the Mombasa-Kampala railway, the railway station in the sleepy township of Uplands was intended only as a stop for the engine — then powered by wood — to refuel.

This involved the elaborate work of felling trees and leaving them out to dry for a few days as the wood awaited to be loaded onto the train.


However, because of the incredibly low temperatures there, the wood would take days before drying sufficiently to power the boilers of the engine.

In one such incident, a goods train carrying pork had to wait for three days as there was no sun to dry the wood.

On the third day, the owner of the pork, a white man, ordered his men to offload the cargo, believing that it had gone bad.


However, he soon discovered that the pork had been naturally refrigerated. The temperatures were so low the pork could as well have been in a freezer. That is how the Uplands Bacon Factory was started.

It so happened that my paternal grandparents were living nearby. Every day, they and their children saw the train chug by, on its way to or from Nairobi or the Rift Valley. Growing up in the forested neighbourhood of Uplands, just past Limuru town, my father often encountered the goods train as it made a stop-over at the small station to load pork and to replenish its stock of wood.


As the train approached the station, the driver would pull on the whistle string to alert the station master. Apparently, that was the sweetest sound in my father’s ears. He would have given anything to get his hands on the string that pulled the whistle. His dream was to become a train engine driver for just that one reason. In the end, however, he over-achieved, becoming an aircraft engineer.

In his days as a ground staff with Pan-Am airlines in the mid 1970s, he and my mother, like others in the burgeoning middle class, were living in a rented house in Buru Buru estate.

And, if my memory serves me right, it so happened that a railway line ran right behind where we lived. It was always a fascination.

In 1978, my mother and I moved to Nakuru, which was then basically a railway town.

Many of the activities there revolved mostly around the station, starting with the bus and matatu termini and both the wholesale and retail markets, just a stone’s throw away from the station.


On every national day, pupils like myself and their teachers, scouts, security guards, council askaris, NYS recruits, police officers and soldiers from the Lanet and Gilgil barracks would congregate outside the train station, which was always the starting point for national day processions.

So good was the music, and so colourful the processions that wananchi would involuntarily follow us to the Afraha Stadium where the Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner would lead the celebrations.

One of the things I have never forgotten was the vigilance with which the railway was policed.

A short cut to the provincial general hospital — which we simply called Medical — passed through a restricted railway area.

Still, daring spirits crossed the barbed wire, hoping to make a dash to the other side. Many were promptly arrested by police in plain clothes and were spirited away to the Central Police Station, at the mouth of the railway station.


Crossing the railway was the most risky thing one could do in Nakuru. Punishment for the crime was swift. The only other thing that was worse than crossing the line was leaving coins on the rails.

Boys had this penchant, believing that doing so would derail the trains. And for their troubles, they would be promptly arrested and assaulted by the railway police. Today, the rules have relaxed, probably because the trains are not as regular.

As a boy, I occasionally rode on the train to Rongai, where I had relatives.

My first impressionable encounter with the train was when, at around 9pm one day, we made our way to the station.

There is a big platform where the passengers waited. We called it Kiferi.

On that night, there was a multitude of people carrying all manner of goods.

And those who were heading to Kisumu and other stations in the hinterlands had little patience with those of us doing the shorter distances.


They would scramble for all the choicest spots. All I remember was how over-crowded we were in the third class coach and how dark it was outside.

Years later, I had the first comfortable train ride of my life. By then, I was a member of the 19th Railways Scouts, a troop allied to and partly supported by Kenya Railways.

I have never forgotten the ride because that term, I was third from last in end-of-term examinations. I carefully hid my report form under a pile of clothes on closing day and promptly joined my fellow scouts on a trip to Rowallan camp, where we were to spend a week.

We were assigned an entire coach to ourselves and had more than enough room to play. What’s more, we made the trip by day and there was plenty to see outside.

Decades later, as a journalist, the call of duty took me to Japan and one of the most memorable highlights of the trip was a railway journey from Hiroshima and Tokyo.

I rode on the Shinkansen line — also called Nozomi — one of the fastest and safest trains in the world.


Days before I boarded the train, I had been warned that “time and Shinkansen wait for no man”. If I missed my train, I would also lose my money.

There were no two ways about it. I had to keep time.

The train, my informants told me, was punctual to a fault, spending no more than five minutes at any given station. And it did not just stop anywhere. You had to wait for it at the right station.

The journey from Hiroshima to Tokyo inspired me to a write a piece on the need for Kenya to revolutionise its public transport.

Back then, Tokyo alone had 30 million people. Over 90 per cent of them used to trains.

The others used buses and only used taxis for short commutes.

Parking in Tokyo is one of the biggest luxuries, although cars were more than fairly priced.

Owning one, however, was too much work. If you wanted to be on time, you took the train.


It was possible to give someone an appointment for 11.12am. You knew, without a shadow of doubt, that you would be at the appointed place on time. Their train system is that reliable.

My first encounter with an underground train was in Berlin, Germany.

There, one was spoilt for choice. Commuters could take the S-Barn, the surface train, or the U-Barn, the underground train.

All were precise in keeping time to a fault. The inter-city trains, powerful machines that traverse breathtaking landscapes are more comfortable than short haul aeroplane journeys but they are also expensive by comparison, sometimes, more expensive than a budget airline ticket for the same distance.

Back in Nairobi, when the RVR commuter train was introduced a few years ago, I made the mistake of promising my two sons that I would take them on a train ride.

Unfortunately, when I inquired about the journeys, I was informed that there were only two trips to the city in the morning and two out in the evening.

There was no way I was going to put boys on that train. Now, however, I hope to put them on the new one and they can get to experience the joy I did when I was a youngster.