A train trip from Nairobi to Rongai and Ngong towns in the evening evokes memories of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express, what with the empty cars and silence.
It is rush hour in Nairobi, and buses to the city suburbs are full. But at the Syokimau train station, things are very different.
While it is manned, the counter serving Rongai and Ngong destinations has sluggish traffic. At times it can be dormant the whole day, save for a few minutes of mild activity at “peak” hours in the mornings and evenings.
The train makes three trips between Ngong and Nairobi every day, most times running empty.
A security guard at one of the checks snores the early evening away. When I arrive, he dreamily shows me in and retrieves his baton from the floor.
Save for one haggard passenger sprawled on one of the benches in the lobby and a couple totally immersed in their smartphones, the 1,000-capacity waiting area is virtually empty.
Kenya took a Sh150 billion loan from China to build this particular section. Whether it will get passengers and cargo soon to repay that loan, only time will tell.
China has been dishing out billions of dollars to many countries to finance the construction of highways, ports, and as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But of late, some of these projects have faced a backlash and have had to be downsized or suspended due to unserviceable debts or corruption.
This particular phase of the standard gauge railway was to end in Naivasha, a growing tourism and farming centre. But there is no money to take the line there from Syokimau, where the first phase of the SGR from Mombasa to Nairobi ended.
At 5.20 pm, we found the canteen and coffee shop at the Syokimau station had already closed for the day. With nothing to do, station workers idle about, waiting for time go home.
At 6 pm, 50 minutes to departure time, the train from Rongai announces its arrival with a loud screech. It is in this 10-carriage monster that the passengers will be riding home. Already, darkness is slowly creeping over the Nairobi National Park, which the track cuts through, offering a panoramic view of the wilderness.
The crew, in their beautiful yellow jackets, blue pants and navy blue striped berets, have been ready for an hour already, and are chatting among themselves.
But even as the clock ticks towards departure time, they don’t seem to be in a hurry.
When President Kenyatta opened this Suswa line, he was livid that the media had described it as the “train to nowhere.” While the train might inspire investments into this vast, uncharted territory, the slow take-off was perhaps unforeseen.
As time drags on, more people trickle in. Five minutes to departure, we start boarding. In Car Two, there are only 30 of us, out of a capacity of 118. The seats are spacious and fairly comfortable. It turns out that this car is the most occupied, with the others nearly empty.
At exactly 6:50 pm, the train begins the trip across the national park to Rongai, a 23-minute journey.
It is pitch dark when we arrive at the Rongai station, an immaculate, modern facility. It could be anywhere in a Western capital. The passengers disembark and disappear into darkness.
So, how do they get home?
‘‘I always have a boda boda rider waiting for me,’’ says John Gathii, a resident of Maasai Lodge. He pays Sh200 for the ride home.
‘‘It’s more convenient than the hustle of traffic,’’ says Gathii, whose relative proximity to the station is an advantage.
Luckily for him, he has a business in Syokimau. When he factors in the cost of fuelling his car, riding the train makes more economic sense.
Not so for Diana, who lives in Kware. For her, getting home presents a fresh challenge. ‘‘I fear being mugged but I also don’t want to sit in traffic for hours,’’ laments the young mother. So she usually takes a boda boda with whoever is willing to share the Sh200 fare.
‘‘Sometimes I’m not lucky so I foot the bill alone. The train is cheaper and faster, but it’s not convenient at all,’’ she remarks.
When passengers disembark in Rongai, the car is nearly empty. Not even the handful of twilight travellers who board during the four-minute stop here are enough to fill the carriage.
The train then heads to Ngong station. Except for the attendants, the station here is virtually deserted. There are no taxis around. About 10 of the passengers disperse in all directions, turning down offers to ride in boda bodas.
Ngong town is five kilometres from the station, and one has to take a bus at Veterinary, the nearest shopping centre. A dirt, potholed road connects the station to the shopping centre. Called Kangawa, this road is virtually impassable when it rains.