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How it feels like to ride in SGR train

Tuesday May 30 2017

A new passenger train at the Nairobi terminus

A new passenger train at the Nairobi terminus on May 29, 2017. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The giant vehicle roared past a Mercedes Benz E250 on its way to Mombasa. They had raced side by side for 10 minutes or so but they were racing on two different tracks. It was a handicap match.

Each time the Benz kicked above 100km per hour, it was slowed by an oncoming truck or bus, as the standard gauge railway (SGR) train moved on its journey.

As it snaked through the rocky hills of Makueni County, passing isolated houses, it reached its maximum speed of 120km per hour.

The preparatory trip started on Monday at Syokimau, near Nairobi, where the China Road and Bridge Corporation has set up a humongous train station. This will be the Nairobi Terminus.


Here, passengers go through the same security checks as those at airports. On this day, mean-looking police checked everyone on this trip - engineers, journalists, government officials and Chinese contractors.


The attendants, seemingly trained in Chinese traditions, guided the passengers on to the boarding area. Like airports, only ticket holders were allowed to go beyond security checks. And like all stations around the world, an attendant in a bad mood could be heard yelling at travellers she claimed had disobeyed her instructions to keep moving.

The train departed Nairobi Terminus at 2pm sharp Monday, heading for the coastal city for its maiden journey.

Inside the cockpit of one of the SGR trains on
Inside the cockpit of one of the SGR trains on May 29, 2017. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Most times, it cruised at 113km/h, according to readings on electronic boards inside the coaches.

On the SGR, one does not need a seat belt and you can stand, stretch or walk in the coaches as it speeds along.

The seats are not adjustable on economy and while the services are better on business (first) class, this train will not be comparable to a flight seating arrangement. But it is better than a bus ride because there are no bumps or the usual danger of speeding.


You won’t be allowed to bring pets on board.

On board, the attendants in blue uniform have learnt enough Chinese to add to their English proficiency and they can switch at will depending on who they are talking to.

At one time, we were told in English that we could watch the train speed and temperature readings on the electronic board. Then an attendant told a Chinese engineer in Chinese to adjust the air conditioner.

The idea behind these language switches is meant to ensure fluent communication.

Train service crew in one of the coaches on May
Train service crew in one of the coaches on May 29, 2017. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Passengers were not informed on what food will be served in the train, so those who did not carry food had to enjoy a plate of salad.

But the panoramic view of Kenya’s famous landscape and wildlife soon came to view as the trained cruised towards its destination.

In Makueni, it snaked through the rocky hills of the county that gave way to the beautiful reddish landscape in Tsavo. The train raced past a herd of elephants cooling of at a watering hole as giraffes craned their necks to reach treetops nearby.


Tsavo is where maneless lions mauled rail builders in 1898 as they worked on the lunatic express. In that part of the ageing Kenya-Uganda railway, it took a year to build a bridge because of the constant threat from the two lions.

The SGR engineers took two months to build a bridge and rail there and none of them was eaten by the lions.

During the journey, the train made two 15-minute stops at Mtito Andei and Marikiti before arriving in Mombasa's Mariakani station at 6.30pm.

At a maximum speed of 120km per hour, the train can take about four hours to complete the 472km journey. But Kenya Railways has put the time at five hours because of stops at various stations.

The train will initially offer two classes of passengers - economy and business - but will launch its premier class by December this year.


Some 40 passenger coaches will be procured initially: economy class coaches will have a capacity of 118 passengers; economy class 72; premier class 44.

Commuters will initially pay Sh900 for economy and Sh3,000 for business class, to be known as first class in Kenya Railways lingo.

The fare for these classes will be lower by December, when the operators launch a second type of train.

One thing, though, Kenya Railways must do fast is to launch shuttle services from the train stations to town centres.

In Mombasa, for instance, taxi services are unavailable to the station at Mariakani and one needs to have prior arrangements to be transferred to town, some 25 minutes away on a clear road.

President Uhuru Kenyatta will launch the SGR on Wednesday and thereafter embark on its maiden journey to Nairobi.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has sent his special envoy, State Councillor Wang Yong, to represent him during ceremony.