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The tough women driving SGR trains will win your heart

Tuesday May 2 2017

Train drivers Elizabeth Wanjala (left) and Shalom Njeri (centre) with their instructor Lu Zhili.

Train drivers Elizabeth Wanjala (left) and Shalom Njeri (centre) with their instructor Lu Zhili. They were trained in China. PHOTO | PAULINE KAIRU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

PAULINE KAIRU
By PAULINE KAIRU
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Just after 8:30am, the signal for our train turns to green.

It is clear and we can roll out of the Nairobi Railway Station.

The engine driver turns the power to the engines on and then disengages the brakes.

It is a chilly Sunday morning and Shalom Njeri is wearing a stiff face. Not because she is cold or unhappy.

Rather, it is all thanks to the level of diligent concentration that the job at hand demands of her.

HANDS-ON
Njeri and Elizabeth Wanjala are the two train drivers manning the 1,590-passenger train.

The duo is part of an eight-women team that will make up the 65 drivers who will be on the frontline, responsible for ensuring that the trips made on the standard gauge railway (SGR) are safe.

Barely looking up from the control console, Njeri’s gaze almost only darts between the console and the rail in front.

She will occasionally pick up the phone hanging near the door to talk to the signaller back at the station, and that is just about it.

In fact, we have to pause our interview after we are warned about distracting her.

Contrary to popular thinking that the SGR trains, being more advanced than the current ones, may be computerised, things here are still relatively hands-on.

HOW IT OPERATES

Instead of one, there are two braking systems, and the maximum speed on the SGR locomotive is 132 kilometres per hour.

“The limit for us though is 120kph,” Njeri explains as she finally settles down for the interview.

“Anyway, we must drive at the set speed.” The driver’s cabin is open, spacious and airy.

The main controls on the console include the all-important "dead man’s handle" — which must be manually held for the train to move.

Every now and then there’s a beep and the driver has to press the dead man’s device, which checks that she has not died (literally) midway through the journey.

If the handle is not depressed for 60 seconds, an alarm sounds, and after two minutes the systems control room is alerted.

“This is just in case, for example, ... the driver is incapacitated,” Njeri says.

SAFETY MEASURES

Shortly after departure Njeri is cruising at 100kph.

The interesting thing is one does not get too much a sensation of speed even though we even do 120kph.

Then about 12 minutes into the trip, we encounter a congress of baboons camped by the railway.

Njeri hoots incessantly as one of the primates stubbornly refuses to get off the railway line.

Later, she tells me: “There is a whole range of different things you can encounter while driving, thus the level of concentration.

“To be in this cab, you need to be able to snap into action at a moment’s notice. Had that baboon refused to get off the rail, I might have had to stop.”

Adds Wanjala as we approach an ascent and Njeri turns up the speed to 120kph: “Punctuality is second only to safety.

“Training and experience is how we know exactly where to accelerate or slow down, or even where to start braking.

"Well, signs that change into different colours depending on commands at the end of every platform, showing the driver exactly where to stop, help too.”

EMERGENCY BREAKING
Njeri chips in: “Since we came back (from a three-month training in China), we have done almost daily trips on the rail to gain more experience.”

Soon we will be at our destination. As the train approaches the end of the line at Athi River train station, where the line multiplies into four, the limit drops all the way to 16kph.

There are what look like traffic lights alongside the tracks but are more complicated than the ones on the roads.

Green and red mean exactly as those on the road but in between there comes double yellow.

“That tells the driver to start reducing speed and yellow means be prepared to stop,” Wanjala explains.

The reason for this is that it is pretty hard to stop a train going at 120kph.

In the event of an emergency, its stopping distance is about a mile.

“You should anticipate all sorts of situations at a train station, hence the warning lights,” Njeri adds.

And then she pulls into the platform.

FEMALE DRIVERS
The drive, especially at the railroad switch, seems ferociously complicated.

But that isn’t the hardest challenge, according to Njeri. “Controlling the speed is,” she quips.

This is why, before getting the job, you have to pass the Safe Concentration and Attention Tests (Scaat), which require doing a series of tasks quickly, correctly and in the right order. More applicants fail than pass.

Never in her wildest dreams did Njeri think she would be a train driver.

She says: “It’s not the kind of thing you picture yourself doing, especially when you’re of the female gender, you know.”

For close to nine decades that the train has operated in the country, this is the first batch of female drivers.

“All the eight of us went for training at the Baoji Railway Technician College in Shaanxi, China,” Wanjala says.

EXPERTS
Njeri, a Chinese communication graduate from the University of Nairobi, and Wanjala, an education graduate from Kenyatta University, are both 24.

None of the women drivers are older than 27. All former Chinese communication students, they were commissioned by China Road and Bridge Corporation to train in the Asian country.

They have mastered the operational nuts and bolts but are still in training and are accompanied by three of their Chinese instructors in the cabin.

When we alight at the Athi River train station, it is with a renewed respect for the women at the front of the train getting the 15-car train there safely and fast.