I never quite appreciated the true meaning of a watershed innovation until I took an SGR trip to Mombasa recently. The SGR is the rebirth of our century-old railway service now known as the Madaraka Express. It runs on a standard gauge railway line, hence the name. This single piece of infrastructure has gone into the books of history as the most expensive ever in Kenya since independence. In essence, it cost a whopping USD 3.6 billion!
While the debate on whether it was a good investment continues, Madaraka Express is no doubt a game-changer for the country. It has become, perhaps, the most popular mode of transport for holidaymakers travelling to and from the port city of Mombasa and this is why.
1. Cheaper and Faster
A few years ago, it used to be if you could not afford a flight to Mombasa from Nairobi, you had to settle for the bus. While the former could get you there in about an hour, the latter took a mind-bending fifteen hours. Because most travellers could not afford the expensive flights, buses became the norm. Now an SGR trip takes a happy five hours! At between USD 10-30, depending on whether you are travelling first-class or economy class, it is way cheaper than a plane and much faster than a bus.
The Madaraka Express runs two passenger services between Nairobi and Mombasa which make three daily round trips. The Intercounty train runs in the morning and makes seven stopovers in Athi River, Emali, Kibwezi, Mtito Andei, Voi, Miasenyi and Mariakani. It departs both ways at 8:00 am and takes six hours, to arrive at about 2:00 pm. The Express train is an hour faster because it does not have any stopovers and runs an afternoon and nightly schedule. The afternoon express train departs at 3:00 pm and arrives at 8:00 pm. The night train leaves at 10:00 pm and arrives at 3:35 am.
So What is the Difference Between The County and Express Train?
- The county train has seven stopovers, the express train does not.
- The county train takes six hours, the express takes five.
- The county runs one schedule at 8:00 am both ways, the express train runs two between 3:00 pm and 10:00 pm.
So you have the choice of a non-express trip with a generous countryside experience or a direct trip with the flexibility of two travel times. If you need to change your travel dates for one reason or another, it is easy through their customer care lines (good luck with the phone numbers though. They rarely go through!) Remember to do this 48 hours before your travel date.
3. Breathtaking Countryside Views
Like its ancient predecessor, the Lunatic Express, the Madaraka Express traverses beautiful countryside scenery. The Tsavo National Park is exceptionally breathtaking. In November, the short rains have started, and Tsavo’s red earth has transformed into a green paradise. As a result, you will miss seeing the only red elephants on earth! Elephants in Tsavo constantly dust-bath in the park’s fine red volcanic soil which gives them their legendary red colour. When it rains, they can’t bathe in the dust, so they are not red. That does not, however, make them any less unique because they remain tuskers – the world’s largest elephants with extraordinarily mammoth tusks. Did you know Athena, the star of the Elephant Queen documentary lives in Tsavo?
The SGR trip also puts you within sight of the shy Mount Kilimanjaro with its snowy peak. On a good day, the views of this tallest mountain in Africa are spectacular. You can also catch glimpses of periurban living as you pass through towns like Kitengela and Athiriver. As you draw nearer to the coast, giant Baobab trees start to emerge. Interrupted here and there by villagers busy on their farms or women washing clothes in streams, these trees are an ancient natural wonder.
Passenger safety on an SGR trip gets a lot of attention, which is a good thing if infused with some customer care. Otherwise, for a first-timer like me, it can be a bit intimidating. In a typical military style, passengers are separated from their luggage by guards with sniffer dogs. As the dogs inspect your luggage, the guards pat you down. You and your bags then get ushered through an x-ray scanner for a second security check. At this point, you begin to wonder whether this was the right decision before a third inspection finally clears you into the waiting bay. Security is by no means critical in these uncertain times but it can be done with a human touch.
An SGR trip comes with the option to travel in either first or economy class. First-class will cost you USD 30 for adults and USD 15 for kids between three and eleven years. The economy class will set you back USD 10 for adults and USD 5 for children aged 3-11 years. It is free for children below three years in both classes. Here is a rundown of the other differences.
This class is the luxury end of your SGR trip, and it is spacious. Seats here can be turned around to form a quad of four if you are in an all-chatty group. Armrests and metal tray tables provide extra comfort. The food service is available twice every 6 hours. In the beginning, you needed to order before boarding at the VIP lounge area. These days the meals travel with you at your eating pleasure!
Similarly clean, the economy class feels cramped, particularly on the longer direct journey. The window seat is your best sitting position. That is because it is the only one with a table. Do not expect to get much work done on it though – it will be a cumbersome experience. The seats here neither recline nor have armrests. As you may expect, the legroom is also minimal. For shorter distances, this class is manageable. It can be a nightmare if your SGR trip is longer.
Whatever class or trip type you chose, an SGR trip is a much better option than most bus services that ply this route. You enjoy comforts close to those in a plane for way cheaper plus the bonus of great scenic views. Try the SGR once this Covid-19 business is behind us.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for accuracy and relevancy. [Originally Published: April 2020 / Revised: June 2022]