Category Archives: Mombasa

Rail Check: SGR First Class

A review of the Madaraka Express SGR service between Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya using the Business Traveller format of train reviews.

Background: Kenya launched the Madaraka Express, a new passenger service train service when the Standard Gauge Railways in May 2017 that replaced the ‘old’ Kenya Railways train service between Nairobi and Mombasa and which was discontinued just a few weeks before the launch. China Road and Bridge Corporation built the new standard gauge railways (SGR) and Africa Star Railway Operation runs the train service for Kenya Railways.

Booking: You buy all tickets online, and you have to choose – first (costs Kshs 3,000) or economy (Kshs 1,000). There is no seat selection or seat map. You then pay via M-Pesa and get an SMS with the seat selection and ticket number. The ticket price is a flat rate, with no difference in prices for weekends, or midweek. The booking site also shows the number of available seats and you can book for several people, but there are some rules about large group bookings. 

Getting There: Nairobi’s SGR station is located about 8 kilometres from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and 15 kilometres from downtown Nairobi while the one at Miritini station that serves Mombasa is a corresponding distance from the airport there and centre of the island. You can get to either station by using a taxi service like Uber or Little Cabs.

Even though you are going to hot Mombasa, dress warmly for the SGR ride. Don’t get on board in T-shirt and beach shorts as the train is kept at a cool air-conditioned temperature for the duration of the ride and the windows don’t open.

At the SGR station, you go through a few security checks – sniffer dog, bag x-ray etc. There are different rules that are not clear and some people are allowed to bring food onboard, but other items like visible alcohol bottles and cigarette lighters are confiscated from passengers.

You then go and print your ticket stub from a vending machine, which you have to show to enter the station. You enter the number that was sent to your phone via SMS and you can, for good measure, also print one for the return leg.

Boarding: At Nairobi, there is a lounge for first-class passengers that is separated by a screen from the economy ones. First class passengers board first from their lounge, and parents with children are given boarding priority. You walk across a bridge from the lounge and down to the train.  There are escalators at both Nairobi and Mombasa stations and some lifts, but they can get crowded.

You find, your coach and there’s another ticket check at door. The train has about eleven economy coaches, and two first-class ones, according to the announcer, with numbers one and two at the back, next to the dining car.

Seat: Once on board, you have to sometime be firm on the seat you paid for as some people arrive and want to sit on a different seat in the first-class cabin that is in a 2-2 layout. Window seats have a socket and you want to sit next one where you can plug your gadgets in to charge. I got the impression some people buy two seats so they can stretch out in the extra space and nap without being bothered by a seat companion who may be a noisy, messy eater.

There is enough space in the overhead bins, and large suitcases are placed at the end of the carriage near, or under, the sink. It would be nice if there were some proper luggage racks, but there is ample space.

The tray table, which pulls out from the seat in front, is wide enough to rest a laptop computer on. But it has no slots for cups, so if you are reading or working on a laptop, it is available to hold your cup. The train sways gently, but it is more likely you will knock over the cup or someone passing may bump it by accident.

Journey: The train pulls out of the station on time at 2:35 P.M. It accelerates slowly on through past the many cement factories in Athi River town, the African Heritage House, and other familiar sights. It doesn’t really pick up speed, in this area with slight curves, until it starts descends the plains, and the rail straightens. Most of the journey is done at speeds of about 110 Km/h (70 mph) and the train is very deceptive in its speed, which is displayed on a small screen in the coaches. You never get a sense of the speed until you pass a car on the highway or see a helicopter slowly pass overhead and you realize just how fast the train really is compared to these other vehicles.

The entire railway is double fenced, zoning off the SGR from the communities that it passes through on the 400-kilometre journey. The afternoon train is a non-stop one. Unlike the old train which would slow to stop in small towns and in which passengers tourists would stick their heads out of windows, watching the passing countryside or to count the number of coaches of the train as it turned, this new rail has few curves and the train hardly bends. There are no roads to cross, and instead, the train is elevated far above the ground as cars pass underneath. School kids, who used to stop and wave at travellers on the old train, do not bother to stop playing football to even glance at this fast-moving one.

Looking outside from your seat, you might spot some elephants, giraffes, buffalo, monkeys and other wildlife in the open plain, and later when an announcement is made about the train passing through Tsavo National Park. Occasionally pass another train, but mostly you pass old abandoned stations that used to be landmark stops on the old train,

Service:  In first-class, a drink cart was rolled down the aisle with a snack, and free serving of coffee or tea is served, but the service is rather slow and clumsy. Later they served drinks, for sale, which were rolled down on an old airline-style cart, with a selection of beers, wine, soft drinks and snacks, but the cold drinks are not really cold. Even warm ones can run out and you may have to switch what you are drinking.

It is better to go straight to the dining car where you can have more cold drinks and snacks. The train ride is not too long, so you won’t be eating large meals like the elaborate full dinner and breakfast meals that the old train used to serve in first-class. The same beer that was Kshs 250 in the VIP at the station is now 350 here. Also, the Mombasa station also has a first-class lounge upstairs but there is no restaurant there, yet.

There is no Wi-Fi or screens, but you get good service on Safaricom internet service for most of the way. Some passengers had iPads which they used to entertain children they were travelling with.

Arrival: Accessing the station at both ends can be stressful At Mombasa having arrived at about 7:15 P.M. it took about two hours to get to our destination by historic Fort Jesus. The new highway, that is still under construction, takes about fifteen minutes to reach the junction to Mombasa airport. Then it took us one and a half hours to negotiate the traffic that had overlapped and got stuck on the dusty Makupa Causeway, with matatus, tuk-tuk’s and other vehicles going off-road and meandering between long-distance trucks. Some vehicles had they engines off and truck brakes had a burning smell. The cause of the jam was a lorry that had gone off the road just as the causeway enters the island. The return a few days later took about a half-hour from town. Regardless of if you take the SGR, or fly into Mombasa’s main airport, you are stuck on the same highway that is under repair for the next few weeks.

Verdict: The 66 people in the first class train cabin are equal to the number on a typical bus on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, while each economy coach (there were eleven) has almost double that number of passengers. Also, the 50 wagons on an SGR goods train of which you pass one or two during the journey are equal to 50 fewer trucks off the Nairobi-Mombasa. See also Owaahh’s “The Man Who Sold A Country” for more on the impact of this new railway.

Good points: The time-keeping, the on-time departures and arrivals. Also, the new SGR service crew make many announcements, about making good use of a shared public facility. When KFC came to Kenya and later Subway and other fast food-joints followed, they introduced the idea that patrons should clean up after themselves and dispose of their assorted papers, cups and leftover food in large bins provided. On the SGR they keep broadcasting announcements throughout the trip reminding passengers about cleaning up their space, not littering, not sticking gum under the tables, etc. They also ask people travelling in groups to be considerate of others in terms of their conversations and music. But other passengers played music on their phones, without using headphone, and there was a cacophony that competed with music blaring from the train’s overhead speakers.

Some groups ignored this and a few people don’t use headphones and you often have competing sounds in the cabin, including songs on the train PA in-between announcements. While others heeded the advice and took their loud conversations to the dining car where they could sit facing each other and discuss their trips and business plans over plenty of alcohol. There is also some camaraderie in first class, and people share tables as they enjoy drinks and watch the rapidly passing scenery.

In Nairobi, Kenya Railways also runs a commuter service from the old railway station in downtown Nairobi to the SGR station. They time it to shuttle passengers who are connecting on the SGR Nairobi. This costs Kshs 50, a fair deal, compared to the cost of using a taxi which is at least ten times more. The commuter trains makes two stops at Imara Daima and Makadara.

Bad points: The odd toilet rule about not throwing anything, even tissue, down the toilet does not make sense. Their instructions are to dispose of toilet paper in a bin on the floor?? Yet the toilet seems like the same standard vacuum flush that planes have. BTW, the old train used to flush straight down and fertilise the side of the tracks.

FACT FILE:

  • JOURNEY TIME 4 hours, 35 minutes (Nairobi to Mombasa).
  • SEAT CONFIGURATION 2-2. Seats can rotate backwards but no one tried to turn them around. People went to the dining car for face to face meetings.
  • PRICE:  Advance first class fares from Nairobi to Mombasa are Kshs 3,000 (about £23 / $30) for a one-way booking, which you make online and pay for via mobile money (M-Pesa). You must enter the name and ID/passport number of each traveller. 
  • CONTACT info@krc.co.ke

Ethiopia – Kenya relations impact roads and coastal developments

This week, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali, visited Kenya on a state visit and with his host, President Uhuru Kenyatta made commitments for regional infrastructure projects of aviation roads, railway, and electricity.

According to the joint communique released by Kenya’s President, some resolutions going forward from their talks include:

  • The two countries will develop Moyale on the border as a city and economic zone.
  •  Kenya will avail land to the Ethiopia government at Kenya’s new port in Lamu that is under construction, and Ethiopia will develop that to facilitate logistics for their country,

  • The two countries will develop the LAPSSET projects including the road from Isiolo, (via Moyale) to Addis Ababa, a railway line from Addis to Nairobi and an electricity transmission line between the two countries. They would also supervise the road between Lamu, to Moyale (via Garissa and Isiolo) and on to Addis (via (Hawassa).
  • Ethiopian Airlines would be granted a second flight frequency to Mombasa,
  • Also, the two countries will have joint military training even as the leaders the lack of  international support to combat Alshabab through AMSIOM which faced inadequate funding and attention. The countries would also cooperate on agriculture, and the exchange of prisoners (edit: this is already happening).

Changes at Lamu are coming, including land acquisition by the government which has been slow and sometimes controversial and recently, a court ruled that the government should compensate Lamu fishermen (4,600 of them) for not consulting them on the port design plans.

Oman Air launches Nairobi flights

Product launches seem to follow an established template: bright flashy lights, cakes, and ribbons, and occasionally a tame wild animal, concluded by a rehashed speech from a government functionary. But no wildlife was present as Oman Air officially launched their four times a week flight to Nairobi at the Kempinski Villa Rosa Hotel on 29th March 2017. The inaugural flight to Nairobi had arrived the previous day and it was received by local Kenya airport and Government authorities.

Importantly, however, was the interest generated of Oman as a destination and indeed a hub for travelers to the Middle East and beyond. The airline’s Deputy CEO and VP –Commercial, Abdulrahman Al Busaidy proved not only an eloquent spokesman for his company but a worthy ambassador of The Sultanate of Oman. The interest of those present at the launch was piqued as few had ever thought of Oman as a holiday destination let alone a hub. Most travelers from Kenya have traditionally chosen the Arab carriers that utilize Dubai (Emirates), Doha (Qatar), Abu Dhabi (Etihad) as well as Sharjah (Air Arabia) which all market themselves’ as glitzy shopping and commercial destinations.

Oman Air doesn’t pretend to be a Gulf Major carrier. Currently Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are the undisputed ME3 giants who are now subject to what has been perceived by many to be protectionist measures from the USA and the UK in the guise of the ‘laptop ban’. Al Busaidy attributes such measures to the incapability of carriers from those countries to compete on services available at their fantastic airports and modern fleet and services. While no US carrier serves the Middle East, the Gulf carriers operate multiple flights to any of the major hubs in the Middle East.

Oman Air is leveraging the long historical ties between Kenya and Oman which date back to the days when the Portuguese ruled much of the East Coast of Africa. Indeed the Sultan of Oman’s army flushed out the Portuguese from Fort Jesus in the 17th Century and the cultural exchanges and inter-marriage with the local coastal people gave rise to Africa’s most widely spoken language, Kiswahili.

Currently, the airline flies to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar with Nairobi being the 55th destination of the airline’s growing route development. With a popular in-flight entertainment and free Wi-Fi service on most of its aircraft, Oman Air now has a fleet of 47 aircraft with a mix of Embraer Regional Jets (ERJ) for local and regional flights, Boeing 737s for short-haul routes and Airbus A330’s and now the Boeing 787 Dreamliners for the long haul flights.

Indeed two of the Dreamliners were leased from Kenya’s national carrier Kenya Airways (KQ’s) as part of fleet rationalization of KQ’s ongoing Operation Pride restructuring. Both airlines are expected to conclude a code-share agreement by mid-April 2017. Oman Air has also chosen not to align itself with any of the major airline alliances such as Sky Team, Star Alliance or One World but instead code shares flights with Emirates, Ethiopian, Garuda Indonesia, KLM, Royal Jordanian, Saudia, Sri Lankan Airlines, Thai Airways and Turkish Airlines.

Muscat as a base for Oman Air provides the entry point to this traditional conservative Sultanate which has a rich history in preserving its culture (Islamic architecture, all-white buildings, Dhow making, Painting shows, the Muscat Festival and the Khareef Festival held in Salalah in July and August annually) and environment punctuated with over a 100km coastline.

Nairobi will serve as the entry point to popular tourist destinations at the Kenyan Coast and the wildlife marvels of the national parks in the Mara, Tsavo, and Amboseli. Tourism between Kenya and Oman is expected to grow as the airline also envisages Mombasa as a future destination. Coupled with a fairly liberal visa regime (Note that Dubai visa holders get automatic entry into Oman), Oman Air is hoping to prise away traffic from the other carriers especially to the big hubs of the Middle East, India, and China. With introductory fares of $350 to Muscat and $485 to Guangzhou return, this could prove to make for interesting times for travelers to and from Nairobi.

Oman Air indeed epitomizes Oman as a country, its aspirations, culture, history and modernity and its approach to tying itself to both its past and the future as it opens up new destinations. The Nairobi route will be operated by a Boeing 737-800 and the airline’s growth and development strategy plans for 70 aircraft (currently they are 47) and 75 destinations by the year 2020. The four times a week flight (WY722) )leaves Nairobi at 00:45 (on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday) and operates non-stop and is designed for an early morning arrival in Muscat that enables connections to other 50 destinations.

Oman’s currency is the Rial and OMR 1 = ~$ 2.6, and OMR 1 is ~Kshs 267.

Kenya Community Currencies

This morning at a session on currencies and value I got re-introduced to community currencies. Two years ago there was a mini storm about the legality of  a currency called Bangla-pesa that has since quieten down.

There are five Kenyan community currencies that circulate mainly in slum areas of Nairobi and Mombasa.

Community currencies in Kenya

Community currencies in Kenya

Community currencies in Kenya

Community currencies in Kenya

Nairobi:

  • Gatina
  • Kangemi
  • Lindi

 

Mombasa:

  • Bangladesh
  • Mikindani

The papers notes are by the Grassroots Economic Foundation.  They are not backed by local currency but have the same value as Kenya shilling notes. Member of groups which have constitutions and rules before they join, each gets currency worth 400. They actually only get 200, and 200 from each member goes to a community fund – to carry out community projects such as trash cleaning and hosting sports events.

The lesson today showed how hawala, bitcoin, mpesa had different applications in communities, with a focus on uses away from the formal sector. Also that 10 years after formal  financial inclusion, there is still a lot of money being handled through informal sectors.

Passenger Train to Mombasa in 2015

What if the salesperson, at a company you want to buy from, tells you not to buy their  products and you still go ahead to, because of nostalgia and history?

Train front

The legendary iron snake

What if, despite being routinely behind schedule, the staff go out of their way to ensure that you’re comfortable? What if despite being inconvenienced by half a day, you still consider it worthwhile? And after all this, and understanding all the circumstances they are in, would you still recommend the service to your friends?
That’s the situation with the passenger train between Nairobi and Mombasa. Many people used to take the Kenya Railways train to Mombasa and for school trips elsewhere. But not many do these days, and many more are not aware that the passenger train still runs to and from Mombasa.

It’s been eight years since this last review and there are some major differences

  • There used to be two trains per days, now there is one train, that makes numerous stops
  • The train runs to Mombasa three times a week (M, W, F), and the same to Nairobi on alternate days (T, R, S)
  • The meals are done by Pride Inn hotel group
  • The train is usually late
Train late lunch

Late lunch at Kenya Railways

The train was meant to leave at 7 p.m., and get to Mombasa at 10 a.m. the following day. But we got called at 10 a.m. the day of the trip to be told that the night train was late, and to come in at 10 p.m.

This we did, and there was still no train at the station, just the night managers who said this does happen a lot. There were other passengers waiting, and it was clear that they would take the train no matter what time it came, as it was their only transport from Nairobi to whatever town they were heading on the route. The station master said that when the train came, it would take more than an hour to clean and ‘fill the water’ before the return journey.

We left a phone number with the station master and went back home and kept calling every half hour back to check if the train had come. It did come in at about 3 a.m. and we went back to the station. At about 4 a.m. the train pulled up from the yards, and after showing our receipts, we were issued with boarding cards for the first class cabins. A first-class ticketis   Kshs 4,505 ($45) for adults and 2,795 ($28)  for children for full board travel which is dinner, breakfast,  and beddings in the cabin for each person.

Train cabin beds

1st class cabin with upper and lower beds made

Dinner was served at 5 a.m., and shortly afterward, the train departed Nairobi for what turned out to be an interesting and very long day trip. When we got back to the rooms, the beds had been made up by the train staff and we went to sleep for a few hours, till the bell rang again to announce breakfast was served. This was at about 10 a.m. and it was back to the dining car that seats about 40, in tables of 4.

The train made many stops in places such as Konza, Sultan Hamud, Makindu, and Ulu, and it got to Mtito Andei which is the mid-point of the journey at about 2 P.M. At these small -town stations, passengers in the third class cabins would get on or off the train with their luggage.

That should have been it for meals, but at about 5 p.m. the crew again to summoned first class passengers for an unexpected late lunch meal. After that, it was back to either watching the afternoon views or taking another sleep break in the cabins

The delayed train afforded some unusual daytime views not seen on past trips. Two particular new sights were views of the SGR, the new China-built standard gauge railway which for many kilometers, runs parallel to the old railway. Also after Mtito Andei, and once the train was passing the Tsavo Park, there were also sightings of wildlife including several giraffes and elephant herds in the evening.

Train speed

Speeding through Tsavo

The train is able to attain a decent speed of almost 60 kilometers per hour when the railway is straight and there are no slopes to navigate or stops to make.

But cargo is clearly the priority for the Rift Valley Railways consortium who run the railway (it is said that 99% of their revenue is from cargo, with just 1% from the passenger trains) – and on at least three occasions, our passenger train had to stop for 10-30 minutes at a station, to wait for a heavy cargo train to pass on the way to Nairobi. The trains had wagons go goods or fuel for Uganda, or wagons for the Magadi soda ash factory.

The train eventually got to Mombasa at  1 a.m., having left Nairobi at 5 a.m. the day before. Mombasa station seems to have lost or leased some space in its front yard to a private developer and there’s now a lorry sales lot where cars used to park.

Some other advice;

  • Carry extra snack foods, and soft or hard drinks of choice.
  • Carry wipes, toilet paper, bug spray.
  • Have reading material and fully charged devices