Category Archives: Citadel

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

Turning Round the Lunatic Express

A few weeks ago, Rift Valley Railways (RVR) and Citadel Capital had a small media briefing to highlight the state of their investment in a consortium to run the Kenya Uganda-Railway. It was meant to signal an escalation in the marketing the achievements of the consortium but it also highlighted the state of the railway that they invested in about three years ago.

The railways which moved 4.2 million tons in the early 1970s’ when it last got a public investment but had been in steady decline since with increased competition from roads and pipelines. It was then passed on by the Governments of Kenya and Uganda through a concession to new owners who, as it became apparent later, were without money or management expertise – and were down to one working train, and about to pull the plug on the venture.

The new investors, led by Citadel and Transcentury, fundraised through debt and equity and set about rebuilding hundreds of kilometres of rail tracks that were dangerous if trains moved at their regular speeds, refurbishing locomotives and wagons, automating line movements, creating storage facilities, and putting staff succession plans in place. This year they launched a graduate trainee program that will have a class of 20 this year who were selected from 3,400 applicants and will soon install a train simulator for training.

Passenger services are 4% of Revenue

Their concession called for an investment of $40 million in 5 years but it’s taken a budget of $300 million to get where they are today, including $11 million worth of levies paid to the governments every year. They hired a management team from Brazil who engineered similar turnarounds, and there has been some progress in going from 22 days to move cargo from Mombasa to Kampala, to a current average of 8 days. The best performance is 4 days, and their internal goal is to make that period the average by 2015. They are back to moving 1.5 million tons a year, meeting a consortium target with s plan to get to 4.5 million tons by 2016.

But even as they are breaking even, the governments’ of Kenya and Uganda are restless. In recent weeks, the Deputy President complained about the creaking 90-year-old relic known as the Lunatic Express that was built by the British Colonial government, while the Transport Cabinet Secretary believes that with 20 million tons passing through the Mombasa Port, there’s need for five other railways.

There are designs to have a Chinese-built wide-gauge railway from Mombasa to Uganda (to be financed with a 1.5% tax on all imported goods) and another 1,500-kilometre track from a planned new Lamu port all the way to South Sudan.

Even with clients like Total, Hass, Maersk, Coca Cola, Shell, the World Food Program Bamburi, Athi River, and EA Portland cement companies, RVR still have a way to go with proving to other corporates that they are a viable reliable option to the hundreds of trucks that make that daily journey from to and from the Mombasa Port.