For a long time, train travel has been the last option for many Kenyans. After the ‘good old EAR&H’ transitioned into Kenya Railways, it seemed like buses and airline travel took over for the frequent long distance traveler.
Cue Roger Whittaker.
Then came the Madaraka Express, or as popularly known, the SGR. With bells and whistles, and signs in terrible Swahili and Chinese, Kenya was launched into a new era, albeit costing us over 200 Million shillings. But this post isn’t about the gripes I have with the government and how they spend our money, but on tips and tricks on traveling aboard the new train.
1. Purchasing Tickets
We’ve all been up in arms since the Kenya Railways team forgot to use the widely used payment platform in Kenya, M-PESA, to purchase tickets, and failed to implement an online booking system. They’ve made changes to date, and I’ve updated the same below.
You can currently book your tickets:
- In person, at the Nairobi Railways commuter train terminus, the Syokimau SGR terminus, or the Mombasa Miritini Terminus.
- Payments are via cash, M-PESA, debit/credit card. When I was there, only MasterCard was in effect.
- UPDATED: USSD/Mobile option available, read more: Book Your #MadarakaExpress Tickets on USSD
Remember, tickets are now sold 7 days only in advance, so you have time to plan ahead for your travel. You can buy the tickets between 7:00 am and 4:00 pm daily. You can also get a refund on any tickets/extras before the train departs, with a 20% cancellation fee charged. No refunds after the train departs.
Ticket Price: Kes. 700 – economy, Kes. 3,000 – First class
- Under 3 years – Free
- 3 – 11 years – Half price
- 11 and above – Full price
2. Connecting to the Station
The Nairobi Terminus SGR Station is located in the Syokimau neighborhood, which is just before/after the JKI Airport. So you can connect easily if you’re from a flight, or heading to one. Don’t confuse it with the Nairobi Commuter train, which departs from the SYOKIMAU RAILWAY STATION
You can connect via:
- Uber, from your location to the station. It currently costs about Kes. 1,050/- from the Nairobi CBD.
- The commuter train mentioned above, from the Nairobi Railway station. This usually departs at 7.00am towards Syokimau, and pulls into the SGR station, for Kes. 50.00
- Use public transport, via Matatus found at the Nairobi Bus station. Take the Syokimau route matatus. There’s also a bus that departs from the Nairobi Railway station.
- Drive yourself there.
3. Getting On Board
Please, do not be late. The Madaraka Express does not operate on Kenyan/African time, and departs at 9.00am sharp from both ends. Remember there’s no other train on the same day, and your ticket is considered expired after that.
Be ready for numerous security checks and carry some form of ID that matches the details on your ticket. I counted at least 3 checks in both the Nairobi and Mombasa Terminus:
- One, outside in the open area, with sniffer dogs
- Second one just after your ticket is first validated by security guards, with a scanner (separating the men from the women for some reason)
- Third one just as you get through the main terminal building’s doors, and is not gender specific. Your ticket is validated again.
You will not be able to carry any contraband material: drugs, weapons etc. No alcohol is allowed on board too. Camera equipment is treated suspiciously, so either have it packed well, and/or have the right permits especially if you intend to film or photograph on board or around the station.
You can carry the usual personal effects, your bags, and hopefully, your sense of adventure.
4. The Trip:
It takes 4 hours from Nairobi to Mombasa, and 4 hours 16 minutes back, and this could be a long time to stay seated. Here’s some tips and tricks:
- When you board the train, stick to your allocated seat until they finish crosschecking the tickets. Otherwise they will hassle you. Some crews allow walking around the coaches in your respective classes (first or second), but some are strict and don’t allow it. I found that if you wait until the food service is done, they’re a lot more relaxed and flexible. This is important especially if you’re traveling in a large group, want to switch seats to chit chat and hang out with your friends.
- Carry some food/snacks. Food/drinks service doesn’t begin until you’re well under 2 hours into the trip. Considering the time you get to the station, a lot of passengers haven’t had their breakfast. So either take time to have a good solid breakfast at home, or carry some snacks. Water, tea, juice etc are allowed in regular portions, as well as snacks. Baby food is allowed. You can also wait till the catering team starts service, but their prices are slightly expensive.
- Seating is comfortable, but if you can secure a window seat, do so. Most of the spaces seat 6 pax on one side of the train, and 4 on the other, so you can plan your group travel to sit together comfortably. If you have kids, it would be prudent to secure their own seats too, to avoid them disturbing other passengers, or tiring you. No standing is allowed.
- Luggage on board is allowed, but up to certain limits. The limit is currently at 30kg maximum. 1.6 metres length, height, breadth maximum. This translates to two large suitcases. You have to be smart though and think through how you’re going to lug them across the station grounds, since there are no trolleys/support staff. You also have to get them to fit in the overhead racks or below the seats.
Keep your ticket with you through the trip, as you will require it to scan yourself through the exit gates.
The Nairobi terminus has lots of options to get you from the station to your destination:
- The Commuter train, which costs 50/- per person
- Taxi services, from your regular cab guy, to Little, Uber, Taxify and others being available
- Public transport buses outside the station
The Mombasa terminus also has some options:
- Public transport (large matatus), at 100/- per person, into Mombasa CBD. These are many, and are the best and fastest option.
- Uber is only an option if you have pre-arranged the travel. Most drivers will not come to the terminus unless pre-booked.
Overall, the Madaraka Express is a great change in our travel to and from the coast area. It’s faster than bus transport, and certainly cheaper than airlines, especially for large groups. It’s considerably cleaner and comfortable, with enough public amenities such as washrooms on board and in the terminus.
The Kenya Railways team needs to look into improving the service in terms of:
- Ticketing: Seamless online purchase and booking
- Food service: They could start a bit earlier, like 30 minutes into time, and offer some dining cars too for those who would want larger meals (this can be pre-booked to avoid crowds)
- Access between coaches: Really, if you’re not taking up someone’s seat, or disturbing other passengers, groups should be allowed to interchange seats.
- Security check areas: I wonder what happens when it rains, cause the outdoor security checks have no roofing.
Have you been on board? What’s your experience?