Bravo! to the government of Kenya and the Chinese collaborators for bringing us the ease and efficiency of standard gage railway travel. The train is definitely a game changer for movement in Kenya. The economic benefits are many. In this article, I will focus on my experience as a traveler and tourist in Kenya. At around $20 round trip from Nairobi to Mombasa, the train made extending my Nairobi trip into a beach vacay in Mombasa very easy, affordable and accessible. This is great news for tourism in Kenya. Based on my experience on the train from Nairobi to Mombasa, these are the top 5 things you should know before you go with SGR Kenya Railways.
- Getting your ticket
As of the date of this article, there are only two ways to pay for your ticket on the SGR. In Kenya shillings at any of the ticketing windows where the train stops or by M-Pesa mobile money. I bought my ticket online and paid through an M-Pesa vendor here in Uganda. If you are traveling from areas where M-Pesa is not available, you will need a Kenyan friend or travel agent to help you purchase the tickets. You will need a valid safaricom number to order your tickets online. The online payment system allows you to select pay now or pay later. The pay later option gives you a half hour window to pay for your ticket using M-Pesa. I ended up having a bit of trouble with my Nairobi to Mombasa ticket because I paid close to the end of the half hour window. When I got to the station, my ticket was reflected in the system but would not print. I was booked on the morning train and ended up missing the train trying to resolve this issue. Close to train time, customer service agents are frantically trying to resolve issues for passengers, it is best to avoid this chaos and arrive to the station at least 2-3 hours ahead of your scheduled train departure. THE TRAIN RUNS ON TIME! Which is a wonderful thing. I was finally able to resolve my issues and got on the afternoon train. Make sure you get an sms confirmation for your ticket purchases. If possible, come to the train station and print your ticket out a few days ahead of your trip. If you must print tickets out on the same day, give yourself 2-3 hours ahead of your departure time. The security checks take about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on how many passengers come at the same time as you. The earlier you arrive; the fewer people will be ahead of you in the security check line.
Suggested improvement: Kenya Railways should look into offering online payment by visa/mastercard for those buying tickets from abroad
- First Class vs. Second Class
First class seats are arranged similar to a plane’s economy class. The second class tickets face each other in rows of 2 or 3. From my observation, the second class tickets offer more leg room and there is a small table in the middle for snacks and drinks. If you are traveling with a group, the seats facing each other in second class will be allot more fun and interactive. Overall, in my opinion there are not great benefits in first class for the significant difference in cost. First class does offer a small snack/drink. In second class, you can purchase snack/drink, items cost range between 200-500 Kenya Shillings (Cash only). The usual travel fair, packed pastries, nuts, chips and an assortment of soft drinks and coffee/tea. You can also pack your own snacks and drinks.
- Express vs. Multiple Stops
The morning train (8 a.m.) makes multiple stops of about 4 minutes each. The train stops in Voi, Mtito Andel, Emali, Kibwezi, Maiseny and Mariakahi. This adds about 30 to 45 minutes to the total travel time which is about 4 to 5 hours from Nairobi to Mombasa. The express afternoon train (2 pm.) does not make any stops and goes direct to Mombasa. Train speed is about 80 to 90 km per hour.
The luggage racks are up very high; most people will have to stand on the seats in order to place hand luggage on the racks. There is limited space for larger suitcases and other pieces of luggage that will not fit in the overhead luggage rack. The overhead luggage racks will hold bags fitting standard airline requirements for hand luggage. If you have a large case or other large piece of luggage, try to board early so there is still space for your large luggage. Luggage is not checked; you will have to haul all your luggage through the entire boarding process. It is best to have a rolling case or be sure you are able to carry all pieces of your luggage throughout the station when you board and exit the station.
I did not observe a wheel chair bound passenger board. There are ramps and lifts available, but I cannot speak specifically to the ease of access for disabled persons or persons with limited mobility. If you are traveling with a small child, you will have to carry the child through onboarding and exiting or leave a hand free to hold on to the child, if the child can walk. Sections of the onboarding and exit process are very congested with many people moving quickly towards the train or exit. It would be difficult to push a stroller through the onboarding or exiting crowd.
There are bathrooms in each couch of the train. Based on my experience, they were relatively clean and in functioning order. There is water to wash your hands but no soap provided. To be on the safe side, carry your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer. I did not see a diaper changing station but I also did not ask about one since I was not traveling with a baby. There was a breast feeding pod in the Nairobi Terminus but on the train, you would have to breast feed in your seat. In this part of the world, breast feeding in public is natural and normal, nobody will be offended if you breast feed your baby in your seat on the train. I saw several mothers breast feeding on the train.
- Wifi and charging for devices
There is no public wifi in the station waiting areas or on the train. If you plan to call uber when you arrive to your destination, you will have to use roaming data. Uber is available in Nairobi and Mombasa. There were local taxi people in Nairobi and Mombasa. Make sure your devices are fully charged or carry a fully charged power bank.
Suggested improvement for SGR management: Offer wifi in the stations, most people traveling from abroad, rely on wifi to communicate
Overall it was a fun and enjoyable ride from Nairobi to Mombasa. The train travels by some national park land and farms, I spotted, elephants, buffalo, Ostrich and various farm animals. Enjoy your trip. Karibu magical Kenya
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