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Traveller's tales: Monday morning on the Madaraka Express

Guest writer Lucy tells us about her train journey from Mombasa to Nairobi.



Guest Writer
Published on

09 Apr 2024

Updated on

16 Apr 2024

Mombasa station at sunrise

As a gentle transition into a busy working week, or indeed a gentle transition out of a coastal holiday, the six hour Madaraka Express train journey from Mombasa to Nairobi proves to be a restful, scenic and highly efficient service.

Whilst the options of flying between the Kenyan coast and Nairobi are plentiful, the SGR (Standard Gauge Railway opened in 2017) offers a very pleasant – and far cheaper – alternative form of travel. My ticket purchase involved a few simple clicks on the Madaraka Express website and the option of an 8am, 3pm or 10pm train - along with the decision of whether to travel in 1st or Economy class. Prices have risen in January 2024 with Economy class tickets now costing Ksh 1,500 and 1st class costing Ksh 4,500, but these prices still seem very reasonable, particularly when converted to Pounds sterling or dollars. I opted for a 1st class ticket, knowing that this would give me a little more peace and comfort – and hopefully therefore increase the various work-related tasks I needed to get done!

Waiting at Mombasa station
Enjoying the view from Mombasa Station
Waiting to board the train in Mombasa
Waiting to board at Mombasa station.

Much like departing by plane, one is asked to arrive at the Mombasa terminal an hour prior to departure. The security process is fairly rigorous – bags are placed in a central line, passengers lined up looking at the luggage, and sniffer dogs are brought in to sniff the bags. A heart-stopping moment as you wonder what you could possibly have packed that may draw attention, but generally it seems that as long as there are no aerosol sprays, weapons, or alcohol in your luggage the dogs will move on without complaint. ID is shown and your ticket needs to be printed – a fairly painless procedure involving either an SGR employee at a desk or a ticket machine.

Enjoying a coffee in the restaurant carriage
On the Train 1st Class

I had opted for the 8am train and after an early start, the cup of tea purchased in the waiting area was most welcome. It’s worth noting the imminent opening of a new road and bridge network which will connect the Mombasa railway terminal (and the airport) to the south coast (Diani, Tiwi, Galu), thus avoiding the need to use the Likoni ferry, and resulting in a considerably shorter travel time to the railway station. So a little more of a lie in if I journey up from Diani next time!

View of the Mombasa highway from train 3
View from the Mombasa highway
Train terminal
Train terminal

This is not my first time of travelling on this train – I have used it three times previously to take me from Nairobi to Mariakani (the station which works as a good access point to the roads taking you to the north coast – Watamu, Malindi, and Kilifi) – and each time I have travelled, the 8am departure time as been adhered to with incredible punctuality. Perhaps this is due in part to the railway's Chinese investors, whose influence on this line is clear – both through the immaculate building and design of the railway and the efficient systems in place with regard to the guards and station organisation.

View from train landscape Tsavo
View from train, Tsavo.

The 1st class seating is reserved to the first two or three carriages, with the rest of the train given over to Economy class. It’s worth noting that, whilst in some areas of the world these two sections can be worlds apart in terms of comfort, there is relatively little difference on the Madaraka Express. The 1st class seating is a little more roomy, each seat with its own pull down table. However, the Economy class carriages are also comfortable, and the regular cleaning around your feet throughout the journey helps to avoid the potential squalor that I have seen build up on long train journeys I have experienced in other parts of the world. Most significant with 1st class is the access to the restaurant carriage – here you can sit at a table, order from a range of drinks and snacks and even experience waitress service. Sipping on a hot coffee as we start to meander through Tsavo - followed by a cold Tusker beer as we move out of Tsavo - all helps to maintain a pleasant level of comfort on this journey.

Approaching Voi town
Approaching Voi town.

The railway line hugs the existing Mombasa-Nairobi highway for much of the journey, and an occasional glance at the cars and the lorries on this road is a reminder of the relaxation the train offers, along with an increased feeling of safety. Having driven this road a number of times over the past 30 years, I feel pleased to be avoiding the potential stress of this journey by road – certainly not one that allows you to read a book or really sit back, relax, and take in the views. And views there are – huge swathes of Tsavo, often with elephants dotted in the near and far distance and handsome baobabs reaching their wrinkled arms out of the reddish earth. And then the gracious Chyulu Hills and the distant glimpse of Mt Kilimanjaro’s snowy peak. To see Kenya from coast to highlands in the space of 6 hours – I’d say that is 6 hours well spent.

View from train 3
View from the train
View from train landscape
Passing landscape on the way to Nairobi

The number of station stops is dependent on the route taken – my 8am train stops at each of the seven stations en route, including Voi which can serve as a useful stop-off for Tsavo and its world of lodges if required. Mtito Ndei marks the halfway point and then the climb up towards Nairobi takes the passengers through the ever-changing and ever-growing suburbs of the city. The space-age Nairobi Terminus is there to greet me (bang on time I might add), and a civilised exit from the train. The Madaraka Express efficiency is quickly moved to one side on entering the over-filled car park with its chaos of taxi drivers and queuing before I head back into the familiar road networks of Nairobi. But no sense of feeling frazzled on arrival, no sense of exhaustion, rather an air of calm and restoration - ready to take on the rest of my week.

For more information and ticket booking, go to the Madaraka Express booking website: https://metickets.krc.co.ke/

Note that tickets cannot be purchased more than 60 days prior to travel.

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  • Ben


    Kenya Specialist

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