Taking the SGR Train from Nairobi to Mombasa

This weekend we decided to take the new Madaraka Express SGR from Nairobi to Mombasa for a few reasons:

  1. It’s a great way to see the middle of this beautiful country
  2. A one way ticket is considerably cheaper than flying
  3. We wanted to say we’d finally done it!

The old train, or affectionately known as the ‘lunatic line’, boasted only taking 10 hours to the coast. However from our own experience we incurred breakdowns, missing conductors and cows on the line resulting in a journey of 19 hours door to door. In contrast, the new SGR train takes only 5 hours and arrives on time, departs as stated and doesn’t seem to suffer from wondering staff or animals on the tracks!

Therefore, I thought I’d document our journey door to door to help you know more about what it’s like taking the new train from Nairobi to Mombasa.

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Booking Your Tickets

You will need to book ahead as weekend journey’s fill up super quickly! To book your ticket, go to the Kenya Railways website and select the date and time you want. There are two options (both are the same price):

Inter County – leaving at 08:00 from Nairobi and arriving at 13:55 into Mombasa. This has multiple stops, so if you are not in a hurry and don’t mind 5+ stops then  choose this option. Also your entire journey will be during day time hours so you’ll get to see more.

Express – leaving at 14:30 from Nairobi and arriving at 19:20 into Mombasa. This has no stops and is slightly faster. You’ll get almost your whole journey in the day time but your commute from Mombasa train station to wherever you are going will be in the dark.

The price of a one way single ticket is 700kes (2nd Class) and 3000kes (1st Class). Children between 3 – 11yrs old are 350kes (2nd Class) and 1500kes (1st Class). Children below 3 are free in both classes.

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To book, you need to fill your details in online and pay with MPesa to guarantee your spot and select ‘Pay Now’. I tried the ‘Pay Later’ option and it appears to go to a blank screen…my advice would be to find someone who can pay for you on MPesa in order to guarantee your space or go to the station in person before you plan to travel. Alternatively you can try google to find a travel agent to book them for you (additional fee may apply, check they are genuine before you buy!).

Once you’ve paid online via ‘Pay Now’, they’ll send you a link to pay via MPesa and then a confirmation number will be texted to you. Carry this with you to the station so the tickets can be printed.

You can also book tickets on your phone (if you have a Kenyan number). Key in *639# and follow the instructions. You an then select ‘Pay Later’ to get the full Paybill details. Again you are able to pay by MPesa if you select ‘Pay Now’ to secure your tickets before travel.

Getting to the Station

Although the service boasts services from Nairobi to Mombasa, the station is actually past Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport so make sure you factor in the commute before you book. The Hilton Garden Inn has just opened so if you want to stay close, or have a late flight coming in and want to sleep before taking an early train then consider staying here. The line is going to be extended into Nairobi city itself but this is still in progress and sadly will be cutting into the Nairobi National Park.

An uber or standard taxi will take you from Westlands area for about 1200-1500kes. If they are not sure where the new station is, tell them its close to the old Syokimau Train Station (you’ll see this as you pass on your left hand side towards the new station). It’s hard to miss the new SGR station as its MASSIVE.

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Getting Into the Station

This is an extra needed section as there is A LOT of security getting into the Train Station and at times I forgot we weren’t actually taking a plane. Kenya Railways seems convinced it might be at the receiving end of a threat or terrorist attack and for understandable reasons after various incidents including the Westgate Mall attack. Therefore, leave extra time to get through the security. The first step is having your car or taxi check, as standard at any hotel or mall. Turn off the engine and let the security search your car and say hello and let them ask ‘Where are you going today?’. ‘The moon’, I responded to confused faces, having to then add ‘No, obviously the train’ which seemed to settle them down a bit.

After this, you’ll then be dropped at a terrifying looking metallic shed where you line up and place your bags for a sniffer dog to paw over. Our dog looked like someones pet spaniel they’d brought in from home and enjoyed having his ears stroked by children much more than looking for potential explosives. To calm your nerves, they do also screen the bags through an x-ray machine and also search you upon arrival into the station. It probably takes about 20-30 minutes to get through this mandatory security. Try to be patient. Don’t pet the dog.

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Note: when we arrived there were a lot of random people standing about to the left of the shed, and we thought this was the start of the queue and where we got our tickets checked. It is not and in fact I never really found out what this queue was for (possibly newspapers or airtime), but after about ten minutes of standing around a security guard told us to go in the shed and be searched by security.

The Nairobi Terminus

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It’s MASSIVE. Luckily there are lots of signs and helpful staff about to help you out. There are also lots of people taking selfies. Once through security, go past the selfie takers and up the stairs to the main ticket hall. You can either have your tickets printed by the staff at the Ticket Issue Hall or you can use the Self Issue Machines (similar to European ones). Both work well. You’ll need your ticket confirmation and your ID. This will be checked later on about 100 times… I found the huge ‘Train Departures/Arrivals’ notice board amusing as it only displayed the same 4 trains of the day (2 leaving, 2 arriving to/from Mombasa), and presumably they are the same everyday. Hopefully in the future it will be totally full! The train station certainly seems to have the capacity for it.

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Once you have your tickets, go up the many floors of escalators and into the waiting hall upstairs. First class passengers are seated in a separate area to Second class passengers. There are no cafes or coffee shops in the train station. Make sure you bring plenty of snacks, water and food with you to keep your hunger satisfied. It seems slightly mad there are no catering facilities…perhaps in the future!

Once the train arrives, about half an hour before departure in our experience, you are invited to board the train. Your ticket will have a little barcode and this is scanned through the machine.

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Sadly, several passengers tickets didn’t work so the staff manually checked them. Again you’ll need to get your ID out. Once through, cross the bridge and descend on to the ENORMOUS platform where you’ll find more selfie takers and your lovely new train waiting for you.

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Your ticket will have the coach assigned to you, find it, and then board the train. Your ticket also has a seat number. Find it and settle into your journey across Kenya!

The Train

The train left bang on 8am and we were off in our cosy little red seats, in a full carriage of excited Kenyan holiday makers and Asian families going on safari. We were in First class and each row is 2, with a little tray table and curtain for shade. Some booths were in a 4 so depending on how many of you are traveling you may want to ask for a specific type of seating.

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I walked through the Second Class carriages which have blue covered booths of 6 and 4 across the row of the train, slightly smaller in space and narrower corridor for passengers to pass down. We also had one random sleeper compartment attached to our train which slept 4 people. There were a few people in here which we saw fleetingly on our way to the bathroom but the inhabitants seemed to keep the door tightly shut!

Music played before departure which we enjoyed as it gave a bit of ambience. It irritatingly played constantly throughout the journey and was interjected with a DJ loudly talking over the interludes, sound effects of crashing glass and police sirens. Not particularly relaxing. SGR if you are reading this, sack the DJ and lets enjoy the sound of the train rolling over the tracks. If you are a sensitive sleeper, bring headphones or earbuds. The train itself was clean and the staff very helpful. The bathrooms were well maintained though there was no soap so I’d advise bringing hand santizier.

A little electronic information bar beams from the top of each door of the carriage displaying useful information like the time, the outside temperature and where to get help. The Kenyan flag is proudly printed above the bar along with a China flag appearing in tandem, just in case you forgot who actually paid for the train. Kenya Railways own tagline also seems to have been updated with the Marx-style tag line of ‘Connecting Nations. Prospering People’ written in bold Times New Roman on every door of the train.

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Speaking of bold announcements, the beaming information bar is further enhanced by constant verbal announcements concerning the train stations we are about to arrive at. The announcer also deems it necessary to let us know every 30 minutes, then 20 minutes then 10 minutes and so on that we are about to arrive. Upon entering the station we are then barked at by said announcer that we will stay here for “THREE MINUTES” or in some lucky cases “FOUR MINUTES”. If you fancy having a peer out the window at one of the stations, you better be quick as the train leaves right on schedule. The staff also line up outside each door upon arrival to a new station. Clasping hands tightly, they stand in a ritualistic pose that looks like they are about to be reprimanded or witness a murder.

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Anything From the Trolly?

There is a catering trolly and it passes through for both First and Second class. It is infuriatingly slow. You will watch in bewilderment as armies of staff run backwards and forwards to the main catering cart to fill up thermos flasks of tea and milk. The thermos are incredibly small and I did at one point suggest they carry bigger ones, to which the catering girl stared at me in bewilderment as if I’d figured out how gravity works. Because of the lack of tea for the train guests, the staff do not move the cart on to the next person, even if said person does do not want a hot drink. Therefore its slow, so  bring your own snacks, meals and water or you’ll be in for a long hungry wait.

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If you don’t have time to grab food, then do not despair as there is another option. I’d advise bypassing the trolly and heading straight for the food carriage at the very back of the train. On offer are a selection of sandwiches, chocolate bars, crisps, nuts, pastries including croissants, muffins. boiled sweet potato(?!) and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

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The food isn’t going to blow you away on any culinary scale and the chicken sandwiches are best to be avoided, unless you spilt your coffee and need something to mop up the liquid with. However it is very affordable, starting at about 100kes an item, but the service is excruciatingly slow so deep breaths and enjoy the scenery passing by instead. The food cart has seats available for sitting down and larger tables if you wish to spread out. I sat here and enjoyed being told by a Chinese man in broken English about the passing bridges we floated by between Emali and Kibwezi, and also being barged out the way by a large German man who really wanted the last muffin.

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The Journey

Everything went very smoothly and the views were varied and interesting to watch as the scenery changed from Nairobi’s urban sprawl, to Machakos industrial dust and further into Tsavo’s national park. We even saw elephants and ostrich from the train and plenty of waving children and villagers looking bemused as this beacon of modern transportation swept through their tiny settlements. After stopping at Voi, many passengers on our carriage disembarked and it suddenly dawned on me that this train wasn’t just to ease and increase coast tourism but also for those wanting another way of getting to Kenya’s amazing safari parks. The SGR train is a great alternative for those not wanting to lose their nerve in a bus on the terrible roads or forking over their life savings for a Safairlink plane ticket.

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Arriving into Mombasa Terminal

We pulled in just before our expected arrival time of 13:55 into another GINORMOUS terminal that looked like the first colony building on Mars after humans had undoubtedly wrecked the earth.

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The middle of the station has a menacing looking air traffic control tower and I think at some points the train itself had an identity crisis thinking it was a plane, seeming as we found Air Sickness Bags in each seat pocket and the food trolley still displaying instructions listing how to store during taxi, take off and landing. We descended another 4 escalators and found ourselves on the large concourse of Mombasa Train station, which is about an hour outside of Mombasa city centre (the station is in Meriting town area).

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Taxi drivers and buses are eagerly awaiting to take passengers to the city centre. We had prebooked our taxi to take us to Diani (we paid 4000kes for two people, seems very steep but Ken our driver seemed to be an undercover Forumla 1 driver and was a demon on the roads. We got to Diani in an hour and 40 minutes, including the ferry crossing!). If Mombasa or Nyali is your final destination, I would say it would take about an hour depending on traffic, but at 2pm on the weekend it wasn’t as awful as expected.

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Note: it’s mega hot in Mombasa compared to Nairobi and there is very little shade on the concourse so make sure you dress accordingly and wear a sun hat/sun screen.

Overall Experience

It’s great! Do it! The train was such a wonderful way to see more of Kenya, even if you are seasoned expat who has lived here a few years, I promise it’s a fun experience. In addition,  if you have visitors in town or are trying to save on your trip down to the coast then consider this cost saving option. Just bring lots of food, water, ear buds, camera for the animals and a good sense of humour so that you can truly enjoy the Madaraka Express to its fullest.

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