Journey that won over sceptic scribe

SGR terminuses resemble an airport, boasting of numerous security checks, escalators and lifts

Journalism has many sides to it. Some include working odd hours, crazy schedules and opportunities to experience firsts. When the chance to sample the Nairobi-Mombasa train presented itself, I took it.

I was enlisted to join a media team for a ride to Mombasa on the Sh327 billion Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) a day before the official launch by President Uhuru Kenyatta today. Having handled many stories on the SGR, I had become a full-fledged sceptic.

Sh327 billion is not loose change. It is the Gross Domestic Product of Burundi. Pictures I have seen on social media did not match up to this valuation, not by a long shot. I had a feeling this was a mega-scam, a brilliantly engineered super scandal.

So with a laptop, a fully charged camera and a heart brimming with dark optimism, I took the cab from our Kijabe Street offices to the Nairobi Railway Terminus. The SGR terminus is in Mlolongo, past the airport just next to the Syokimau Station.

The long distance from the Central Business District and the fact that you cannot see the station from the road was fodder for my scepticsm. As we turned off the service lane into the road leading to the Nairobi Terminus, I made a mental note that the road to the station was not complete. I did not acknowledge the 99 per cent of the works done.

Alas! After a few minutes drive, before me, was one of the most magnificent structure I have ever laid eyes on. The Nairobi Terminus looks like a monster, waiting to spring on you.

The whole structure looks surreal, like something from a science fiction movie. The architecture looks alien, it feels alien, I was thoroughly smitten.

Like a glass jar falling on concrete from the 10th floor of a building, my sceptiscm shattered to a gazillion pieces. It felt more like an airport, with numerous security checks, escalators to ferry people to the different levels and lifts if you need to move a bit faster. Now that my appetite was whet, I could not wait to see the rest of the package.

When I last rode in a train, back in 2008, what I booked was not a seat but a ticket to get inside. Getting a seat on the ugly brown coaches was a bonus. The carriages were crammed with people ferrying all manner of luggage.

From sugarcane, to live chicken and cats, anything that could get in did. The brown and cream thing snaked its way towards Mombasa stopping at each of the numerous stages to drop off a few passengers and pick up some more.

It left Nairobi at 7pm and arrived at the port city 15 hours later, at 10am. The SGR passenger cars feel more like a modern bus. The seats remain ‘face-me’ but a small table in between makes it feel less intrusive.

The lighting from the large windows gives the coaches an outside, airy touch that is hard to replicate on any other mode of transport. Airy touch Toilets in the old coaches were round holes drilled on carriages to drop waste on rails. This, however, has a proper toilet with a pretty green-lit, electric flush button. It was a smooth ride.

You can barely feel the speed as it hurtles more than 1,200 people at 120kph. The old train had a crazy habit of making a huge racket from underneath each time it gathered semblance of speed.

The sound was horrible, it felt like the thing was derailing. This, though, is sort of quiet. You do not realise you are going fast until you are driving along the road and notice you are going past vehicles speeding towards the coastal town.

We left Nairobi Terminus at exactly 2 pm on Monday and despite making two stops, we pulled up at the Mombasa Terminus five hours later at 7pm. That is impressive.

The Mombasa Terminus…that’s a whole story on its own. The SGR has attracted as many critics as admirers. But after experiencing first-hand what it has to offer, I will say the billions were well spent.

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