It might have taken collectively one hour to and from location, but my maiden trip inside a Standard Gauge Railway carriage was an event to remember.
A team of local and international journalists had an opportunity to ride to Athi River (about 30km from Nairobi city centre) courtesy of the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) recently. With them were delegates from African Economic Research Centre, African Development Bank, CRBC officials and Chinese embassy staff.
The group, which included my photographer Ace Maina, arrived at the station in Syokimau some minutes to midday after attending an infrastructure conference at the Intercontinental Hotel in the city centre. To suggest the atmosphere was exciting would be an understatement; few in the group had rode on the SGR before.
At Syokimau, ushers wearing huge smiles directed us into a modern terminal building. Before the short trip, we toured the highly technical and secured control room. We were told that it is the most sophisticated train facility on the entire continent and it cost a fortune.
Led by our hosts, we took an elevator down to the boarding platform. Of course, many delegates were not happy that we were only to sample one station — Athi River— hardly 20km away from Soykimau. However, it was better than nothing for most of us first-timers, so off we trooped into the second-class wagon. More lovely-looking cabin crew ushered us in.
Inside the coach, one would be mistaken for imagining that they were on a plane given the comfort and ambience. The seats were comfy, perfect for undisturbed doze. For tall folk like me, the legroom was ample, which is a plus. The aisle was also sufficiently spaced.
Before selecting a seat, I took a quick tour of the 10-metre long coachwhich can ferry up to 72 persons. The windows were well decked too, with golden coloured blinders and a carpeted floor. A copycat of the inside of a modern aircraft? The expression on most of our faces was that of awe as we settled in our seats. The train driver hooted and soon we were off.
From inside the coach, the train seemed a bit slow but was running at a speed averaging 86km/hour. Soon we were driving past the Nairobi National Park where we spotted a couple of wild animals such as ostriches and gazelles in the thick vegetation. “It is a comfortable ride and since this is my first time, I will treasure this moment,” said Patricia Kimei, a Kenyan journalist. “Now I understand the true picture of what travellers to the Coast enjoy and it is worth appreciating,” she added.
My colleague and I chatted, taking advantage of free Wi-Fi. Accompanying us were Nairobi University Confucius Institute students who entertained us with classical Chinese songs.
We also plodded strangers to talk in a bid to make friends and understand one another’s interests and views on the SGR. Before we knew it, we had arrived at our destination where we disembarked. The station was gleaming clean and as was now the norm, we were ushered in by responsive staff.
The design of these places was simply magnificent and it just reminded me of some eye-catching models I had seen online of metro stations in Europe.
We just had a quick stopover during which we had coffee at a sparkling and well-arranged lounge before doing a short tour of the facility. Athi River was cold but we still had good moments there. Just a few minutes after 1pm, we boarded back to the train to head back to the city after the memorable tour.
We also visited the locomotive maintenance workshops and the Inward Container Depot at Embakasi to observe operations at these facilities. Currently, there are eight passenger trains that ply the Mombasa-Nairobi route and 46 cargo trains in operation or on standby. From our visit, we realised that some of the 3,000 foreigners mostly from China who constructed the railway track over the past two-and- a-half years are a big part of SGR team.
After a long and tiresome day, we headed off to do a sumptuous buffet at the SGR Staff canteen. The meal included grilled chicken, fried rice and boiled potatoes laced with spices and some drinks. Liu Peng, a Chef at the SGR Chinese Restaurantsaid they offer a variety of foods. “Mostly it’s seafood, vegetables and cereals that is most appreciated. We do not use too much spices but sauce and soup are key to our menu,” he said.
Zhou Yuxiao, China’s Ambassador for Affairs of FOCAC (Forum of China-Africa Cooperation), said the SGR is a model project, which so many developing countries would love to copy. For us, it was truly a rewarding experience.