Kenya’s new ‘Lunatic Express’ reveals lot about the country’s struggles, triumphs

Friday September 24 2021
Standard Gauge Railway

Passengers disembark from the Standard Gauge Railway inter-county passenger train in Mombasa. Since Kenya’s new railway began operations in 2017, its four daily trains have transported several million people. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NMG


Every day, at exactly two minutes past midday, the Madaraka Express Passenger Service inter-county train from Nairobi stops at the Voi station. It departs six minutes later on its way to the coastal city of Mombasa. The six-minute halt at Voi is the longest of the seven stops between Nairobi and Mombasa — it stops for just two minutes at the next station, Miasenyi, 33 minutes later.

When I got off the train at Voi in mid-July this year, having chosen the stop for no reason beyond curiosity, I was just one of the many passengers disembarking. Ours was a motley group of travellers: a man hauling a heavy carton reinforced with adhesive tape, a woman herding two tired children out of the station, a handful of students heading back to school after a break, and several lone travellers like me.

We alighted quickly to give way to the other passengers waiting to take our seats for the onward journey to Mombasa. Once outside, we all faced the same problem; how to get to Voi town, which Google Maps estimates to be 4.2km away.

One of the least discussed issues about Kenya’s new Mombasa-Naivasha Standard Gauge Railway (or simply SGR), is the location of its stations and sub-stations. Debate has over the years focused on the politics of the cost of the construction of the railway that is part of the East African Railway Master Plan. The Kenyan line is expected to eventually link up with other SGRs being built in East African Community member countries.

A loved and unloved railway

Many in Kenya consider the cost of the SGR, at $3.6 billion, to be exorbitant while others have questioned its economic viability. However, not much attention has been paid to the location of the 12 stops along the 578.8km route of the passenger train between the Mombasa Terminus and its Nairobi counterpart, and beyond on the track’s latest extension to Mai Mahiu in Naivasha and Suswa in Narok.


The SGR’s main station in Nairobi is located at Syokimau, some 19.2km from the city’s central business district (CBD). The Mombasa Terminus is at Miritini, some 16.1km from the coastal town’s CBD. The trend is repeated for the other stations and sub-stations, which are placed some distance away from the urban areas they serve, just far enough for means of transport to and from the train to be of some concern to passengers.

Some would consider this to be a logistical hurdle in accessing the services of the SGR train, which is admittedly faster and more economical than other means of transport between Mombasa and Nairobi.

This is hardly the case for Kenya’s service economy. For this sector’s stakeholders, the extra distance that the passengers on the SGR train have to travel to get to the destination urban centres presents an irresistible business opportunity. It has proved to be a boon for taxi and tuk tuk drivers, boda boda riders, and even matatu operators.

Besides the train’s staff and passengers, probably no one else knows the Madaraka Express train’s schedule better than these operators. They start arriving at the stations and sub-stations well in advance of the train, eager to grab the best spots to attract the attention of the disembarking passengers.

In Voi, I shared a tuk tuk with a student in uniform, although we each ended up paying the full fare for the short trip. When I finally disembarked at the Mariakani SGR station, I chose a taxi that was waiting in the parking lot. There were other options that included tuk tuks and boda bodas. I realised too late to change my mind that I would also have used one of the many matatus that ply the main road not far from the station. This would have been a much cheaper option.

Millions take the ride

Since Kenya’s new railway began operations in 2017, its four daily trains have transported several million people. In 2018 alone, the Madaraka Express service handled 1,665,627 passengers. In the first few months, the stations had few services to offer the passengers, railway and private security staff, and police officers on guard duty. But now it is totally different. The main Nairobi and Mombasa terminuses have restaurants and, as I found out while sheltering from the rain as I waited to board the train for my return journey from Mombasa days later, even a few bars.

The passenger service is not the Standard Gauge Railway’s main economic activity.

In 2019, the last full year before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted economies and transport systems, the railway operator made nearly 14 times more hauling cargo than it did moving passengers.

However, moving passengers was a key selling point for the entire enterprise because the new train service cut the journey between the two main Kenyan cities from 12 hours by bus — or 16-plus hours on the old railway line — to just five.

The other selling point, a passenger told me as we waited to board, is that the trains keeps time. Several other passengers and service providers that I encountered during my adventure on the SGR trains echoed the sentiment, and expressed their willingness to pay for a train ticket that allows them to plan their schedules.

This has made it possible for service providers at SGR stations and sub-stations, be it independent auxiliary transporters or the odd hawker waiting outside the gate, to tailor their businesses to the train schedule.

“I have regular clients on weekdays who need me to pick them up and drop them off in the morning and in the evening,” Godwin Mkoo, the cab driver I used in Mariakani told me.

“During the rest of the day, I find other fares to keep me busy, or I just go home.” He, like many other transport providers, arrive at the station at least 30 minutes before the train to catch the passengers as they disembark.

SGR Nairobi terminus

Passengers waiting at the lobby for the train at SGR Nairobi terminus on May 31, 2019. Madaraka Express passenger service is celebrating g 2nd year anniversary. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG

Mkoo has learned to read the passengers. He chuckled as he explained to me that he can tell the passengers who know where they are going or have arranged to have their transport waiting, or those who know that they can get a matatu a short distance away. Then there are those, like me, who end up in his cab.

Although the auxiliary transport business at the main train stops appears to be seamless and orderly, with an apparent hierarchy that has its top licensed taxi operators, this was not always the case. Like all new activities, it had its teething problems.

Talk of a cartel

In January 2018, just months after the train service started operations, drivers affiliated to online taxi-hailing firms protested outside the Mombasa Terminus against what they termed as harassment by security officers.

Apparently, they were not being allowed into the station to pick up passengers and had to wait some distance from the main entrance.

“We suspect that an inside cartel is trying to control the taxi business for its own benefit,” one driver was quoted as saying, a typically Kenyan way of explaining what one doesn’t understand.

“Its not really a cartel,” the cab driver who me picked up from the Nairobi Terminus on the last leg of my trip laughed when I raised the matter. “It’s just business.”

For the better part of an hour, he was at pains to explain to me why “old school” taxi drivers like him deserve to be at the top of the pecking order in getting access to the available parking spots. His view was that the drivers need the slots the most.

He described what sounded like a miniature “last mile” economy, where he faced competition not just from other cab drivers and taxi-hailing apps, but also from a few 14-seater matatus that had figured out that there was a lucrative market at the train station for certain destinations. I had noticed at least two matatus destined for Thika town, some 56kms away.

The operators have come up with ways to adapt to their unique business environment, which has short but intensive periods of activity when passengers disembark, followed by long dry spells until the next train arrives, and maximise their income.

One is to undercut taxi-hailing cabs by asking for lower fares. Another one is as simple as knowing where to park. An important way is to know the passengers to avoid and the ones to approach. Then there are other ingenious “fixes” that might not be comfortable for everyone.

Uncomfortable fixes

I encountered one such fix when my driver in Nairobi convinced me to share the cab with several other passengers. I agreed because it sounded like a good idea at the time. But we ended up getting lost because one of the other passengers was new to Nairobi and hadn’t quite figured out the difference between South B and South C.

After we finally found her destination, we detoured to Eastleigh before finally embarking on my trip home. This inconvenienced me greatly, but it was a boon for the taxi man because he ended up collecting three fares in just one trip. He was quite happy as he headed home to sleep for a few hours before returning to the station to wait for the passengers arriving at 3am on the night train.

The taxi driver and his colleagues seemed to have everything figured out, down to where they fall on the list of essential service providers exempted from the curfew restrictions prompted by Covid-19.

However, even the auxiliary transport providers at isolated train stations could not escape the devastating effects of the coronavirus that swept through the world starting in 2020.

The train services carried no passengers for at least two months in mid-2020, at the height of Kenya’s first major lockdown, which cut off all transport nodes in major hotspot areas in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. The SGR train operator weathered the lockdown and subsequent Covid-19 lockdown measures somehow because passengers are not its main revenue earner.

The Covid-19 toll

However, the auxiliary service industry that depends on the movement of the passengers was decimated. Although the April-July lockdowns did not coincide with the high tourist season of December and early January, they erased the significant gains of the tourism sector and the many bit players who depend on it.

The economy has since to climbed back on its feet,and is expected to rebound soon, but the service industry has not forgotten. Nearly every service provider I spoke with about how their businesses were doing remembered how tough 2020 was.

Before the pandemic, adaptation in Kenya’s service economy had been a slow affair. For cab drivers, the main issue was competition with the drivers of taxi-hailing companies. In the hospitality industry, adaptation was limited to small, functional adjustments, and many refused (and still do) to provide little things like toothpaste in their room care packages. All these concerns paled into insignificance as the coronavirus rampaged through the country. The shock that the pandemic unleashed on economic activities was sudden and brutal for everyone. The trains, buses, and planes that bring tourists, and with them much-needed business for everyone involved, were mothballed for months.

“For nearly three months, the estimated 40,000 beds in Mombasa and the neighbouring counties were empty,” Julius Owino, the CEO of the Kenya Coast Tourist Association, told me as we sat at a socially acceptable distance from each other in his office in Mombasa.

With occupancy rates at zero in a sector that depends entirely on the movement of people, the incomes of more than 200,000 people who depend on tourism, 50,000 of them directly employed in the sector, were on the line.

After the initial shock wore off, and with the government still trying to get a working plan in motion, coastal tourist operators presented a proposal to help restart the sector.

The plan was backed by detailed research on how the virus spreads and suggested protocols that would allow them to reopen their businesses.

“We were probably the first sector to go to the government with our own draft proposals, and it worked! By last December, occupancy rates were back to 80 percent, most of them being local travellers,” Owino said.

Hotels and other tourism providers joined in, taking advantage of the spike in domestic travellers by offering deals targeting the local market.

“It is now safer to be in a hotel than on public transport,” he boasted.

Some tentative sense of normalcy has returned to the service sector, but some providers still worry that a huge surge in Covid-19 cases could lead to another total or even partial lockdown and bring business to a halt once again.

In the meantime, by unspoken consensus, everyone is constantly adapting, and hoping for the best.