Photos of the Standard Gauge Railway stations and route: the muzungu's guide to the SGR 'Madaraka Express' train between Nairobi and Mombasa
Advantages of taking the Standard Gauge Railway train
The SGR train journey time is five hours.
The train is safe - no dodgy overtaking of container lorries.
The journey is smooth - no potholes. (No sports bra needed! Unlike traveling in a bumpy tuk tuk!)
The train is more spacious. Tall friends may prefer first-class for its legroom but second-class is fine as you can easily stand up and stretch your legs by walking between the carriages.
Travelling by train is more secure than the bus. There are numerous security checks before you get on the train - cameras in the station? The train doesn't have seat belts (neither does it have to overtake into oncoming traffic).
The train has toilets.
The train has air-conditioning. It is dust-free travel - even in the dry season.
You can drink alcohol on the train. You can also buy other drinks and snacks.
It's easier to watch birds and wildlife from the train!
Each train carriage has a dedicated member of staff. Our lady was very friendly.
The train is cheaper than the bus, if you buy a second class ticket. Ticket prices: 1000 Kenya shillings ($10) standard class. First class tickets are 3,000 KES ($30) each. (Discounts available for children). However, the train journey price works out substantially higher than the ticket cost alone since you have to factor in travel to and from the SGR stations (in remote locations outside the city centres).
Advantages of taking the bus
Some of us enjoy slow travel. The bus journey time is eight hours.
If you take the bus, you can get from the centre of Nairobi to the centre of Mombasa without having to change vehicle. If you have lots of bags, are travelling with children, or have mobility issues, you might prefer to simply take the bus.
You only have to buy one ticket for the whole journey, meaning less hassle. If you take the SGR, you have to allow extra time and additional cash for the connections.
Some buses have air-conditioning - but does it always work? Ditto the WiFi.
We enjoy our brief lunch stops and the chance to try the local food en route.
The bus has a few brief comfort break stops - a chance for smokers to step out.
You can choose your seats when you make your booking.
Ticket prices: Mash have seats ranging from 1,000 - 2,500 Kenya shillings ($10 to $25) according to the seat type.
Journey price = same as the ticket price. No extra costs.
Travel tips: how to book the SGR train AKA the Madaraka Express
The enquiry and booking process - online or in person
If you're going straight to the last stop, choose the express train. The express journey time is 4 hours and 43 minutes. This runs in the afternoon, in both directions. The morning inter-county trains stop at Athi River, Emali, Kibwezi, Mtito Andei, Voi, Minsenyi, Mariakani. The inter-county journey time is 5 hours and 58 minutes.
Book early to avoid disappointment. Learn from our mistake! (We spent 25 hours on buses from Kampala to Mombasa - with just a half hour break between journeys - because we tried to book two days before departure when the train was already sold out).
Book in person at the SGR station but it's a long way out of town. Pay by cash (only) in Kenya shillings.
Book SGR tickets online here.
Use your phone. Pay by MPesa (you'll need a Safaricom Kenya SIM card to do this). Just dial *639#.
If you want to book the SGR from outside Kenya, ask your tour operator to book your tickets or contact me.
"It ought to be plain how little you gain by getting excited and vexed. You'll always be late for the previous train, and always on time for the next." ― Piet Hein
Click here to see the rates for the SGR train - or Madaraka Express - on the Kenya Railways web site. Note that the fares are 'promotional fares' meaning they are likely to increase. Currently (February 2018) fares are 700 KES standard class and 3,000 KES first class. The web site also details fares between intermediate stations along the route.
If you want to choose your seats (sit next to a friend or be by the window facing in the right direction) book in person at the station.
To make a booking or enquiry call + 254 (0)709 388888 / 0709907000 / 0728603581/2 or email email@example.com
Print your tickets at the station.
You can book up to 30 days in advance.
The Standard Gauge Railway station in Mombasa is in Miritini
To avoid Mombasa traffic, get on at the Mariakani stop. To do this you will need to get the slow (morning) train.
Three of us paid 700 KES for a tuk tuk from Fort Jesus to the SGR station. We had been quoted 1,500 KES for a car.
Leave enough time to walk for 15 minutes before entering the station.
Trains depart from Mombasa twice daily. The morning inter-county train departs at 8.20 AM (arrives Nairobi 2.18 PM) and the afternoon express train leaves at 3.15 PM (and arrives Nairobi 8.14 PM). Tickets are on sale between 5:40 AM and 4 PM. Tickets can be purchased up to ten minutes before departure.
At Mombasa SGR there is a wide range of taxis, buses and matatus. No need to book.
The Standard Gauge Railway station in Nairobi is in Syokimau, past the airport
Trains depart from Nairobi twice daily. The morning inter-county train departs at 8.20 AM (arrives Mombasa 2.18 PM) and the afternoon express train leaves at 2.35 PM (and arrives Nairobi 7.18 PM).
To get from central Nairobi to the SGR station, board the commuter train at Nairobi railway station. The fare is 50 bob (KES) between the two stations.
Would I recommend taking the SGR train?
I commend SGR for operating a reliable and affordable service. The infrastructure is excellent and the booking process easy but there needs to be more attention to the overall experience. Efficiency and cleanliness are important but the stations need water fountains, catering outlets and shops. (Not only is this useful for the passenger but it represents additional revenue streams for SGR - surely a no-brainer). SGR need to make Wi-Fi available at stations and on the train.
I had to hotspot from my Ugandan phone to order our Uber.
"If I ran the railway"... I'd display information about the SGR project and its construction. Where is the history of the Uganda Railway? Where is the tourist information? Why not play some background music? Part of the travel experience is buying and reading a newspaper, finding something tasty to eat, learning something about the route and the destination, sharing photos and updates with friends online. People don't only judge things by cost.
But was it exciting?
Did it live up to the hype?
Was there romance?
The boring issues of cost and logistics to one side, did the muzungu find the experience to be exciting?
Well yes, the novelty of the new experience made it worth the wait.
I can't say the journey was romantic - unlike the Lunatic Express was. Everything about the SGR is too shiny and corporate.
For romantic interest, next time maybe I'll just take a good book (or download a copy of Brief Encounter and daydream I'm there, underneath the clock, waiting ...)
If you enjoy train travel stories, my Lunatic Express story was an epic adventure.
We can't wait for the day when we can catch the SGR train from Kampala to the coast for the week-end!