Critics of the railway question whether the benefits are worth the debt the government now owes to the China Export-Import Bank, which financed 85 percent of the project. The government had to purchase large swaths of the 295 miles of land that the SGR traverses, resulting in disputes over land valuation and compensation for displaced residents, which together cost another $290 million. This alone was more than double the original budget.
Finally, the line runs through two national parks. Although the Chinese construction company incorporated environmental protections into its design, conservationists have voiced concerns over animal safety in Tsavo National Park, where a large embankment has threatened elephants’ migration routes.
The new train runs once a day in each direction, and when I purchase same-day tickets on a rainy Friday morning in Nairobi, I feel that I have accomplished the impossible. Tickets are only available three days in advance of departure and are only sold at the train station. (An online booking system is still in the works.)
The Nairobi train station is 11.5 miles from the city center. When I arrive at the station in early August, throngs of people are lined up outside, their luggage in rows next to them. Station security paces up and down as guard dogs sniff at our luggage. Security measures are heightened in anticipation of the upcoming general elections on Aug. 8; elections have caused concern ever since 2007, when post-election violence caused the deaths of more than 1,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
The SGR departs daily from the Syokimau Nairobi Terminus station.
After five minutes in the security line, I enter the ticketing area only to find at least 70 people waiting in multiple lines by the ticket booths. A large monitor, nearly identical to those I’ve seen in Chinese train stations, shows that there are just two tickets left in first class and none left in economy.
When I reach the counter, I ask for a first-class ticket, which costs 3,000 Kenyan shillings (about $30 USD), and an economy return ticket, which cost 700 shillings ($7). After five minutes, I am informed that the credit card readers are not working. I don’t have any cash.
The attendant asks if anyone will give me cash that I could then pay back with M-Pesa. M-Pesa is Kenya’s innovative mobile money service, which allows people to make payments with mobile phones.
After pacing up and down the lines for several minutes, a quiet elderly man hands me 4,000 shillings. I thank him profusely, send him the money on my phone, and run back to the window.
The attendant quickly hands me the ticket and urges me to run as my train is leaving in 15 minutes. After two more security checks, I descend onto a huge platform and race to my coach. I am on the Madaraka Express.
The train leaves promptly at 9 a.m. As it pulls out of the station, I notice that Kenyan and Chinese staff are standing outside waiting for the train to leave. Worried about implementation issues, Kenya Railways recently subcontracted 400 Chinese nationals to help operate the train over the next 10 years.
Inside the train, passengers are seated in wide red seats. At the front of the car, placards depicting the flags of Kenya and China hang side-by-side. An announcement comes over the sound system warning parents to watch their children as train speeds will be quite high and the dangers of running through carriages may not be immediately apparent to first-time riders. Then “Chandelier” by Sia begins playing. I look out the window as the train passes through Athi River, a town where the first of the train’s seven intermediate stations are located.
Around 30 minutes into the trip, I decide to check out the dining car. I buy coffee, chips, and a banana for 250 Kenyan shillings (about $2.50). The coffee is served “white,” which means a cup full of piping hot milk and a packet of instant Nescafé.
You can’t get this experience on an 11-hour overnight bus
Sipping my coffee—which I rather like—I sit down across from a man and a woman seated cozily next to each other in a four-seater booth. They are a couple taking a weekend away from Nairobi, where they both work as clerical administrators. This is their first time taking the train.
The man, Anthony Rugutt, is laughing at the wrapping on his chicken salad sandwich, which reads “Nas Airport Services.” Rugutt assures me that it’s a good sandwich. He and his girlfriend, Monica Mutemi, are taking the train because it is fast, convenient, and safe.
But more importantly, it is an experience. “You enjoy the scenery, get to see the countryside, the wildlife, and you get to pass through the park,” Rugutt says. Looking out the window as the train passes through Machakos County, where herds of goats and cows idle in fenced areas alongside the train tracks, Rugutt and Mutemi observe that taking the train is a good way of seeing Kenya. You can’t get this experience on an 11-hour overnight bus.
Anthony Rugutt and Monica Mutemi share a moment in the first class dining car.
The bus figures prominently in my conversations with passengers. Martin Simiyu, a business consultant from Nairobi, says that if the train didn’t exist, 90 percent of the passengers would be on a bus right now. Even though there are more than 10 flights a day between Mombasa and Nairobi, they cost between $60 and $150—prohibitively expensive for most Kenyans.
Three-quarters of the way to Mombasa, an announcement comes over the train’s sound system telling us that we’re entering Tsavo National Park. We might see elephants, zebras, and giraffes, the voice says, as though we are on an amusement park ride. Some people, such as my neighbor Simiyu, respond excitedly. Standing up, he looks out for elephants and spots many in the distance.
The new train line is not the first manmade interference in the park’s natural habitat. The Nairobi–Mombasa highway splits the park into two sections, and the Kenya–Uganda Railway tracks run through sections of the park as well. But the large embankment built for the SGR presents particular dangers to the park’s 12,000 elephants. There are only six openings for elephants to pass, and eight elephants have died as a result since March 2017.