Highs and lows aboard SGR train from Nairobi to Suswa

Passengers aboard Standard Gauge Railway train during the launch of Phase 2A at Syokimau Railway Station in Nairobilast weeek. [David Njaaga,Standard]

It is a highly-controversial train route, one that has been criticised as "heading nowhere" and lacking economic sense.

Yet, last Wednesday, at the Nairobi terminus of the Standard Gauge Railway in Syokimau, the launch of Phase 2A of the SGR project, terminating 120.49 kilometres away in Naivasha, is an event that was treated with extreme seriousness and fanfare.

A bevy of leaders, from Cabinet secretaries to governors, senators and other leaders, in addition to Chinese officials, flooded the station, along with a selection of excited pupils equally anxious to be part of the inaugural ride.

Even along the path of the train, a few thrilled locals stood by in anticipation of seeing the train use the rail for the first time, some enthusiastically waving away at the passengers as others recorded the transit.

By 8am, police officers and other security officials had heavily secured the terminus. A police helicopter landed shortly after nearly two hours before President Uhuru Kenyatta arrived to launch the train.

For more than an hour before the President’s arrival, the station was closed off to passengers checking in.

Inaugural ride

The helicopter would escort the train along the entire 100-km stretch to Suswa, where the inaugural ride ended. The surveillance provided by the helicopter was in addition to the heavily armed Recce officers who boarded the train, and a force of armed rangers and police officers strategically stationed along the route.

The President flagged off the train at a 12:15, riding off with First Lady Margaret Kenyatta in the presidential coach as other passengers took the remaining nine first class and economy coaches.

The train cruised past the rows of industries in Syokimau, progressing to quietly glide through the iconic Nairobi National Park, with the city’s towering skyline beautifully peering through the backdrop in the far distance.

The design of the railway distinctly changes even before the train can enter the Nairobi National Park. For peaceful and sustainable co-existence with the animals, through the park, the train passes on top of a 6.563-kilometre bridge, hoisted by a total of 198 piers, 178 of which are within the park itself. The rail design through the park additionally features two abutments.

"With the bridge, animals, even tall ones like giraffes, can continue moving freely within the park," says Kenya Railways. The shortest pier, the SGR management states, is 7.5 metres tall, tall enough to allow the unobstructed movement of giraffes.

The bridge at the park is just one of the two along the route, with the other located in Nol Chora.

Along the route in the national park, the constructors have placed sound barriers to eliminate noise impact to animals during train operations.

With careful observation, a traveler may be lucky to steal glances at animals on either side of the grassy park.

From Syokimau, it took approximately 21 minutes for the train to get to the Ongata Rongai terminus in Kajiado County, although the train schedule indicates that subsequent train rides between the two stations, for passenger and commuter services, will last just 23 minutes, significantly shortening the time between Rongai and the city.

The Rongai station - nestled amidst a few mostly residential buildings in a fairly remote but up and coming zone - like the rest of the stations along the route and the other termini on the Nairobi-Mombasa route, features a unique and symbolic design.

“The station concept is abstracted from the pitched roof as well as local building elements and materials such as the red brick façade characteristic to Maasai design,” a statement by Kenya Railways reads.

The views from the Rongai station are uniquely picturesque, as the train passes through the densely-forested animal migratory routes used by animals moving between the Nairobi and Amboseli national parks, arriving in Ngong 13 minutes later.

The Ngong station, designed to resemble a soaring eagle, symbolising the strength of the locals, will, besides serving Ngong residents, serve a connection point for people commuting from nearby areas such as Karen and Embulbul.

In spite of the existence of the beautifully-finished station, access remains a big concern for the residents. For kilometres on either side of the station, little can be seen, save for trees and rough and dusty road patches leading to widely spaced out homes.

While the station has the potential of improving their transport experience, locals complain, accessing it without proper roads remains a considerable challenge.

The rail design includes three tunnels, the Ngong, Kimuka and Nachu tunnels. These tunnels, according to Kenya Railways, significantly cut the distance the train has to travel, providing the shortest possible route through the Rift Valley escarpment and shortening the travel time.

The train smoothly cascades through the escarpments of the Great Rift Valley, with impressive views of forested hills and a continuous mountain skyline dotted with the summits of the Aberdare Ranges, Suswa and Longonot mountains, before finally easing through sparsely-populated villages with low, mostly temporary structures for homes.

It is this continuous mountain skyline that inspired the design for the Mai Mahiu station. The location of the Mai Mahiu station was, in particular, deliberate for Kenya Railways.

“The station was located here due to the proposed industrial park that will be built in Mai Mahiu town,” Kenya Railways revealed in a statement.

The design of the Suswa station, on the other hand, was inspired by the rhythm of the local traditional dancers and local construction materials like brick.

Like the Nairobi-Mombasa course, the route from Nairobi to Suswa features subsidiary houses and management offices built along the line.

The coaches are also similar to those used along the Nairobi-Mombasa route. The first ride was smooth, save for a few bumps during stops at the stations.

A stop

During the ride, President Kenyatta made a stop at the Inland Container depot, a cleared off space in the middle of sprawling kilometres of trees and vegetation on either side.

The Suswa station, like others, lacks connecting roads, key to ensuring accessibility. From the station and for kilometres on end, all that can be seen are a few countable houses and grazing livestock, with tiny trodden earth roads leading to hilly surroundings.

It was here that the President concluded his tour, opting to take a helicopter ride back to Nairobi. For the passengers who boarded the train back, the journey to Nairobi, without stops, lasted an hour and 10 minutes.

Soon, Uhuru said, this area, like the rest of the remote ghost villages the rail passes through, will open up and see a rise in economic activity. Phase 2B of the project will continue from Naivasha, providing linkages with Narok, Mulot, Nyamira, Kisumu, Kericho and Nyando.