It’s joy, nostalgia as long-awaited Nairobi-Kisumu train roars back

Passengers inside the first locomotive train from Nairobi to Kisumu at a restaurant within the train during a maiden trip on December 17, 2021. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

When the train’s operator ignited the engine and the horn whistled off to alert passengers on board, Collins Obale had settled ready and excited for the journey.

His relaxed posture on a suspended bed in the first-class cabin in the relaunched train service from Nairobi to Kisumu through Naivasha signified comfort and readiness for an adventurous trip.

Obale, a humanitarian worker, was among more than 200 passengers on the maiden trip to Kisumu after revival of the 416-kilometre meter-gauge railway line.

“I left Mombasa on Thursday night so I could catch the train. It’s safer travelling in a train compared to using vehicles,” said Obale.

The 12-hour trip was flagged off by Kenya Railways Managing Director Phillip Mainga at the Nairobi Central Station at 6am.

Obale’s experience of travelling by the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Mombasa to upcountry for holiday explains the intended seamless connectivity of train services from Mombasa to Kisumu.

“This is my first time trip using the meter-gauge railway and it is exciting and comfortable. I only heard stories of how trains operated from my parents. I scheduled my travel early enough because I didn’t want to miss this first trip,” said Obale.

Kenya Railways Corporation resumed operations yesterday, starting off with a special trip from Nairobi to Kisumu and a return trip to the capital city on Sunday.

The revamping of the rail network that places Kenya as a trade transit hub into East and Central Africa was done at a cost of Sh10.5 billion.

Refurbishing of the century-old line is expected to boost passenger travels, spark development in the region and inject new life into a number of old towns that died after the collapse of the railroad.

Train operations to the Western region collapsed in 2007, spelling doom for many small towns and its revival just a week to Christmas saves travellers from the exorbitant bus fares.

During the trip, passengers enjoyed the spectacular nature and beauty as bogeys meandered the terrains of the South Rift and crisscrossed the expansive plantations, bushes and rivers.

The stunning scenery continued throughout the journey.

The century-old Nakuru-Kisumu metre gauge railway line has 18 stations serving several towns. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Entries and exits through tunnels, crossing valleys through viaducts and exciting moments of waving at random people cheering the long-waited Kisumu Safari train were the memorable moments that pushed Obale and other passengers to take the ride.

Travellers, who used the railway before it collapsed over a decade ago remembered with nostalgia the days when the railroad, was a major corridor for transportation.

Young people were thrilled by the unusual means of transport snaking through the sprawling villages and farms.

“The trip brings back the memories of early the 1990s when I was in primary school. Back then, we used to wear uniforms so we could pay cheaply. It feels good to travel in a train again. The restart of train services was long overdue,” said Ben Mumbo.

He added: “I used to travel to school by train but the refurbished trains are very efficient. They are not congested and the seats are comfortable.”

What most commuters were excited about was the increased speed of the meter gauge train and comfort of the interior set-up.

“Travelling by road or air would definitely be faster but getting to enjoy the sceneries and panoramic beauty of nature is an unmatched experience. We also get to see the old towns that died with the collapse of the railway line,” said Mumbo, a security expert based in Nairobi.

“I opted for the train trip because I was avoiding the struggle of making bookings at Machakos Country bus station. Driving over 400 kilometres is also tasking,” he said.

Mumbo travelled on a first-class ticket that costs Sh2,000 while passengers on economy class paid Sh600. 

The air-conditioned first-class cabins are fitted with stowage, shelves, charging ports for phones, couch and a suspended bed, water dispenser and a sink.

Air-conditioned first-class cabins. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Meals at the restaurant were selling at between Sh20 and Sh600. Passengers also sampled soft and alcoholic drinks at the restaurant. 

Christmas carols and rhythmic Luo songs set the mood in the coaches. Passengers could also browse using free internet connection at the restaurant. 

“The fares are fair and it’s easy and affordable to travel with the family. However, they should reduce food prices. Selling a cup of tea at Sh120 is quite high for people who’re looking for affordable options,” said Ali Omondi who travelled with his two daughters.

The journey started at 6:15am in Nairobi and after making 10 stopovers, the train entered the Kisumu station at 6pm. The duration is nearly three times what it would take SGR from Nairobi to Mombasa.

The century-old Nakuru-Kisumu metre gauge railway line has 18 stations serving several towns.

David Okoth who runs a tourism company said he took the ride from Nairobi to get first-hand experience of the route before he can recommend it to his potential clients.

“This is recommendable for clients who would like to take long and adventurous train trip. It’s economical and it also promotes tourism as people get to see new places. I’ll also recommend it to my relatives,” said Okoth.

For Zubeidah Ali, 16, riding the train was a lifetime opportunity.

“We closed school on Thursday but I had to take my first train trip to the village. I’m so excited and I think this will be my preferred means of transport,” said Ms Ali.

On normal days, a journey to Kisumu costs Sh1,500 and the fares go up to Sh3,000 during peak seasons for a seven-hour journey.