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The highs and lows of a ride on the Lunatic Express

Exhausted passengers relaxing the restaurant in a Rift Valley Railways (RVR) passenger train that took more than 20 hours from Nairobi to Mombasa on April 4, 2016.
When Charles Miller coined the term Lunatic Express to describe the Kenya-Uganda Railway in his 1971 book, he did so innocently.
But if my recent experience on a train trip from Nairobi to Mombasa is anything to go by, then Miller’s title: The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism, fits well with Kenya’s railway passenger service.
On April 4, a colleague from Belgium, Berber Voeperst, with whom I am working on a Flanders Connect Continents investigative project by the Journalism Fund decided to take a train to Mombasa as part of our investigations into services offered by Rift Valley Railways (RVR).
The trip from Nairobi to Mombasa was to start at 7pm with a 6pm reporting time. A sign of things to come started immediately we arrived at the railway station. We were told that the train would leave at 11.30pm, and not the scheduled departure time, due to its delayed arrival from Mombasa.
Just before 11.30pm, we were again informed that the departure time would now be 11.45pm. It emerged that the previous Friday, a train that should have left for Mombasa failed to do so for unknown reasons. We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
There was no further briefing until 2.20am when it was announced that the train was now ready to leave.
Drama started unfolding as passengers boarded the train in total darkness. Passengers had to use their cell phone torches to locate their seats.
First and second class passengers got a rude shock when they discovered that their cabins had no beddings.
A couple yelled that they had entered a second-class coach. They began to look for staff to direct them to first class. Woe unto them, their coach number was, indeed, the one on their tickets. RVR staff informed them that they were, indeed, in first class, and promised to bring them beddings for their double-deck beds. This included a blanket and a bed sheet.
They later told me at dinner that they were going to Mombasa on their honeymoon!
Immediately the train pulled out of the station, the lights were switched on. The generator was now working, we were told.
A first-class cabin in an RVR train is a post-colonial relict. The coaches were acquired in the late 1960s or ‘70s. The six-by-six cubicles with two doubledeck beds on both sides are just enough to accommodate a single body. The two beds are separated by a sliding door. There is a sink, but the tap is dry.
As we wondered if we would get any bedding at all, I heard a tap on the door and two canvas bags were shoved into the cabin. “Those are your beddings,” an RVR employee said and vanished.
Nairobi Railway Station where passengers board trains to different destinations both in Nairobi and outside the city. – Picture By BERBER VERPOEST
Suddenly, the bell rang, followed by an announcement for dinner—at 3.10am!
Our neighbours, two girls from Spain, were already in bed. I tapped on their door and alerted them that dinner was being served.
We trooped to the restaurant. After dinner, those who like downing their food with a drink were told that the bar was open. Berber and I opted to exchange notes on our project before we went back to our cabin.
Back to the cabin, the train started stuttering and tottering in a most scary manner. Happily, I fell asleep and blacked out my fears.
I woke up in the middle of nowhere. The train had stopped and nobody was giving any explanation. I later learned that the locomotive had malfunctioned and was being fixed.
I went back to sleep until another bell woke us up to announce breakfast. It was 9am, and we were in Makueni County, according to the train crew.
We walked gingerly to the restaurant as the train rocked precariously.
We had tea, two fried eggs and a sausage, accompanied by fruit salad for breakfast.
Most passengers in first and second class coaches decided to hang around the restaurant after breakfast, the better to take in the undulating landscape.
Lunch was served around 3pm, followed by the announcement that we would arrive in Mombasa around 10pm.
Most passengers cursed, since they had hoped to be in Mombasa by 9am. For most, their plans for the day had been ruined.
A British tourist, Tom, who was going to South Coast wondered aloud: “Who the hell on this train will ever think of using this service again?”
He spoke for most of the passengers who were too disillusioned and exhausted to complain.
The train continued lumbering on to Mombasa. As we passed through the Tsavo East and West National parks, we caught a glimpse of zebras and gazelles.
Most passengers had resigned themselves to the restaurant and were drowning their frustrations in their favourite tipples.
The train was moving at a snail’s pace and inquiries from the train crew revealed that the drivers had strict instructions not cruise over 35 kilometres per hour due to what they said was the instability of some sections of the railway line.



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