My maiden SGR trip came sooner than expected. A client requested that I ride with the team on the SGR last week. In show of solidarity, I obliged. I did so reluctantly because I had always wanted my maiden SGR trip to be part of a well thought out holiday experience.
When I tweeted about my upcoming maiden trip, a tweep advised that I carry snacks and water and that I did. I packed some water, juice a bowl of fruits, some nuts and alpen bars but unfortunately forgot to pick up the apples from the fridge (I have since decided to be preparing a travel checklist). I received the tickets in advance from my client and therefore I have no idea how SGR ticketing happens. I assumed that my ID card would be required and therefore placed the tickets in my purse right next to the ID. The Uber ride to the train station was more expensive that a one way ticket despite it being less than 5% of the distance. Why is the train station so far away? Why is there a connection from the Nairobi railway station? I wondered.
I was dropped off at the train station about an hour and a half before departure. Soon after I was on the initial security check, I obeyed every instruction but I did not like it that some Kenyans were pushing. For the first time, I experienced security scanners labelled according to gender. I wondered why. Maybe some Kenyan had informed the Chinese that we like to be arranged according to gender (growing up, our church had that sort of segregation). However, as I progressed it made a lot of sense since right after the scanners there was the physical check that was according to gender. Thereafter, several other security points followed. At one security point, my baggage was weighing me down. I followed a team that was being led to a lift. I thought I had much time but I did not; barely had I sat down in the boarding area than we were asked to board.
We were well directed to our respective coaches. I soon identified my seat and started putting my bags into the overhead cabin. I needed a hand and some passenger offered to help. This passenger had the aisle seat while I had the window seat. However, he decided to take the window seat possibly because it had a table. I was okay with that, after all, I would need a helping hand to get my heavy bag back. At exactly 7:59 am, the train departed. There were a number of overhead announcements before departure and one of them included remaining at our allocated seats. There was also some background music. The rest of the team that I was travelling with were seated in the other compartments hence I did not have much company and I did not feel like starting any conversation.
The two other passengers in our compartment boarded at the Athi river station. They were part of a bigger group that was seated in the opposite compartment. They chitchatted a lot across the compartments all the way. Like many other passengers, they did so in their mother tongue. I wonder why most passengers prefer to use their mother tongue while on the train?
Many passengers seemed not to have had breakfast or carried any snacks. They could not wait for the food service hour. An hour later, it was time for food service and everyone around me grabbed something to eat. It was either a muffin, a croissant or a mandazi. My neighbour had brought along a sandwich. At one point, the passenger across me while holding a croissant asked the food service staff….what is this? …the service staff responded can’t you see it is written “croissant”? There is nothing much to write about the food service staff except that they need some courtesy. They passenger had no idea what a croissant is.
The 6-hour journey was characterised by some very dramatic episodes. At the Emali station, some passengers decided to pull a M2 with the “I am not boarding” slogan. There was not much time to play out the entire M2 challenge. The most dramatic of all incidences was in the coach ahead of us. Two groups were outraged. While one was relishing their alcoholic drinks, the other one was praying out loudly in retaliation. In the train, the staff do not call security, armed security just show up. Unfortunately, the security could not stop the drinking and the praying and it continued most of the way.
What surprised me the most was the toilet facility. The tissue paper was to be placed in an open trashcan (how?). I am so embarrassed to say this. Is it the case elsewhere? The only trains I have used previously are the New York Subway and London tube and I doubt they have toilet facilities. I soon googled “train toilets where does the waste go”. I found out that the traditional method is to deposit it onto the tracks or onto nearby ground (unbelievable! Is it treated?) Where is the tissue paper deposited?
There were many different uniformed service staff in the train. Other than security, food service and cleaners, I am not sure who the rest of the staff were. Before I forget, let me mention that the seats were very uncomfortable; I doubt they had any cushioning and the strait backs made it even worse. We were finally at the station after several short stops. I did not like the push and shove to get to the escalator. Dear Kenyans, we need to be more controlledJ.
Coming back, we had to leave the hotel 4-5 hours before departure to beat the major traffic snarl up to the Mombasa station. The security checks were quite similar to those at the Nairobi station. The station looked magnificent, better than most airports in our neighbouring countries. The journey back to Nairobi was non-stop. Once again, I was seated with strangers who seemed to be familiar with each other. They were all coming from the same conference. When one of them asked if we could share my juice, I said that the only thing we could share was my packet playing cards (I often use these cards in training activities and had purposed to make use of them on the return trip). More than 75% of the journey back to Nairobi was spent playing cards with strangers. It was much fun! Some had not played cards in decades. The only other thing I remember is that we witnessed a large herd of elephants and soon we were back to Nairobi.
In the front compartment, someone had been issued with a feedback form. The passenger wanted someone else to fill it in and I volunteered because I wanted to have a look at it. I however decided to keep it away and continued playing cards. The staff insisted on having it back. As soon as I started filling it in, I was taken aback. There was a problem. A major problem. As an English speaking country, I was embarrassed by the grammar. I wondered what translator had been used. If I was going to fill it in, I was to start by correcting the grammar. Another passenger passing by saw the form and requested to have a look. I handed it to her and she filled it in. I promised to follow this up with the SGR team. I hope they will make the amends for the sake of our national image!
The train ride was like no other. As I reflected throughout the ride, I wondered why we had no engineers that could get such a job done. I would have been a prouder Kenyan if the SGR was constructed, is managed and maintained by the Kenyan people!
Lucy Kiruthu is a Management Consultant and Trainer connect via twitter @KiruthuLucy