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On the right track: my first Ugandan train ride

Dec 13 • 7524 views • 24 Comments on On the right track: my first Ugandan train ride Adventure, tourism experience

Rift Valley Railways relaunches Kampala passenger train service after 20 year break

Rift Valley Railways view from the Kampala train

Early morning view from the Rift Valley Railways Kampala passenger train – a moment of joy…. as we rounded the corner, we could glimpse the train curve ahead of us, and curve behind us too, in the shape of a big smile 🙂

Another first this week: my first Ugandan train journey on the Rift Valley Railways Kampala train! My first African train journey, in fact!

I was very excited to hear that Rift Valley Railways, Uganda Railways Corporation (URC) and KCCA (Kampala City Council Authority) relaunched the Kampala passenger train service this week. We frequently hear the rumble of the train in the distance, but the service is confined to shunting freight from the dock at Port Bell on Lake Victoria up to Kampala’s industrial area. The train goes backwards and forwards across this short section of track a few times a week, delivering containers of imported goods via Mombasa and ‘outside countries’ beyond East Africa. The relaunch of the Rift Valley Railways Kampala train service for passenger travel marks a new beginning for the railway in Uganda. I couldn’t wait to experience it for myself.

Uganda Railways Corporation train ticket. Rift Valley Railways Kampala train

The Muzungu is the proud owner of her first Uganda Railways Corporation ticket. Thanks @KCCAUG and @KCCAED for a cheap and scenic train ride

And so 7 o’clock Tuesday morning – day 2 of the train service – I jumped on a boda boda and headed down to Kampala Railway Station, a neat colonial-type construction below Kampala Road.

Awesome Aussie journo and friend Amy Fallon was on the station platform, taking photos and looking for passengers to interview. 100 passengers had taken the 6.30 am train from Namanve to Kampala that morning but on our train (7.30 am Kampala to Namanve, heading out of the city) there were just two Bazungu writer/bloggers and a group of Uganda Railways Corporation staff. I guess we were traveling against the commuter tide, so to speak…

Rift Valley Railways Kampala train platform

View from the Kampala Station booking office onto the train and one of the platforms

Rift Valley Railways Kampala train platform

Amy and I were the only two paying passengers on the 7.30 am Kampala to Namanve train, so we were well looked after! Thanks to Steven from Uganda Railways Corporation who helped us on the train

The staff were happy to see us and explained that each of the 5 carriages can take up to 200 passengers and that they expect 50% capacity by the end of this week. (Not sure whether they achieved it? But I can imagine the Rift Valley Railways Kampala train service will quickly become popular). The train staff helped us get on the train (it’s a steep climb up some vertical metal steps), and told us not to lean out of the window, for fear of hitting an overhanging branch (or something!) Either way, catching the train has to be safer than getting a boda boda or matatu taxi. The train trundled along quite slowly.

I love trains, I always have, I can’t help but get excited when I hear the whistle and the train slowly leaves the station.

Rift Valley Railways train pulling out of Kampala Railway Station – day 2 of the new passenger service from @CharlieBeau Diary of a Muzungu on Vimeo.

Rift Valley Railways train Kampala from @CharlieBeau Diary of a Muzungu on Vimeo.

Click on the photos below to view the gallery with photo captions!

Living right next to the railway was a big part of the enjoyment of living in Namuwongo. The train would whistle as it approached, passing 2 metres from the other side of our compound wall, and we would hear people jumping out of the way. (Well, mostly they would make it, anyway).

“I saw the face of the train!” Our housegirl Eva shouted excitedly one day. (I guess that means it nearly ran her over!) The train had approached her front (face) on.

I was lucky enough to get the inside view of Kampala railway station last year, when it was open to the public (briefly) for the first time since 1984, thanks to some lobbying by Umeme and KCCA.

This was for the launch of the KLA ART Festival, the boda boda recycled art display and gallery show. I miss European architecture, so it was a treat to access this building. Kampala Railway Station really is a treasure of a building, and I hope the original features continue to be maintained (and preserved) to the same standard. All credit to Rift Valley Railways for not letting this building fall apart through neglect, as so easily can happen. It’s an interesting snapshot of another era.

Rift Valley Railways Kampala train station interior

Interior of the Rift Valley Railways Kampala train station, with all its regular features. Let’s hope the original and charming features stay. Tourists would love to visit this place and hear its history

Platform ticket machine at Kampala Railway Station

Interior of the Rift Valley Railways Kampala train station, with all its regular features. The station was part of the KLA ART 014 Festival Exhibition Space

Ticket office, Rift Valley Railways Kampala train station

Ticket office, interior of the Rift Valley Railways Kampala train station. The station was part of the KLA ART 014 Festival Exhibition Space

KLA ART 014 Exhibition, Rift Valley Railways Kampala train station

Kampala Railway Station was the brilliant venue for the KLA ART 014 Festival Exhibition. Here we were, queuing to get into the launch event. This entrance is on Station Road.

Our live updates from the Rift Valley Railways Kampala train went down a storm on Facebook  and Twitter; everyone seemed to have lots of questions about the train price, journey times, number of stops, age of the train, nationality of the train driver! Of course some people expect something for nothing, and one man was shocked at the ‘high price of’ the 1500 Uganda shillings ticket. Frankly that’s a total bargain if you can avoid sitting in a traffic jam… Amy and I asked around and it’s pretty impossible to get into central Kampala for less than that by any other means. (1500 UGX is around 50 US cents at the moment).

Amy Fallon Kampala passenger train

How to look cool on a train: a classical pose from Amy on the Kampala to Namanve passenger train

For our virgin Ugandan train ride, Amy brought a bottle of champagne. “Orient Express” – eat your heart out! Our excitement, the great photo opportunities and waving at passers-by, meant our journey quickly passed before we even had time to think about breakfast or Champers…!

Butler on the Orient Express

Train travel makes Europeans like me nostalgic. I wish I had experienced travel on the Orient Express, which was the epitome of luxury travel in the 1920s. The classic Orient Express route started in 1883 and ran from Paris to Istanbul. PHOTO Simon Pielow

It shows how long it is since the train service ran: one Diary of a Muzungu Facebook fan, keen to try the service for himself, asked me where the station is. “Er…. in Station Road!” I replied. (The guy is probably in his 20s. The station has rarely been open to passengers during his lifetime, so how would he know anything about the railway station?) Apparently the passenger train last ran 20 years ago.

Older Kampala residents passed on illuminating comments about the railway’s history. Vali told me how he used to catch the train to boarding school in Nairobi from Kampala railway station, back in the day. Eric told me that he used to go to school along Old Port Bell Road. “The train was always punctual. When it departed Kampala railway station, it let out a whistle. We always knew that the whistle signalled school break time!” You may imagine yourself back in Kampala of the 1950s or 1960s if you visit Malcolm McCrow’s page of East African railway photos and anecdotes.

CHOO-CHOO! Train coming through!

There is a very simple timetable of 4 trains on the KCCA website: two from Kampala to Namanve (approximately 40 minutes away) and two from Namanve to Kampala. Passenger services started Monday 7th December. The trains run Monday through to Friday.

KCCA passenger train service Kampala, timetable from December 7th 2015

KCCA passenger train service Kampala, from December 7th 2015

The train also stops at Nakawa, Kireka and Namboole. If I understand the website correctly, I think there is just one ticket price, meaning you pay 1500 Ugx whether you get on the first stop or one of the other stops.

I’m sure the passenger train service will be a big hit with a lot of people, although capacity of 4,000 is not a lot. Several of my Facebook Fans plan to take the trip, and I highly recommend it, simply to see another side of Kampala. Have you ever seen the workings of one of Kampala’s abattoirs? It’s a different world out there!

Diary of a Muzungu passenger train Namanve

See how happy that short train journey made me? (Ignore squinting into early morning sun!) Diary of a Muzungu reluctantly gets off the passenger train at Namanve, the end of the line, for now… PHOTO Amy Fallon

If you’ve enjoyed these photos and comments, why not follow Diary of a Muzungu on Facebook  and Twitter? That’s where you will find me hanging out most days, when I’m not writing these longer articles.

So what’s next for the railways in Uganda and East Africa?

The Rift Valley Railways Kampala train passenger service from Kampala to Namanve is a one-year pilot project. (Oh how I wish the train line extended to my home in Makindye!)

More interestingly, work has started on the development of the Standard Gauge Railway across East Africa.

This article looks at the differences between the original railway line and the planned new one. Substantial investment is being made into Uganda’s infrastructure, from the Kenyan border to the border with Rwanda; up to South Sudan in the north and down south to Tanzania. The rationale for the project is to make it quicker and cheaper to move goods from Mombasa inland through the East African community. Apparently, rail will quarter the costs of transport, half the time it takes to move the goods, and make the roads safer for the rest of us. Many of Uganda’s roads have been developed over the last few years but the daily transit of thundering heavy goods vehicles quickly destroys them again.

UPDATE: On a personal level, the Muzungu’s next African train journey simply had to be the Nairobi to Mombasa overnight train with free enroute Safari through Tsavo National Park. The history of the East African railway and the so-called ‘Lunatic Express’ is captivating (yet terrible in parts).

Railway view Lunatic Express Nairobi Mombasa

View from the so-called Lunatic Express. En route from Nairobi to Mombasa

Lunatic-Express-Nairobi-Railway-Station-sign

Picture this! Nairobi railway station has all the original fittings. It’s a fascinating glimpse back in time

My short journey from Kampala railway station opened up my research into the history of East Africa’s development. I confess, I have become a total train geek! It’s incredible to think that Nairobi and modern Kenya all started through the development of the railway. Read my blog to learn more! The whole Lunatic Express journey was fascinating from start to finish: the old-fashioned train compartments, the impromptu safari, the history of East Africa, and so much more.

The Nairobi to Mombasa train is notorious for breaking down in the middle of nowhere… but then the Muzungu was marooned in the middle of Lake Victoria for a whole night this week … so anything is possible when she travels! In fact you may recall this cross-border travel misadventure.

If you enjoyed this story, feel free to comment below and/or share it :)

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24 Responses to On the right track: my first Ugandan train ride

  1. Clare Fitzgibbon says:

    Loved reading your report! It was 1964 when I travelled by sea to Mombasa then by rail to Kampala, to take up a post as Nursing Sister in Mbarara. What memories. I met my husband of 49 years there, we married and our 3 sons were born there. We had to leave in late 1972 during Amin’s reign for the safety of our children.
    In 1998 we returned as VSOs with Hospice Uganda for 2 yrs. In 2006 we returned with our sons and their families to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
    Thanks for what you are doing for our wonderful people of Uganda.

    • the muzungu says:

      Dear Clare, thanks for sharing your lovely memories. It’s fascinating hearing how the trains in East Africa impacted so many people’s lives.
      Interesting that you and your husband were VSO volunteers too. Being a VSO in Uganda is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Do come back and visit Uganda!

  2. Kish Modha says:

    Dear Clare:
    Thanks for your nostalgic trip on old Kenya Uganda Railway (now Rift Valley Railway). It is remarkable for KCCA to revive this section of the railway service.
    IIn 2012 with my family I took a trip from Mombasa to Nairobi in first class. Things had changed from olden classy, elegant times. I travelled by this train several times from Jinja to Mombasa as I was born in Uganda and grew up in Kenya. Had to leave beutiful “Pearl of Africa” in 1972 courtesy of President Idi Amin!!!!

  3. Max says:

    we will visit Uganda in january , some advice on having a low cost safe vacation is very much appreciated.

    • the muzungu says:

      Hi Max, let me email you some ideas. Plenty of low cost options available in Uganda, especially community tourism, camping or homestays, tho not often promoted by tour companies. As for safety, Uganda is very safe for tourists. Ugandans are wonderfully welcoming people too. You will love the Pearl of Africa!

  4. Rick says:

    Great to hear about the return of passenger trains to Uganda, very small start but got to start somewhere. The new standard gauge project sounds fantastic but I don’t think any of us will be holding our breath! In terms of East African train travel I can recommend the TAZARA train in Tanzania, I caught it down in the south-west of Tanzania overnight all the way back to Dar-es-Salaam. Wonderful experience including travelling through the Selous national park seeing fantastic wildlife from the train!

  5. matata mercy says:

    Hi Am a Diary of a Muzungu blog fan and i love the way you bring out your veiws about uganda, travelling in the train is actually fan
    thanks

  6. Dickson says:

    I took my first trip yesterday from Kireka to Kampala.
    It was awesome and can’t now think of any other better way to travel to work.

    Nice Blog by the way

    • the muzungu says:

      Thanks for the appreciation 🙂
      Isn’t the train from Kireka to Kampala brilliant? How many people were on the train? Is it become popular?
      This weekend I’m taking the so-called ‘Lunatic Express’ train: from Nairobi to Mombasa – Kenya train blog coming soon…

  7. Jackie Lloyd says:

    I was brought up in Uganda and left in 1970 though for the last 10 years have been back annually to visit my brother who returned to Uganda to live. My elder sister and I went to school in Eldoret so used to take the train beginning and end if each term. The journey took about 12 hours but it was great fun. Am hoping to sample it when I visit in June.

    • the muzungu says:

      Hi Jackie, I always love hearing people’s stories of previous lives in Uganda. A number of people have shared their schoolday memories associated with the train journeys.
      Tomorrow I’m taking the ‘Lunatic Express’ from Nairobi to Mombasa for the first time … a real travel bucket list dream come true!

  8. […] Dec 13 › On the right track: my first Ugandan train ride » […]

  9. Interesting experience, I eagerly look forward to following in this encounter personally.

  10. Doug says:

    This was insightful and intriguing. I am here only for this weekend and was hoping for a train, even e a commuter train, but it is not to be. However, yours was the only site that actually said that this was M-F only! Thanks so much.

    • the muzungu says:

      Hello Doug, thanks for the positive feedback.
      Hmmmm – yes it is notoriously difficult to find reliable information about Uganda online!
      Rift Valley Railways do occasionally put on a Saturday train e.g. if there is a football match at Namboole Stadium.
      I hope you enjoy Kampala. If planes, trains and automobiles are your thing, I recommend Walter’s boda boda tours, the best way to see Kampala, especially if you’re only here for a brief visit. Please mention the Muzungu 🙂

  11. Joseph says:

    Nice blog thanks………AND………you are fit!

  12. […] it’s so awful let’s not mince words – is dire. Snaking around the muddy, carrier bag-lined railway track between my house and the Mukwano roundabout on the edge of town two or three miles away, live […]

  13. […] followed the railway track right down to Port Bell, on the edge of Lake Victoria. It’s the first time I’ve seen draught […]

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