Rift Valley Railways relaunches Kampala passenger train service after 20 year break
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).
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…!
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.
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!
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?
According to SRC staff, 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 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.
On a personal level, the Muzungu’s next African train journey has to be the Nairobi to Mombasa overnight train with free enroute Safari through Tsavo National Park. Some people call it the ‘Lunatic Express’ but this is just one section of it in fact. The history of the East African railway and the so-called ‘Lunatic Express’ is captivating (yet terrible). I plan to study it further.
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.