Steel Safari

The comparative cost of trains

Each time I have set off on a leg of my trans-Africa adventure, the trip has started with a train trip in London, on either the Heathrow or Gatwick Express. This time, thanks to the High Court, I narrowly missed travelling in the middle of the UK’s first national rail strike since the 1970s.

First of all, let me say, I have absolutely nothing but praise for the Heathrow and Gatwick Express services – they are brilliant trains – fast, efficient, comfortable and do what they say they will do. But they are incredibly expensive. The distance is 24km (15 miles) and the cost is £18 one way second class from Paddington to Heathrow. That’s £1.20 per minute or per mile.

Compare this to African trains. I accept they are not as fast, as frequent, as efficient but first class is perfectly comfortable. Egypt – Cairo to Aswan on the day train, first class in a recliner seat is US$28 (call it £20 for ease of calculation). The journey is 879 km (549 miles); cost 0.036p per mile. Overnight the price goes up but you get a sleeper berth, bedding, dinner and breakfast for US$60 (call it £42). That’s around 0.077p per mile. The journey is meant to take about 12 hours.

A First Class ticket Jambo Express De Luxe between Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya is comparatively expensive at US$65 (£46) per person. The journey is 473 km (294 miles) long and officially takes 14 hours, although we took 21. That works out as 0.156p a mile. You get a berth, bedding, dinner and breakfast as part of the ticket.

The Tazara runs between Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia, a distance of 1860 km (1156 miles). I’ve just bought a First Class sleeper ticket for the 4-berth compartment. Including the tour operator’s commission, it cost me US$100 (£70). This works out as about 0.06p per mile. Or as the journey takes at least 2.5 days (3600 minutes) – 0.02p per minute, not allowing for delays, derailments etc.

I haven’t got to South Africa yet, where Rovos Rail and the Blue Train will skew the results back in favour of the expensive, but will update when I get there. Meantime, what seems very obvious is that for those prepared to travel slowly, trains in Africa are a real bargain!


This was written in April 2010. All the prices mentioned will obviously change.



  1. Just to add a quick update – since I first wrote this, I have gone on to travel around Zimbabwe by train – price (also in April/May 2010) from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo US$10 (465 km), Bulawayo to Harare US$10, Harare to Mutare US$6. On the first two, I got a bedding roll with a blanket and pillow (no sheet); on the Mutare train there was no bedding. There was no official food service on any of the trains although an enterprising man did come round and sell comparatively expensive tea on the Harare train.

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