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April 2010

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.

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