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.


Life in the Slow Lane

Although the overall project is about trains, I am going to allow myself to veer off the rails every now and then blogwise or we could all get bored. In Kenya, there are effectively only two regular rail services now (each going three times a week). In contrast, if you are in the cities, you spend a considerable portion of your life in traffic jams, going nowhere very slowly indeed, surrounded by a belching haze of choking black smoke. The catalytic converter and the low emissions zone haven’t made it out here. Then there is the fact that the traffic on the single lane road is often three abreast, with matatus (colourfully decorated, severely overloaded share taxis with passengers clinging to the open doors) weaving between wheezing lorries that would have been retired to a museum for vintage vehicle geeks to drool over several decades ago in the UK.

On either side of the road wide verges are lined by shops and stalls – a brightly painted Coke kiosk, an even brighter one advertising Omo washing powder, the Moping Kiosk (never discovered what it sold), the Noah Ark Curio Shop and the Small Joint bar and club, a gravestone shop (some of the samples already alarmingly engraved), a row of hellfire and brimstone Pentecostal churches with corrugated iron roofs and lime green walls. In front of them, the verges are crammed with things to buy – a full-sized metal giraffe, double-bed, a herd of elderly lawn mowers, and miles of luscious plants that bring a festive air to the proceedings and turn the road into a tropical garden.

The shopping opportunities are by no means confined to the side of the road however. With the traffic stalled, the sellers come to you. This is a list of what I got offered in one 300m, 20 min Nairobi jam. It is by no means definitive of what was on sale – just what I had time to write down: A framed original oil painting of Jesus with a lamb; a blow-up plastic alien; a selection of pirate DVDs (including The Taking of Pelham 123), a giant PVC map of the world; a collection of the flags of all nations; three different newspapers; apples and oranges; a Spiderman kite; a warning triangle and puncture repair kit; and a collection of animal fridge magnets. The man with a bucket of elderly roses on London’s South Circular has a lot to learn about how to entertain a gridlocked crowd. Carbon monoxide poisoning apart, Kenya wins hands down.

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