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The Mombasa to Nairobi railway line helped to create modern Kenya but is now outdated.
Climbing into a passenger compartment, it’s clear that the days of limitless luxury are long gone. I’ve paid about $35 for a second-class ticket in an effort to be sociable, as the compartment should sleep four people. But I quickly find that I’m all alone. Many other compartments are completely vacant. A peeling poster advertising a safari company, which appears to be from the 1980s, adorns a wall. Tarnished metal and frayed mosquito netting frame a window. The 18-car locomotive begins chugging into the long night.
Around 2 a.m., the track passes through an exceptionally dark area that is probably somewhere near Tsavo, the spot where two lions with a taste for human flesh ate rail workers in 1898 — by some estimates, 135 of them. The area is now Kenya’s largest national park, and it’s not hard to imagine that the thorn bushes in the starlight might hide the cats’ descendants.
Dawn breaks on a breathtakingly beautiful high savannah. As morning light floods the dining car and a vista of vast, rust-colored plains and distant mountains unfolds, it’s easy to overlook the stains on the frayed tablecloths, the waiters’ threadbare uniforms and the rather gloppy breakfast of beans and eggs. Tourists, well rested if slightly scruffy, sip tea as they pass homesteads and waving children.
Back in third class — where there are no tourists at all — people are toughing out the 10th hour of a ride with no access to the dining car. A couple of hawkers sell refreshments. Even here, at least half the seats are empty.
For most people, there’s simply no reason to take the train these days. Buses are cheaper and make the same trip in just six hours. Regulations require the old narrow gauge train not to exceed 25 miles per hour.
In the meantime, what makes the train trip worthwhile — at least if you’re not on a tight schedule — are stretches of country like the one a couple of hours outside of Nairobi. An ostrich struts by and a herd of antelopes gallops away. Then several giraffes dart off the tracks and watch in lanky silence as the train rattles by.
Soon, it’s back to reality. The train careens into the slums of Nairobi, where corrugated metal shacks nearly touch the passing cars and the stench of garbage invades the train. There is the uncomfortable feeling of gawking at the destitute. Above the slums tower the city’s skyscrapers.
It’s a landscape the railway helped create — and one that has ultimately overshadowed it.