Tanzania has two railway systems, TAZARA and Tanzania Railways Limited, the latter of which is described in detail on this page after a brief description of the TAZARA railway.
Shinyanga station swings into life as the Mwanza to Dodoma train makes a lunch stop
Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (a.k.a the TAZARA railway)
The TAZARA railway connects Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania on the Indian Ocean with Kapiri Mposhi, a town in eastern Zambia from where further rail connections are possible to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. The track gauge for this route is 1,067 mm, also known as Cape-gauge as it is widely used in southern parts of Africa. To travel this route from end to end, which is around 1,850 km in length will require upwards of 36 hours depending on which train is caught.
For more information about the TAZARA railway visit the official website or “The Man in Seat 61” -perhaps one day I will take a journey on this route too.
For travellers with lots of spare money, Rovos Rail, a luxury train operator also runs a few services a year along this route as part of a longer journey normally including Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
Tanzania Railways Limited
The other railway in Tanzania is operated by Tanzania Railways Limited and the part that is still available to passengers is known as the Central Line (plus its two branches splitting off at Tabora). This railway system also originates from Dar es Salaam; with the terminus station being in the city centre just 10 minutes walk from the Zanzibar ferry pier. At the opposite end of the route, the Central Line terminates at Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, whereas the branch lines terminate at Mwanza on the shores of Lake Victoria and the other at Mpanda.
Trains depart Dar es Salaam three times per week and split at Tabora (750 km from Dar es Salaam), from where a portion continues to Mpanda, Kigoma and Mwanza (1,083 km, 1,154 km and 1,129 km respectively from Dar es Salaam). The journey length for all three routes is approximately 48 hours.
The track gauge for this route is 1,000 mm meaning that there are no through connections available between the TAZARA railway and Tanzania Railways Limited networks.
The destination handwritten in chalk on the side of each carriage
Planning this rail journey was difficult as there is a very limited source of information or pictures available online, with the most detailed stuff being on the Tanzanian Railways website itself – which could really do with an update anyway!
Mwanza station at dawn on wet February morning
From my online research before arriving in Tanzania, I did find one tour operator based in Mwanza that was willing to organise tickets for this train journey (see "cost" section). However, I took a different approach to getting tickets and information for this journey and that was to ensure it was included in the initial email requests to each safari tour operator I contacted. After firing off may be six or so emails to different safari tour companies, only one replied with an answer that actually answered my question. The others replied with very generic responses and completely ignored what I actually asked for – one suggested I should fly as there was no train, whilst others ignored that part of the email, said it wasn’t safe or that it took too long?!?!
However, Paul from “One Way Tours and Safaris” did listen. He visited the railway station on several occasions, first to find out basic information to be able to respond to my email, and later to confirm both the schedule and price. About 2-3 weeks before the departure date, he made a visit to the station and then emailed me with some bad news. He had been told that the Mwanza to Dar es Salaam train was not operating between Dodoma and Dar es Salaam due to track damage caused by heavy rain.
A new modern locomotive hauling a rake of old battered carriages awaiting departure at Mwanza
I had my fingers crossed for all of two seconds that it would be ok by the time I arrived but I gave up on that dream pretty rapidly (TIA - This is Africa). Paul asked if I still wanted a ticket to Dodoma, and hesitantly I said “yes”.
Why hesitantly though? Put simply, I have only ever travelled by car (with a driver), taxi and train on my previous trips to Africa (Zimbabwe, Kenya and Madagascar). A local bus from Dodoma to Dar es Salaam was a whole new challenge but I couldn’t forgo the one chance I had in life to ride the train from Mwanza to at least two thirds of the way to Dar es Salaam.
Skipping forward several weeks to the day before the train was due to depart and whilst in the middle of the Serengeti National Park, Paul sent an electronic copy of my passport to the ticket office via Whatsapp. That afternoon, upon reaching Mwanza, Paul drove via the railway station and picked up my ticket from the hotel next door. The basic verbal information that accompanied the ticket was “be at the station for 7 am for an 8 am departure” and that was it.
The views of Lake Victoria as the train slowly leaves Mwanza city bhind
On Sunday morning I waved goodbye to the others and jumped in a taxi to Mwanza station. At the station a train was parked up alongside the platform, formed of four carriages plus a few goods wagons. There were plenty of Tanzanian's about but not a foreigner in sight. I wasn’t sure if taking pictures was permitted at first so I did my usual of sneaking around and hiding behind trees to grab a shot. I was also being cautious about flashing around an iPhone and to not deliberately attract unwanted attention.
Although I had figured out quickly which out the four carriages was the first class sleeper, it took me ages then to work out which was my compartment as the train ticket didn't include that piece of important information on it. But eventually I discovered that the berths for first class were allocated on a handwritten sheet attached to the notice board on the platform. I was sharing with one other passenger, but unfortunately he didn’t speak any English. I did however get a very trusting feel about him very quickly, and I felt secure enough to leave the majority of my belongings unattended in the compartment with him whilst I just carried around the most valuable items in my smaller backpack.
Beautiful views from an open carriage window
Shortly after departure from Mwanza, which to my surprise was at exactly 8 am, the train rattled along the shores of Lake Victoria - a huge expense of water shared by Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. Further along it began hugging the side of a valley, full of boulders precariously balanced on top of each other similar to Mwanza’s iconic Bismarck Rock. The scenery was beautiful in the early morning sunshine and this continued for some time.
Stations along the route appeared out of no where and at each stop, there was always a bit of life, but by far the liveliest station was Shinyanga. Here the whole train emptied out and enjoyed a hot lunch, eaten out of black plastic bags and toothpicks. I opted for barbecued meat sticks, French fries with egg and a bunch of small bananas for desert.
Lunch stop at Shinyanga station
Our train was the first to arrive Tabora and the station felt safe until the train from Kigoma arrived. The Mwanza train was less serious – it had rural feel and the passengers on that train had seen me walking around for the past 12 hours. The Kigoma train was different and as it pulled into Tabora station at dusk, I got several stares and I started to feel very uneasy about the situation. It didn’t take me long before I returned to my compartment and switched the lights off to avoid people knowing that there was a foreigner inside.
The train eventually departed Tabora at around 11 pm arriving Dodoma the following morning at 9.30 am. There had definitely been a delay to departing Tabora station, and the train driver most certainly put his foot down on the gas pedal to try and make up time as I was almost certain the train would leave the tracks at any point. To make it worse, every time the train passed over a track joint, I would bounce in my bed which would create a squeaky sound originating from the bed hinges next to my ear. I still slept perfectly fine though!!
Waiting in the shade of the trees whilst a few more goods wagons are attached to the train
I wasn’t sure what to expect at Dodoma, but as the journey had progressed from Mwanza it had become clearer and clearer that most passengers were also heading to Dar es Salaam. At Dodoma station everyone alighted and headed towards the station car park where dozens of busses were waiting. It was a crazy scene, that involved bus drivers arguing fighting over passengers and security guards pretty much ready to split up a fight with a stick. In the 3 metres between the station gates and the first bus, I was argued over at least ten times! I was happy with any bus – it’s not like I had a chance to check them out first at a casual pace.
The bus took forever. I was told it would be between 6 and 8 hours but it took 9 hours. Even the locals began getting frustrated at the driver and several expressed there concerns to him directly. It was painful, and I much preferred the train but at least I was on my way to Dar es Salaam.
The last few kilometers to Dodoma after travelling around 300 km in darkness
The timetable on the Tanzania Railways website is as follows but I would not trust it:
Trains from Dar es Salaam depart on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday at 21:00 hours, stopping at Dodoma at 12:30 the following day and arriving Tabora at 23:40. At Tabora the train splits…
The train to Mpanda, departs Tabora at 00:25 and arrives Mpanda at 12:25.
The train to Mwanza, departs Tabora at 01:00 and arrives Mwanza at 11:28.
The train to Kigoma, departs Tabora at XX:XX and arrives Kigoma at XX:XX (details unknown).
Note: The train that departed Dar es Salaam on Tuesday evening will be scheduled to arrive Mwanza two days later on Friday etc.
For the return journey, trains depart Kigoma at 21:00 on Thursday and Sunday, from Mwanza at 21:00 on Thursday and Sunday, and Mpanda at 20:00 on Tuesday and Sunday. All three trains arrive Tabora the following morning at around 9am. The trains are then joined, and are scheduled to depart at 11:30, stopping at Dodoma at 23:30 and arriving Dar es Salaam at 13:30, two days after departing Kigoma, Mwanza and Mpanda.
The above information has been obtained from the Tanzania Railways Limited website but clearly that are some gaps (especially regarding the days of the week that the train is scheduled to run on) and my personal experience of the timetable was completely different.
My train departed Mwanza at 08:00 on Sunday morning, arriving Tabora at 18:00 the same day. It then waited at Tabora for about five hours until both the Kigoma and Mpanda trains had arrived and joined together. The train then departed Tabora at around 23:00, arriving Dodoma the following morning at around 09:30. The bus from Dodoma to Dar es Salaam took 9 hours.
The timetable for my journey may have been different to cater for a day time bus connection, but my recommendation regardless is to enquire locally with a tour operator in your starting city, or at the train station itself.
These are the prices (in Tanzanian Shillings – TZS) posted outside the ticket office window at Mwanza station in February 2018, however the poster mentioned that they were the new rates effective 1st May 2013. However, there doesn’t appear to have been any changes since then as I can confirm that my ticket from Mwanza to Dodoma was 50,700 Tanzanian Shillings (TZS).
Mwanza to Dar es Salaam
75,000 1st class - 54,800 2nd class - 27,300 3rd class
Mwanza to Dodoma
50,700 1st class - 37,600 2nd class - 19,000 3rd class
Mwanza to Tabora
29,600 1st class - 22,700 2nd class - 11,800 3rd class
My ticket was booked by Paul from “One-Way Tours and Safaris” for zero commission, however unless you have a safari booked through him, I am sure he will ask for a bit of extra cash to make the arrangements! If he doesn’t, I would be very surprised as no one should need to do work for free – and I most definitely wouldn’t!!
I did find one tour operator online, “Tazania Safaris Zanzibar Travel Holidays” who actually advertise this train journey with limited information. The prices they quote on the website are US$75 for a 1st class sleeper, US$55 for a 2nd class sleeper and US$35 for a 3rd class seat. These represent just over a 100% mark in price but in my opinion, unless you have plenty of time on your hands and are overlanding Africa from top to bottom, arranging the tickets before arriving would save a lot of effort and time.
What was the train like?
There are a few images online and a handful more on the Tanzanian Railways website showcasing the “Deluxe Train” but I definitely didn’t get that for my journey. To be honest, I would’ve been hugely disappointed to have travelled on a brand new modern carriage as it would undoubtedly spoiled the atmosphere – this is a train journey through Africa and not across Japan.
Ready for departure at Mwanza station, one of Tanzania Railways Limited new locomotives
The train I boarded at Mwanza had four carriages (plus a few wagons) – three of the carriages had seats and one was a first class sleeper carriage. The first class sleeper carriage had 2-berth compartments with bed linen provided. The seated carriages looked identical both inside and outside, but I have a sneaky suspicion that one was 2nd class and the other two 3rd class; with the only difference being that 3rd class was full. The online tour operator, “Tazania Safaris Zanzibar Travel Holidays” states on their website that 2nd class sleepers also exist, which are 6-berth compartments but I did not see any of these.
Exterior views of the 1st class "sleeper" carriage
Interior views of the 1st class "sleeper" carriage
Exterior and interior views of the 3rd class "seated" carriage
For the first part of the journey, between Mwanza and Tabora the train did not convey a restaurant car, but it did stop long enough to grab a hot lunch at Shinyanga. At Tabora, the trains from Mwanza, Kigoma and Mpanda meet and are combined to form one much longer train, which then continues to Dar es Salaam (or in my case only as far as Dodoma). For the second part of the journey, from Tabora onwards to Dodoma a restaurant car was attached (well, it already formed part of the train that had arrived from Kigoma) however as I did not visit this and so I cannot comment on what it is like. Tabora station itself though as a limited selection of hot food.
Tanzanian Railways Limited – TRL
Tazania Safaris Zanzibar Travel Holidays
There are always more photos to be shared, but sharing them all on this journal page will just make it look cluttered so if you want to see more photos for inspiration, check out my Flickr Tanzania – 2018 album.
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