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How ‘Lunatic Line’ shaped Kenya and transformed the region

Thursday December 12 2013

The train seems to have changed little since the old days of the Uganda and Kenya Railway. The railway station and platforms are crowded with a colourful mix of travellers, all of whom seem more interested in adventure than appearances.

The train seems to have changed little since the old days of the Uganda and Kenya Railway. The railway station and platforms are crowded with a colourful mix of travellers, all of whom seem more interested in adventure than appearances. Photo/FILE  

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Kenya’s history is tightly woven with that of its railway, and today, as the country marks its 50-years-plus-one-day anniversary, these words by Sir Charles Eliot, Commissioner of British East Africa between 1900 and 1904, ring oh so true: “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway,” Sir Eliot said, “but this line actually created a country.”

He was speaking about the Kenya-Uganda railway, an engineering feat that today the region has a lot to thank for.

Its every inch built excruciatingly by hand, the line is today regarded as one of the greatest engineering projects of the last century for Kenya.

In 1896, the British decided to start building a railway line from Mombasa through Nairobi into Uganda.

Given the state of the region at the time, both economically and politically, this project was thought of as a mad experiment by its critics, earning the tag ‘Lunatic Line’ due to the prohibitive cost, the tropical diseases its builders would have to survive, the harsh terrain through which it passed, the hordes of hostile tribes it had to appease, and, most importantly, East Africa’s low significance and relatively unpopular nature at the international marketplace.

Pursuing this ‘lunatic goal’, then, looked like a particularly obstinate fool’s errand. No one knew how it would pay for itself, or whether indeed it could pay for itself.


It was considered political folly, an eccentric exercise characteristic of the British at the time. Little did its detractors know that the line would become a symbol of imperial rule and feed the myth of the Brits’ noble self-appointed cause of civilising the “dark continent”.

The train, therefore, became a symbol of subjugation of the region, built primarily to consolidate British ownership of the land around it.

The British first set out to construct a road connecting Busia and Mombasa at the dawn of the last century, but soon rail surpassed it in importance, use and prominence.

They brought in George Whitehouse as lead engineer for the project. George had been involved in building railways across all five continents, but, despite his vast experience, the unexplored East African country would provide him with his toughest challenge yet.

There was a lot of fascinating terrain to cross between the shores of the Indian Ocean and those of Lake Victoria.

There were deserts to cross without dying of thirst, and you had to build across a monotonous savannah filled with hostile animals.

There were diseases like dysentery, malaria and ulcers to worry about. There were foreigners and locals to manage, termites that kept eating up the wooden crates... and the fact that all the material used had to be shipped in by sea.

The labourers were all Indian because they had a bit of familiarity with building railways, having finished one back on the subcontinent.

It took about 32,000 of them to complete the line, beating significant opposition both in Britain and locally to reach Port Florence, as Kisumu was then known, in 1901.

While the line was called the Uganda Railway — many have argued that the reason the British constructed it was in order to secure their Ugandan interests, that Kenya was an afterthought to provide access to the sea as Uganda was considered the pearl — it became the lifeline on which Kenya sprout. For once, it enabled settlement on the highlands and made the colony start paying for itself.

The population of settlers boomed, administrators could move with ease and produce could now find its way to the port.

Having a railway reduced need for human portage of goods, helping stop the slavery that the British were now preaching against.

It also helped the agriculture sector as huge pieces of equipment could now be moved to the highlands with relative ease, and resulted in the setting up of infrastructure for international trade in coffee and tea, which went a long way in ensuring the colony could pay for itself.

The railway also chose a new capital for the country, according to Elspeth Huxley, a British woman who grew up in Thika after her parents arrived in the colony in 1912, and author of a number of books on the history of the nation, including The Flame Trees of Thika and The Mottled Lizard.

The land on which the capital now stands was a sodden, insanitary swamp with poor drainage before the Indian coolies hammered their way into it.

It picked up from then and has been purring ever since, outliving its benefactor.

But Nairobi still retains splashes of its railway history.

Though now a modern metropolis, its very first planner was a railway engineer called John Patterson, better known for having killed the man-eaters of Tsavo. Also, the original governors of the capital were railway men, and the imposing railway headquarters still stand strong.

A few years after independence, however, the line started losing its lustre as competition from road networks ate into its revenue.

As we entered the ’90s, travelling by rail was more of a flight of fancy for the nostalgic than a normal commuter service.

The sheer expanse of Kenya when viewed from the train, the tardiness of the railways, the speed of our trains and the cost as compared to road made many reconsider the service, and for years the carriages have been chugging on nothing more that mere sentiment.

Corruption, mismanagement and outright looting have ensured that the railways have slowly lost out to the roads. It is the train that began to haul Kenya into the 20th century, but the road took over.

Road has won in the quest to haul goods in Kenya. The roads are slow, congested and narrow, but they are still more preferable to rail.

The victory is complete and unquestioned. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, for instance, reports that the pipelines ferried more oil in 2012 than the railways did cargo. Road, meanwhile, did more times the business rail did. Even aeroplanes flew more freight cargo than our railways.


The line the British built all those years ago, the ‘lunatic’ piece of engineering that gave birth to a lot of the goodies that the nation enjoys today, is now perhaps only a rank above bare feet when it comes to moving goods across the country.

Even more worrying is the fact that, year on year, the amount of freight being distributed via rail is falling while all its other competitors are going up. Railways are now the least likely choice of haulage when it comes to goods despite them being suited for it.

But there is hope. Last year the government broke the century-old moratorium on railway construction by commissioning an additional two kilometres of track for the Syokimau terminus.

A year later and President Uhuru Kenyatta has kicked off construction of the first standard-gauge railway in the region, which promises to carry more cargo and cover distances faster.

The Sh1.2 trillion line has guarantees in place to ensure that cargo will always be transported via rail and Kenya and the carriages will keep chugging along. It is apt that levies on road users will pay the new railway.

A hundred years ago all cars were transported from Mombasa to Nairobi via rail. It seems right that the road repays its predecessor. With cargo being allotted to the new rail network, Kenya, it seems, is destined once more to be railway country.

Some towns’ fortunes have waxed and waned with that of the trains. Similarly, some towns that have sprung up to cater to long haul drivers may wilt as more and more cargo is sent to the rails.

Where once it took you 40 hours to get to Nairobi in the age of steam, the new trains will do the journey in four. The current diesel engines manage the distance in 12 hours.

And so the dream of the ‘lunatics’ is once again revived. As Kenya celebrates 50 years of uhuru, it seems that it is also retracing its steps.

The new, modern lines today carry the same hopes and aspirations the region conferred upon the ‘Lunatic Line’.

The train seems to have changed little since the old days of the Uganda and Kenya Railway. The railway station and platforms are crowded with a colourful mix of travellers, all of whom seem more interested in adventure than appearances.

The train corridors are still brutally narrow. In those early days, passengers had to disembark for a meal.

Today, there is a dining car on the Kenya Railway train. It’s hardly the height of elegance, though the tablecloths are starched white and there are flowers on every table.

But the sensible brown-striped Kenya Railway china is cracked and chipped and the six or seven dining car waiters have permanent yellow stains on their laundered white jackets.

As on any train, the dining car is the best place to be, but on this one a dimension of intimacy is added by crowding strangers together to make use of all space and hurrying them through dinner to accommodate multiple sittings.

— Linda Watanabe McFerrin, writing in Aboard the Lunatic Express (2007)


Aboard the Lunatic Express

What it will cost no words can express;

What is its object no brain can suppose;

Where it will start from no one can guess;

Where it is going nobody knows;

What is the use of it none can conjecture;

What it will carry there’s none can define;

And in spite of George Curzon’s superior lecture,

It clearly is naught but a lunatic line.

Poem in Truth magazine, published in London in 1896