East Africa’s “Lunatic Express”


BRITISH plans of a little over 100 years ago to build a railway across East Africa were not eagerly supported by everyone in London’s parliament. One opponent derisively wrote:

“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 to 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.”

In reality, the project was not so ill-conceived as all that. The railway was expected to extend about 600 miles [about 1,000 km], from Mombasa, Kenya’s seaport on the Indian Ocean, to Lake Victoria. Once completed, supporters assured, it would promote commerce and development and also put an end to the slave trade in the region. The cost of constructing the railway was reckoned at $5 million (U.S.), to be paid by British taxpayers. Estimated time of construction was four to five years.

Still, the details were a bit fuzzy. When George Whitehouse, chief engineer, arrived in Mombasa in December 1895, he had only a sketch of the route the railway was supposed to take. What Whitehouse learned after that was most intimidating. Directly west of Mombasa lay a torrid, waterless region that most caravans avoided. Beyond, the railway would pass through 300 miles [500 km] of savanna and scrub that teemed with lions and swarmed with tsetse flies and mosquitoes. Next came the volcanic highland region split by the 50-mile-wide [80-km-wide] Great Rift Valley, with its plunging 2,000-foot [600 m] escarpments. The final 100 miles [150 km] to the lake was said to be a soggy quagmire. Small wonder that the building of this railway would become one of the most colorful of African sagas.

Early Problems

Obviously, an army of workers would be needed for such a large project. Since Mombasa was a small community, workers were brought in from India. During 1896 alone, over 2,000 arrived by ship—stonemasons, smiths, carpenters, surveyors, draftsmen, clerks, and laborers.

Then there was the matter of making Mombasa a suitable reception point for the huge quantities of equipment that had to be shipped in to build a 600-mile [1,000 km] railway. The track alone would require 200,000 rails, each 30 feet [9 m] in length and weighing about 500 pounds [200 kg]. Also required were 1.2 million sleepers (most of them steel). Securing the rails and sleepers would require the importation of 200,000 fishplates, 400,000 fishbolts, and 4.8 million steel keys. In addition, locomotives, tenders, brake vans, goods wagons, and passenger carriages had to be brought in. But before the first rail could be laid, it was necessary to build wharves, warehouses, accommodations for the workers, repair shops, and workshops. Quickly the sleepy coastal town was transformed into a modern port.

Whitehouse immediately realized that there would be a water problem; the few wells in Mombasa scarcely met the needs of the local population. Yet, a sea of water would be needed for drinking and bathing and for construction purposes. “From what I have seen and know of the country,” Whitehouse wrote, “I can recommend no other plan than water trains for the first 100 miles.” Those water trains would need to haul at least 10,000 gallons [40,000 L] daily!

Initially, the railway engineers solved the water problem by damming a stream and building a reservoir to hold rainwater. Later, machinery was brought in that distilled seawater.

Work got under way, and by the end of 1896—a year after Whitehouse arrived in Mombasa—23 miles [40 km] of track had been laid. Despite this accomplishment, critics were quick to observe that if construction did not move faster, the first train would not make the journey from the coast to Lake Victoria until sometime in the early 1920’s!

Crossing the Taru Plain

Meanwhile, the construction workers were plagued with disease. In December 1896, hospital tents sheltered more than 500 workers suffering from malaria, dysentery, tropical ulcers, and pneumonia. A few weeks later, half the labor force was immobilized by sickness.

Nevertheless, the work continued, and by May the rails had been extended more than 50 miles [over 80 km], to the dry Taru Plain. Although at first glance the terrain seemed ideal for a normal pace of construction, the Taru was a forest of man-high, razor-sharp thornbushes. Thick clouds of red dust gagged the workers. The sun blazed, baking the earth—the region was a thorn-infested frying pan. Even at night, temperatures rarely dropped below 100 degrees Fahrenheit [about 40°C]. Writer M. F. Hill observed in his official history of the railway: “It seemed as if the very spirit of Africa resented the intrusion of the white man’s railway.”

Terrorized by Lions

By late 1898 the railway approached the Tsavo River, at mile 121 [kilometer 195]. Then, in addition to problems of hostile terrain, another problem emerged—two lions began attacking the workers. Most lions avoid human prey. Those that attack humans are usually too old or infirm to capture animals. The two lions at the Tsavo, a male and a female, were rare exceptions. Neither old nor feeble, they came quietly by night and carried away victims.

The frightened laborers built thorn barricades around their camps, kept fires burning, and appointed watchmen who would bang empty oil drums in the hope of keeping the animals away. By December the workers were so terrorized by the lions that some workers stopped a train returning to Mombasa by lying on the tracks, and then about 500 of them swarmed aboard. Only about four dozen workers stayed behind. Construction ceased for the next three weeks as the workers devoted themselves to strengthening their defenses.

Eventually, the lions were caught, and the work resumed.

Other Difficulties

By mid-1899 the rails reached Nairobi. From there the line continued west, maneuvering down a more than 1,500-foot [more than 400 m] drop into the Rift Valley and then up the other side through dense forests and over deep ravines until it reached Mau Summit, at an altitude of 8,700 feet [2,600 m].

The problems of constructing a railway over such rugged terrain were challenging enough, but there were other difficulties. Local warriors, for example, strolled into camp and helped themselves to building materials—telegraph wire to make jewelry as well as bolts, rivets, and rails to make weapons. Commenting on this, Sir Charles Eliot, a former East African commissioner, wrote: “One can imagine what thefts would be committed on a European railway if the telegraph wires were pearl necklaces and the rails first-rate sporting guns . . . It is not surprising that the [tribesmen] yielded to the temptation.”

The Last Lap

As the railway workers approached the last six miles [10 km] to Lake Victoria, dysentery and malaria swept through the camp. Half the work force was sick. At the same time, the rains came, turning the already spongy terrain into jelly. The railway embankments became so soft that equipment trains had to be unloaded while still moving; otherwise, they would topple over and sink into the mire. A worker described one such train as “coming slowly and cautiously along, rocking from side to side, heaving gently up and down like a ship in a choppy sea-way, and squirting liquid mud for ten feet [3 m] on each side of it.”

Finally, on December 21, 1901, the last key was driven in the last rail at Port Florence (now Kisumu), on the shore of Lake Victoria. In all, the 582-mile [937 km]-long railway took five years and four months to build and cost $9,200,000. Over 2,000 of the 31,983 laborers imported from India died, others returned to India, and thousands remained and grew into the large Asian population in East Africa today. Forty-three railway stations were built, along with 35 viaducts and over 1,000 bridges and culverts.

Writer Elspeth Huxley called it “the most courageous railway in the world.” Yet, the question remained, Was the result worth the effort, or was the railway in reality a “lunatic line,” a colossal waste of time, money, and lives?

The Railway Today

The answer to that question is found in considering what has happened during the nearly 100 years since the initial line was completed. Log-burning puffers gave way to the more than 200 powerful diesel-burning locomotives of today. The railway has been expanded to reach out to scores of towns and cities in Kenya and Uganda. It has played a vital part in the development of the capital cities of Nairobi and Kampala.

The railway’s role today is twofold. First, it transports passengers reliably and safely to their destinations. Second, the railway makes possible the transport of such freight as cement, coffee, machinery, timber, and foodstuffs. Moving countless containers inland after they have been unloaded from ships is also big business for Kenya Railways.

Clearly, the railway has proved to be of immense value to East Africa. Perhaps one day you will enjoy being a passenger on the famous railway once denounced as the “lunatic express.”



FOR tourists and local people alike, the train is a popular means of travel, particularly between Mombasa and Nairobi. Passenger trains leave both Nairobi and Mombasa each day at 7:00 p.m. sharp. If you are traveling first or second class, before boarding you check the posted notices for your carriage and compartment location. A steward standing nearby asks if you wish to eat dinner at 7:15 or 8:30 p.m. You make your choice, and he hands you the appropriate coupon.

You climb aboard. The train whistle blows, and music plays as your train glides from the station.

When dinnertime arrives, someone walks along the narrow corridor playing a small hand-held xylophone to let you know that the food is ready. In the dining car, you order from the menu; and while you are eating, an attendant enters your cabin to make your bed.

The first part of the trip is in darkness. Before you go to sleep, though, you may want to turn out the lights of your compartment, peer out of your window, and ask yourself, ‘Are those silhouettes and shadows in the moonlight elephants and lions, or are they merely bushes and trees? What was it like to sleep out here nearly a hundred years ago when the railway was being built? Would I have been afraid to do so then? What about now?’

The trip takes just under 14 hours, so you have much to see after dawn illuminates the African landscape. If you are traveling to Mombasa, the morning sun rises red above a forest of thorns, which slowly give way to palm trees and then to the mowed lawns, trimmed hedges, and modern buildings of Mombasa. Farmers till their fields by hand while barefoot children enthusiastically wave and shout greetings to passengers on the train.

If you are traveling to Nairobi, first light comes as you clatter through a vast, open plain. There it is easy to spot animals, particularly as you pass the Nairobi National Park.

The experience is truly unique. On what other train can you enjoy a hearty breakfast while gazing out the window at herds of zebras or antelope?


 [Credit Lines]

Globe: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.

Map of Africa on globe: The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck

Male and female kudu. Lydekker

Trains: Kenya Railways

Lioness. Century Magazine

The Featured image credits to Unocha


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