Uganda Railway

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Uganda Railway
Kenya Uganda Railway
Government-owned corporation
Founded 1896 (1896)
Defunct 1929 (1929)
Near Mombasa, about 1899

The Uganda Railway, colloquially known as the Lunatic Express or the Lunatic Line, is a railway system and former railway company dating to the colonial period. The line links the interiors of Uganda and Kenya with the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa in Kenya. After a series of mergers and splits, the line is now in the hands of the Kenya Railways Corporation and the Uganda Railways Corporation.


The official approach, British and local, to both slavery and free porter labour included a genuine belief that the man doing the work had real interests which deserved concern and protection. No such concern was evident among parliamentarians, missionaries or administrators for those at work on the construction of the Uganda Railway. It was decided to build the railway as quickly as possible; its construction was viewed almost as a military attack—casualties were inevitable and might be large if the objective were to be attained and momentum not lost.[1]
—Anthony Clayton & Donald C. Savage

Built during the Scramble for Africa, the Uganda Railway was the one genuinely strategic railway to be constructed in tropical Africa at that time.[2] Before the railway's construction, the British East Africa Company had begun the Mackinnon-Sclater road, a 600 miles (970 km) ox-cart track from Mombasa to Busia in Kenya, in 1890.[3] With steam-powered access to Uganda, the British could transport people and soldiers to ensure their domination of the African Great Lakes region.[4]

The Uganda Railway was named after its ultimate destination, for its entire original 660-mile length actually lay in what would become Kenya.[5] Construction began at the port city of Mombasa in British East Africa in 1896 and finished at the line's terminus, Kisumu, on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, in 1901.[3]

Construction was carried out principally by labourers from British India, 32,000 of whom were brought in because of a lack of indigenous labour in sparsely-populated Kenya. 2,498 workers died during the construction of the railway.[6] While most of the surviving Indians returned home, 6,724 decided to remain after the line's completion, creating a community of Indian East Africans.[5]

The railway is 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) gauge[7] and virtually all single-track. 200,000 individual 9-metre (30 ft) rail-lengths and 1.2 million sleepers, 200,000 fish-plates, 400,000 fish-bolts and 4.8 million steel keys including steel girders for viaducts and causeways had to be imported, necessitating the creation of a modern port at Kilindini Harbour in Mombasa. The railway was a huge logistical achievement and became strategically and economically vital for both Uganda and Kenya. It helped to suppress slavery, by removing the need for humans in the transport of goods.[8]

Kedong Massacre[edit]

Building the railway met local resistance on various occasions. A major incident was the Kedong Massacre, when the Maasai attacked a railway worker's caravan killing around 500 people because two Maasai girls had been raped. Englishman Andrew Dick led a counter-attack against them, but ran out of ammunition and was speared to death by the Maasai.[9]

At the turn of the 20th century, the railway construction was disturbed by the resistance by Nandi people led by Koitalel Arap Samoei. He was killed in 1905 by Richard Meinertzhagen, finally ending the Nandi resistance.[9]

Tsavo man-eating lions[edit]

The incidents for which the building of the railway may be most noted are the killings of a number of construction workers in 1898, during the building of a bridge across the Tsavo River. Hunting mainly at night, a pair of maneless male lions stalked and killed at least 28 Indian and African workers – although some accounts put the number of victims as high as 135.[10]

Lunatic Express[edit]

The Uganda Railway faced a great deal of criticism in the British Parliament, as many MPs felt that the railway was a Lunatic Line:

What is the use of it, none can conjecture,
What it will carry, there is none can define,
And in spite of George Curzon's superior lecture,
It is clearly naught but a lunatic line.

Political resistance to this "gigantic folly", as Henry Labouchère called it,[12] surfaced immediately. Such arguments along with the claim that it would be a waste of taxpayers' money were easily dismissed by the Conservatives. Years before, Joseph Chamberlain had proclaimed that, if Britain were to step away from its "manifest destiny", it would by default leave it to other nations to take up the work that it would have been seen as "too weak, too poor, and too cowardly" to have done itself.[13] Its cost has been estimated by one source at £3 million in 1894 money, which is more than £170 million in 2005 money,[14] and £5.5 million or £650 million in 2016 money by another source.[15]

Because of the wooden trestle bridges, enormous chasms, prohibitive cost, hostile tribes, men infected by the hundreds by diseases, and man-eating lions pulling railway workers out of carriages at night, the name "Lunatic Line" certainly seemed to fit. Winston Churchill, who regarded it "a brilliant conception", said of the project: "The British art of 'muddling through' is here seen in one of its finest expositions. Through everything—through the forests, through the ravines, through troops of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating Parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway."[16]

The modern term Lunatic Express was coined by Charles Miller in his 1971 The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. The term The Iron Snake[17] comes from an old Kikuyu prophecy: "An iron snake will cross from the lake of salt to the lands of the Great Lake…"[18]

Extensions and branches[edit]

Uganda Railway is 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) metre gauge.

Disassembled ferries were shipped from Scotland by sea to Mombasa and then by rail to Kisumu where they were reassembled and provided a service to Port Bell and, later, other ports on Lake Victoria (see section below). An 11-kilometre (7 mi) rail line between Port Bell and Kampala was the final link in the chain providing efficient transport between the Ugandan capital and the open sea at Mombasa, more than 1,400 km (900 mi) away.

Branch lines were built to Thika in 1913, Lake Magadi in 1915, Kitale in 1926, Naro Moro in 1927 and from Tororo to Soroti in 1929. In 1929 the Uganda Railway became Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours (KURH), which in 1931 completed a branch line to Mount Kenya and extended the main line from Nakuru to Kampala in Uganda. In 1948 KURH became part of the East African Railways Corporation, which added the line from Kampala to Kasese in western Uganda in 1956.[19] and extended to it to Arua near the border with Zaïre in 1964.

Inland shipping[edit]

Lake Victoria[edit]

Almost from its inception the Uganda Railway developed shipping services on Lake Victoria. In 1898 it launched the 110 ton SS William Mackinnon at Kisumu, having assembled the vessel from a "knock down" kit supplied by Bow, McLachlan and Company of Paisley in Scotland. A succession of further Bow, McLachlan & Co. "knock down" kits followed. The 662 ton sister ships SS Winifred and SS Sybil (1902 and 1903), the 1,134 ton SS Clement Hill (1907) and the 1,300 ton sister ships SS Rusinga and SS Usoga (1914 and 1915) were combined passenger and cargo ferries. The 812 ton SS Nyanza (launched after Clement Hill) was purely a cargo ship. The 228 ton SS Kavirondo launched in 1913 was a tugboat. Two more tugboats from Bow, McLachlan were added in 1925: SS Buganda and SS Buvuma.[20][21]

Lake Kyoga, Lake Albert and the Nile[edit]

The company extended its steamer service with a route across Lake Kyoga and down the Victoria Nile to Pakwach at the head of the Albert Nile. Its Lake Victoria ships were unsuitable for river work so it introduced the stern wheel paddle steamers PS Speke (1910)[22] and PS Stanley (1913)[22] for the new service. In the 1920s the company added PS Grant (1925)[22] and the side wheel paddle steamer PS Lugard (1927).[22]

Safari tourism[edit]

Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (seated, at left) and friends mount the observation platform of the Uganda Railway
Reproduction poster of an advertisement for the railway. Note chopper coupling.

As the only modern means of transport from the East African coast to the higher plateaus of the interior, a ride on the Uganda Railway became an essential overture to the safari adventures which grew in popularity in the first two decades of the 20th century. As a result, it usually featured prominently in the accounts written by travelers in British East Africa. The rail journey stirred many a romantic passage, like this one from former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who rode the line to start his world-famous safari in 1909:

Passengers were invited to ride a platform on the front of the locomotive (pictured at right) from which they might see the passing game herds more closely. During Roosevelt's journey, he claimed that "on this, except at mealtime, I spent most of the hours of daylight."

Current status[edit]

After independence, the railways in Kenya and Uganda were neglected and allowed to deteriorate. In summer 2016, a reporter for The Economist magazine took the Lunatic Express from Nairobi to Mombasa. He found the railway to be in poor conditions, departing 7 hours late and taking 24 hours for the journey.[15] The last metre-gauge train Mombasa and Nairobi made its run on 28 April 2017.[24] The line between Nairobi and Kisumu near the Kenya–Uganda border has been closed since 2012.[25]

From 2014–2016, the China Road and Bridge Corporation built the Mombasa–Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) parallel to the original Uganda Railway. Passenger service on the SGR was inaugurated on 31 May 2017. The metre gauge railway is still used to transport passengers between the new SGR Nairobi Terminus and the old metre-gauge train station in Nairobi city centre.

Books and movies[edit]

Jinja railway station with a Uganda Railways diesel locomotive.
  • Halkin, John, 1986, Kenya, New York, Beaufort Books: A novel focusing on the construction of the railroad and its defence during the First World War

Man-eating lions at Tsavo during the construction of the Uganda Railway feature in books:



  • Amin, Mohamed, Willetts, Duncan & Matheson, Alastair Railway Across The Equator
  • Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay Chander Pahar, a 1937 Bengali novel
  • Hill, M.F., Permanent Way Vol 1: official history
  • Mills, Stephen & Yonge, Brian A Railway to Nowhere
  • Hardy, Ronald The Iron Snake
  • Preston, R.O. Construction of the Uganda Railroad
  • Mannix, D. R.O. Preston of the Lunatic Line in Hunter, J.A. & Mannix, D. African Bush Adventures 1954 Hamish Hamilton
  • Miller, C. The Lunatic Express 1971 The Macmillan Company

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Clayton & Savage 1975, pp. 10–1.
  2. ^ Otte 2012, p. 8.
  3. ^ a b Ogonda 1992, p. 131.
  4. ^ Ogonda & Onyango 2002, p. 223–4.
  5. ^ a b Wolmar 2009, p. 182.
  6. ^ Wolmar 2009, p. 182.
  7. ^ Treves, Frederick (1910). Uganda for a holiday. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 57. Retrieved 2009-11-30. 
  8. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Cana, Frank Richardson (1911). "British East Africa". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 601–606. 
  9. ^ a b "End of Lunatic Express". The East African. 21 September 2009. 
  10. ^ "Man eating lions – not (as) many dead". Railway Gazette International. 27 November 2009. 
  11. ^ Muiruri, Peter (31 May 2017). "End of road for first railway that defined Kenya's history". The Standard. 
  12. ^ Henry Labouchère. "UGANDA RAILWAY [CONSOLIDATED FUND]. HC Deb 30 April 1900 vol 82 cc288-335". Hansard 1803–2005. UK Parliament. Retrieved 10 March 2012. I am opposed entirely to this sort of railway in Africa, and I have been opposed to this railroad from the very commencement because it is a gigantic folly. . . . This railroad has been, from the very first commencement, a gigantic folly. 
  13. ^ Joseph Chamberlain. "CIVIL SERVICES AND REVENUE DEPARTMENTS ESTIMATES, 1894–5: CLASS V. HC Deb 01 June 1894 vol 25 cc181-270". Hansard 1803–2005. UK Parliament. Retrieved 10 March 2012. 
  14. ^ "Currency converter". The National Archives. Retrieved 10 March 2012. 
  15. ^ a b Knowles, Daniel (2016-06-23). "The lunatic express". 1843. The Economist. Retrieved 2016-07-15. 
  16. ^ Churchill 1909, pp. 4–5.
  17. ^ Hardy 1965.
  18. ^ Miller 1971.
  19. ^ "Investing in Uganda’s Mineral Sector" (PDF). Retrieved 20 June 2010. 
  20. ^ Cameron, Stuart; Asprey, David; Allan. "SS Buganda". Clyde-built Database. Retrieved 2011-05-22. 
  21. ^ Cameron, Stuart; Asprey, David; Allan, Bruce. "SS Buvuma". Clyde-built Database. Retrieved 2011-05-22. 
  22. ^ a b c d "Cambridge University Library: Royal Commonwealth Society Library, Mombasa and East African Steamers, Y30468L". Janus. Cambridge University Library. 
  23. ^ Roosevelt, Theodore, 1909, African Game Trails, Charles Scribners' Sons, page 2
  24. ^ Ruthi, William (8 May 2017). "Last ride on the Lunatic Express". Daily Nation. 
  25. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)


External links[edit]