Uganda Railway

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This article is about the British colonial undertaking of 1896–1929. For Uganda's state railway since 1977, see Uganda Railways Corporation.
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 at Mombasa in Kenya.



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] It was "a truly imperial project, built by the British government with purpose to expand British domination of the area."[citation needed] 2,498 workers would die during its construction.[3]

The Uganda Railway was named after its ultimate destination, for its entire original 660-mile length actually lay in what would become Kenya.[4] 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.[5] 200,000 individual 30 feet 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 in Mombasa. With their new steam-powered access to Uganda, the British could transport people and soldiers about to ensure their domination of the region.[6]

Prior to 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miles (970 km) ox-cart track from Mombasa to Busia in Kenya, in 1890.[5] The railway followed a similar route and soon superseded it.

The railway is 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) gauge[7] and virtually all single-track. The project cost about £5 million to complete and the first services started in 1903.

Construction was carried out principally by labourers from British India, 32,000 of whom were brought in because of a lack of indigenous labour. 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.[4] (In the 1970s, those of their descendants who would not take Ugandan citizenship (renouncing others) were expelled by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and similar policies were carried out in Kenya and Tanzania).

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] and in the First World War campaign against General Paul Erich von Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa, modern Tanzania. The railway allowed heavy equipment to be transported far inland with relative ease. Up until that time the main form of transport in the interior was ox-drawn wagon. The railway also allowed coffee and tea to be exported and encouraged colonial settlement and other types of commerce. In order to help pay for the project, the UK government encouraged white settlers to farm large tracts of Kenyan highlands which the railway had made accessible. This policy would shape the development of Kenya for decades.

A railway siding connecting to the residence of the High Commissioner to Uganda was used by Governor Frederick John Jackson and his 1910 BSA railcar that was used for his hunting parties. The railcar was recently restored in South Africa.[9] The Governor lent his railcar to President Theodore Roosevelt on his visit to Uganda during the Smithsonian–Roosevelt African Expedition; a trip along the railway is chronicled in Roosevelt's book African Game Trails.[10]

Lunatic Express[edit]

The term Lunatic Express was coined by Charles Miller in his 1971 The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism.[11] Contemporary tabloid reports also referred to the "Lunatic Line",[citation needed] while Africans called it the Iron Snake.[12] It was defended in the British Parliament by Sir Gerald Portal who felt all the right reasons were there: the need to ensure protection of the source of the Nile from Britain's enemies, a great potential market for British goods, the huge traffic expected, and a revolutionary effect in settling the region.[citation needed]

Political resistance to this "gigantic folly", as Henry Labouchère called it,[13] surfaced immediately, with the Liberals pronouncing that the Government had no right to drive a railway through country owned by the Maasai.[citation needed] 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.[14] Estimated at £3 million in 1894, over £170m in 2005 money,[15] when the books were closed in 1902 the final cost was $793 million.[citation needed]

Due to the shaky-looking 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]

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.[17] 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.[17]

The Tsavo Incident[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.[18]

The lions, dubbed the "Maneaters of Tsavo," were eventually shot and killed by the bridge construction supervisor, Engineer Lt. Colonel John Henry Patterson, who had their skins made into rugs before selling them, some years later, to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for $5,000 US.

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). A 7 miles (11 km) 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 900 miles (1,400 km) 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 Zaire in 1964.

The focusing effect of railway junctions and depots created many of the interior's modern towns and ports, such as:

  • Eldoret, originally called "64" after its distance, in miles, from the railhead at the time
  • Jinja, a city and port close to the outlet of Lake Victoria, the source of the River Nile
  • Kisumu, a city and port on Lake Victoria allowing ferry transport between Kenya, Tanganyika (modern Tanzania) and Uganda
  • Kitale, a small farming community in the foothills of Mount Elgon
  • Nairobi, started as a rail depot, becoming the capital of Kenya.
  • Nakuru, where the main line splits, one branch going to Kisumu and the other to Uganda
  • Port Bell, a rail-linked port, near to Kampala, on Lake Victoria allowing ferry transport between Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda

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]

By the time Usoga was launched the First World War had broken out. She and her sister ship Rusinga were requisitioned as troop ships for the First World War East African Campaign and the smaller William Mackinnon, Winifred, Sybil and Kavirondo were armed as gunboats. Shortly after war broke out Sybil was holed on a rock and was beached, but in 1915 she was refloated and in 1916 she was returned to service. All members of the fleet survived the war and were restored to civilian service after the Armistice.

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] with the latter starting a service down the Albert Nile as far as the border town of Nimule in Sudan. Shortly after the Uganda Railway became the KURH it introduced a steamer service between Butiaba Lake Albert and Kasenyi on Lake George.

Successor companies[edit]

The Uganda Railway became part of Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours in 1929, which was succeeded by the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation in 1948. The East African Community was dissolved in 1977 and the EARH&C was divided into three national railways. The former Uganda Railway was divided between the Kenya Railways Corporation and Uganda Railways Corporation.

The Railway and 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 usage[edit]

Parts of the railway remain in use today.


The Kenya Railways Corporation runs passenger trains between Mombasa and Nairobi. The line between Nairobi and Kisumu near the Kenya-Uganda border has been closed since 2012.[24] The train has not travelled to Kampala since the 1970s. It usually leaves in the evening and arrives the following morning after a journey of around 13 to 14 hours and the Kenya and Ugandan governments have signed a joint agreement to allow privatization of the line. Most locals consider the Nairobi to Mombasa journey relatively safe for foreigners (in first and second class) but strongly advise against travel on the Nairobi to Kisumu line. The Kisumu line winds its way through Kibera, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi and is well known for violence and attacks. In September, 2006, the World Bank approved the first grant ($70 million) to help the railway regain its position as a relevant and competitive mode of transport.


The Uganda Railways Corporation operates only the 5 miles (8.0 km) line between Kampala and Port Bell and the 120 miles (190 km) main line between Kampala and the Kenyan border at Tororo. In 1989 Ugandan government soldiers massacred sixty civilians at Mukura railway station.

More recently the URC has been joint recipient of the 2001 Worldaware Business Award for "assisting economic and social development through the provision of appropriate, sustainable and environmentally complementary transport infrastructure".[25] The Uganda Railways Update Report gives details of management improvement.[26]

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, Railway Across Equator
  • Chander Pahar, a 1937 Bengali novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
  • Hill, M.F., Permanent Way Vol 1: official history

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Clayton & Savage 1975, pp. 10–1.
  2. ^ Otte 2012, p. 8.
  3. ^ Wolmar 2009, p. 182.
  4. ^ a b Wolmar 2009, p. 182.
  5. ^ a b Ogonda 1992, p. 131.
  6. ^ Ogonda & Onyango 2002, p. 223–4.
  7. ^ Treves, Frederick (1910). Uganda for a holiday. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 57. Retrieved 2009-11-30. 
  8. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica 1911: British East Africa, from British East Africa
  9. ^ Wilfred Mole (November–December 2010). "We'll take the car..." (PDF). Narrow Gauge World (72): 23–7. Retrieved 10 March 2012. 
  10. ^ Fender, J.E. "The Roosevelt Fox" in Shooting Sportsman Magazine, November/December 2010
  11. ^ Miller 1971.
  12. ^ Hardy 1965.
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ "Currency converter". The National Archives. Retrieved 10 March 2012. 
  16. ^ Churchill 1909, pp. 4–5.
  17. ^ a b "End of Lunatic Express". The East African. 21 September 2009. 
  18. ^ "Man eating lions – not (as) many dead". Railway Gazette International. 27 November 2009. 
  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. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  25. ^ 2001 Worldaware Business Award
  26. ^ Uganda Railways Update Report


External links[edit]