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The Lunatic Express: Contribution of the Uganda Railway to the port and socio-economic development of Kenya and East Africa

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The Lunatic Express: Contribution of the Uganda Railway to the port and socio-economic development of Kenya and East Africa

Long before Nairobi, or any other hinterland town, was established, Mombasa was an ancient city of more than 1,000 years. Mombasa old port was a gateway to the interior for hundreds of years where Arab traders came with their dhows and the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama arrived in the 15th century – signalling the beginning of the end of the Arab Sultanates and fiefdoms.


However, Mombasa old port, which handled the maritime traffic of the day, had no capacity to serve the influx of railway builders, soldiers of fortune, merchants of trade, Christian missionaries/explorers and the rest of the impedimenta introduced by the British Empire.


A new port was needed. But since a port cannot operate without the hinterland transport infrastructure, a decision was made by the British colonialists to build a railway line. The British also wanted to protect their strategic interests in Uganda from the Germans. So on 11 December 1895, Mr George Whitehouse, a British engineer, who had previously been involved in the construction of railways in England, South Africa, India and South America arrived in Mombasa to oversee the building of the Uganda Railway.


The growth of present day Kilindini Harbour started in 1896 with one jetty, following the arrival of the steamship "S.S. Ethiopia" carrying material for the building of the Uganda Railway. Approximately 32,000 workers were imported from India to build the railway which reached Nairobi in 1899. At that time, Nairobi was nothing more than a seasonal swamp.


The construction of the railway continued to the lakeside and finally reached Kisumu (then Port Florence – named after the wife of George Whitehouse) in December 1901. On 20 December 1901, George Whitehouse sent a telegram to Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, informing him that the rails of the Uganda railway had reached the shores of Lake Victoria – 930 km from Mombasa.


Although Whitehouse had been involved in previous construction of railways, none of them would match up to the difficulties he faced in building the Uganda railways across East Africa. The most difficult part of the railway's construction was the 330 miles that lay between Mombasa and Nairobi, a section which was plagued by untold misfortune, among them the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo, diseases, drought and desertions.


By the time the railway reached Kisumu, it had cost the British taxpayer 5.5 million pounds, claimed the lives of 2,500 men, mainly from tropical fever and diseases and displaced many Africans from their habitat. At that time, there was no environmental impact assessment and any resistance from local communities was met with the might of the imperialists' guns.


How did the term "Lunatic Express" come about? Well, due to the shaky-looking wooden trestle bridges, enormous chasms, prohibitive cost, hostile tribes, tropical diseases, and man-eating lions pulling railway workers out of carriages at night, the name "Lunatic Line" certainly seemed to fit.


As reported by the London Magazine Truth in 1896, this is what one radical British MP (Henry Labouchere) said in Parliament:


         “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.”


Sir Winston Churchill who regarded the Uganda Railway as 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".


In February 1926, the name of the railway was changed from "The Uganda Railway" to "The Kenya – Uganda Railway" and later to "East African Railways and Harbours". Urbanization in Kenya begun with the railway and for a long time it formed the socio-economic backbone of the entire East African Region. Imports and exports through the port of Mombasa were transported by the railways and towns developed along the railway line between Mombasa and Kampala.


The development of Kilindini port and inland waterways shipping on lakes Victoria, Kyoga and Albert began and went concurrently with the building of the Uganda Railway. Disassembled ships were transported from the United Kingdom by sea to Mombasa and then by rail to Kisumu where they were reassembled to provide a service to Port Bell in Uganda and, later, other ports on Lake Victoria. An 11-kilometre 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 apart.  


Interestingly, the Uganda Railway facilitated the development of shipping services on Lake Victoria as far back as 1898 when it launched the 110 ton steam ship “Mackinnon” at Kisumu, having assembled the vessel from a "knock down" kit shipped from the UK. Between 1901 and 1925, eight passenger and cargo ferries were launched on Lake Victoria while four paddle steamers were launched on Lakes Kyoga and Albert.


Without the Uganda Railway, maritime services on inland waterways of East Africa would not have been possible nor the development of Mombasa port. As the volume of trade grew as a result of the railway, the need for the expansion of the port was inevitable both in commercial and military terms. Mombasa port development began and proceeded upstream from 1926 to 1958 with deep water general-cargo berths.


During this period and up to Kenya's independence in 1963, Mombasa served as a port of the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation (EARHC) and was fully integrated with the inland waterways of Lake Victoria through Kisumu Port, Port Bell, Bukoba and Mwanza.


After Kenya’s independence, the port of Mombasa remained part of the EARHC with headquarters in Dar es Salaam. In 1967, the East African Community (EAC) was formed, and EARHC was split into three entities; East African Harbours Corporation, East African Cargo Handling Services Limited, and East African Railways Corporation.


The maritime sector was successfully operated by these three entities until 1977 when the EAC broke up and the entities were changed and renamed (in the case of Kenya) as the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA), the Kenya Cargo Handling Services Limited and the Kenya Railways Corporation, respectively.


For more than 100 years, the railway has played a key role in the development of the maritime sector and socio-economic development of East Africa. It was not until 2013 that that the construction of a new Standard Gauge Railway started from Mombasa to Kampala and another new line is planned from Lamu to Juba in South Sudan and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia under the Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor project.

I have fond memories of traveling as a passenger from Kisumu to Nairobi, Bungoma to Nairobi and Nairobi to Mombasa especially when schools closed and as students, we all met on the train and had good times. Those who used these services in the 1960s and 1970s will remember the Kampala to Nairobi passenger train and the smell of pork whenever the train stopped at Uplands Station!
Level 20 (XP: 19250)
Great education Juvenal! Thank you. There is a detail about the Uganda Railway that I read somewhere I can't recall. I understand that it was the "Uganda Railway" because it ended at Kisumu in Uganda Protectorate. Within a year of completion of the railway, the eastern part of Uganda, which extended to Naivasha, was assigned to British East Africa (now Kenya) in order that the railway would be under one administration. Is this fact or an apocryphal story?

Of Field Marshall Idi Amin made mention of this back in 1975, and earned the wrath of Jomo Kenyatta and his Court. Amin had to quickly retract his statement, assuring his Kenyan "father" that it was all said in jest by the "professor of Geography." The known strength and discipline of the Kenya Army and Airforce, and the presence of a British Army contingent in Kenya may have persuaded the Ugandan ruler that his joke might end his life presidency.

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