The Lunatic Express: Was it doomed from the beginning?

When a British engineer, George Whitehouse, disembarked in Mombasa from SS Ethiopia in December 1895, his singular mission was to construct a railway that would link the Port of Mombasa and the headwaters of River Nile.

The iron steels running across the breadth of the country would later stoke so much emotion, rebellion and political and economic controversies that 123 years later, the effects are still being felt.

Not even a century of mismanagement and technological developments have wiped out Whitehouse’s footprints, even as the words of Charles Elliot still echo across the country.

Elliot, the commissioner of British East Africa who presided over its construction, declared: “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.”

This was quite a turnaround for an edifice, which had driven the IBEA bankrupt and leaders in London off the rail when they learnt that the government was planning to finance it.

One of its harshest critics, Henry Du Pré Labouchère, went lyrical when debate for its funding came up in Parliament in 1896. “The railway starts from nowhere and nobody wants to use it. It goes nowhere and nobody wants to come back by it,” he said and followed it up with a poem.

The poem would later inspire Charles Miller to write a book, The Lunatic Express: the Magnificent Saga of the Railway’s Journey into Africa (1971).

From its conception, the railway appeared doomed to fail and inspired an uprising led by the illustrious laibon, Koitalel arap Samoei, who frustrated the railway builders for almost 10 years.

By the time Elliot was talking of the Uganda Railway, as the project was called then, the coolies had laid rails for 1,060km up to Kisumu, on the banks of Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile.

To overcome the complex terrain, a total of  12,000 bridges were constructed by an estimated 32,000 Indian workers. The project also entailed the laying of 1.2 million sleepers and driving 400,000 bolts and 4.8 million steel keys along the steel rails. Some of these sleepers and bolts were vandalised by Koitalel and his warriors during the Nandi rebellion.

About 2,500 railway workers died, a number of them mauled by the man-eating lions of Tsavo and other predators. Other railway workers also succumbed to drought, malaria and dysentery.

Critics of the project considered it an expensive folly, as the taxpayers in Britain had to fork out £5.5 million (about Sh72.8 billion in today’s money market).

And when the project was completed, the Colonial Office devised a method of making the rail pay for itself, by inviting landless aristocrats to move to Kenya and were allocated huge estates where they were expected to plant crops using cheap African labour.

It appears Elliot had not figured out how the railway was to create a country for he was forced to resign after he opposed the allocation of thousands of acres of land to The East Africa Syndicate, which wanted to grow opium in Kenya and would later start soda ash mining in Magadi.

The construction of the Uganda Railway dismantled the original trade routes used by Arab slave and ivory traders  into the interior of Kenya and created a new corridor along which towns sprouted.

Physical planners say the railway corridor has for over 100 years determined the siting of urban settlements and cities.