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End of road for first railway that defined Kenya's history

By Peter Muiruri | May 31st 2017
Railway passangers aboard the first Kampala -bound train as the railways resumed services to Uganda following the revival of the East African Community

Railway building in Kenya, it would appear, has always triggered clouds of suspicion and controversy.

Like today's SGR, the first railway in Kenya started such a racket in the British parliament and press that it earned its infamous name, 'the Lunatic Express, as aptly described by writer and parliamentarian Henry Laboucher on July 30,1896.

Mr Laboucher tore into the then British Foreign Minister George Curzon's support for the project in a famous satirical poem that read:

"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  none can define..."  And in spite of George Curzon's superior lecture, "It is clearly naught but a lunatic line."

Such was the level of derision that greeted proponents of the new railway that was meant to open up what was then British East Africa.

Like today's SGR, the cost of the lunatic express particularly raised political temperatures among UK lawmakers.

Their skepticism was not misplaced. The government was making a financial commitment amounting to 5.5 million pounds (Sh735 million by today's currency exchange rate) for a project whose viability was still speculative.

SGR's Sh327 billion bill, more than 700 times the cost of its predecessor, raised similar protests among Opposition politicians.

But the British government trudged on with the plans, dispatching Sir George Whitehouse to build the railway.

Work on the one-metre gauge railway commenced in the port of Mombasa in May 1896.

After the hot and humid Mombasa climate, the lunatic express ran into more severe headwinds; from lack of water at Tatu to two lions that threatened to halt construction at Tsavo.

On the floor of the Rift Valley, warriors found in the railway line what writer Elspeth Huxley described as "bolts and rivets; perfect weapons for opening the skulls of their enemies."

Five million pounds and 2,493 dead workers later, the last rail of the 931-kilometre 'Lunatic Express,' was laid on the edge of Lake Victoria on Friday, December 20, 1901.

The spot was named Port Florence, today's Kisumu.

The lunatic express had such a profound impact on the country's history that a curator at the railway museum says: "It is only in Kenya where a railway line built a country and not vice versa."

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