Home June-July 2014 The Lunatic Express – a (very) potted history of the Uganda Railway

“Since this article was sent to press, President Museveni has signed the document for the construction of the new Standard Gauge track which will, in time, pass from Mombasa through Uganda and on to Bujumbura in the south and Juba to the north. Perhaps the author of this articles’ expressed wish is prophetically going to come true sooner than he thought!” Editor.

The Lunatic Express – a (very) potted history of the Uganda Railway

Compiled by Jerry Burley

ISU international school of Uganda -

It is impossible to do justice to nearly 120 years of history on any subject in 2000 words, but for those who are genuinely interested there are many excellent books available on railways (and their counterpart port and marine operations) in Africa. If this short article spikes interest and further reading around the subject, then its aims will have been achieved but my apologies for the necessarily condensed nature of the feature that you are now reading.

Built during the first Scramble for Africa, the Uganda Railway was the one genuinely strategic railway to be constructed in tropical Africa at that time. It was “a truly imperial project, built by the British government with the main purpose being to expand British domination of the area”. It was also used to haul raw materials out of Uganda to the coast, for use in various colonial-era engineering and wartime projects off the continent of Africa and in Britain.

Lunatic Express Workers

Some 2,500 workers, many of them Indian semi-conscript workers, known then by what is now the sometimes derogatory term “coolies”, would die during its construction.

A period cartoon (top right) mocks the brutal reality of the construction work carried out on the ground. The Health and Safety wombles with their high-viz jackets clearly hadn’t arrived on the scene when this photo was taken!

The Uganda Railway was in fact named after its final destination, for its entire, initial 660-mile length actually lay in what would become Kenya. 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. 200,000 individual, 30 feet (10 metre) rail-lengths and 1.2 million sleepers, 200,000 fish-plates, 400,000 fish-bolts and 4.8 million steel keys including associated 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 with increased ease to ensure their domination of the region remained absolute.

Former forester Bob Plumtre, now retired in UK, remembers Uganda’s contribution to the line’s construction.

“Uganda produced some samples of three very durable and dense tree species from our natural forests for railway sleeper trials, which were conducted somewhere fairly near Mau Summit on the line at its highest point in Kenya, where it goes up to an altitude of 9,000ft. The structure of the timber had a higher electrical resistivity than the ordinary steel sleepers that were normally used. Where the rails went past signals, there had to be some insulation from the opposite side of the track for a short distance – usually in stations and at forks in the line. The species we tried were Mututu, (Klainodoxa gabonensis), Mumara (Erythrophleum suaveolens) and Muyati (Mildbraediodendron excelsum).”

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 on the Kenya-Uganda border, in 1890. The railway followed a similar route but soon superseded it in terms of usage and importance.

The railway is 1000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) gauge and virtually all single-track, with occasional sidings and passing points to deal with opposing traffic. The project cost about £5 million to complete and the first services started in 1903.

Construction was carried out principally by labourers from British-ruled India, 32,000 of whom were brought in because of a lack of suitable – or willing – indigenous labour. While most of the surviving Indians returned home, 6,724 in total decided to remain after the line’s completion, creating a community of East African Indians. In the 1970s, those of their descendants who refused to take up Ugandan citizenship (renouncing others) were expelled by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin but their influence on the region was almost immediate and, notwithstanding Amin’s foibles, permanent. The newly-arrived Indian “dukawallah“, slang for shop keeper or small trader, was to become a permanent fixture and was the precursor to Indian-dominated commerce in the region.

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 and in the First World War campaign against General Paul Erich von Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa, modern-day Tanzania. The railway allowed heavy equipment to be transported far inland with relative ease and raw materials to be extracted in the opposite direction. 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. This actual railcar was recently restored in South Africa. The Governor lent his railcar to President Theodore Roosevelt on his visit to Uganda, when he famously went hunting in what is now called Rhino Camp, in the Ajai, West Nile area of northern Uganda.

The Lunatic Express

The term Lunatic Express was coined by Charles Miller in his 1971 book The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. Contemporary tabloid reports also referred to the “Lunatic Line”, while Africans called it the “Iron Snake“. It was defended in the British Parliament by Sir Gerald Portal (after whom Fort Portal in western Uganda is now named) 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.

rail network from Nairobi

A map of the rail network from Nairobi, on into (and around) Uganda – 1962

Political resistance to this “gigantic folly”, as Liberal Party firebrand Henry Labouchère called it, surfaced immediately, with the Liberals pronouncing that the Government had no right to drive a railway through country owned by the Maasai. Also what right did England have to assert mastery over thousands upon thousands of unlettered African tribesmen? Such arguments, along with the claim that it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money, were haughtily 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. Estimated at UK£3 million in 1894, over £200m in 2014 money, when the books were closed in 1902 the final cost was UKP500m (USD$793 million).

Due to the shaky-looking wooden trestle bridges, enormous chasms, prohibitive cost, hostile tribes, men infected by the hundreds of tropical 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 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 prides of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating Parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway.”

The Kedong Massacre

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 allegedly been raped. Englishman Andrew Dick led a counter-attack against them, but ran out of ammunition and was speared to death by the Maasai. At the turn of the 20th century, the railway construction was disturbed by the resistance by the highland Nandi people, led by Koitalel Arap Samoei. He was killed in 1905 by Richard Meinertzhagen, finally ending the Nandi resistance.

The Tsavo Incident

The incidents for which the building of the railway may be most (in)famously noted are the killings of a number of construction workers in 1898, during the building of a bridge across the Tsavo River north west of Mombasa, in what is now Tsavo National Park. Hunting mainly at night, a pair of maneless male lions, old, diseased creatures that had probably been thrown out of their pride and hence didnt have access to the usual wild game “kills”, stalked and killed at least 28 Indian and African workers, although some accounts put the number of victims as high as 135. They soon created an almost mystical and surreal reputation and some workers believed they were inhabited by the Devil himself.

The lions, dubbed “The Maneaters of Tsavo“, were eventually shot and killed by the bridge construction supervisor, Engineer Lt. Colonel John Henry Patterson, who promptly had their skins made into rugs, before selling them some years later to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, for the then not-inconsiderable sum of US$5,000.


Not an especially good day for the lion perhaps but undoubtedly one of considerable relief to hundreds of railway workers! Said man-eating lion ended up being shot and turned into a rug by the gallant Colonel but not before he and his buddy had killed and scoffed dozens of workers (the lion that is, not the Colonel). Photographer unknown.

Jinja Bridge construction

In the mid-1920s the main line in Kenya was extended from Nakuru through Eldoret, and Tororo to Mbulamuti where it met up with the original Jinja to Namasagali line.  The new line to Kampala then crossed the Nile at Jinja by a bridge carrying both the railway and a roadway underneath. The first railway in Uganda ran from Jinja to Namasagali on the Victoria Nile, where a steamer service ran on to Masindi Port.  From there passengers travelled by road through Masindi to Butiaba on Lake Albert from thence they could travel on by steamer to the then Belgian Congo or north towards Juba in the Sudan.


One for the classic coach-fanciers amongst you – taken some time in the 1950’s or early 1960’s, Masindi Hotel guests, recently arrived from Masindi Port, waiting to board the bus to Butiaba Port and on to the Robert Coryndon steamer for a trip on Lake Albert, all part of the Uganda Railways travel network. Masindi Hotel is externally largely unchanged to this day. Photographer unknown

Train passengers from Kenya first reached Uganda by steamer from the railhead at Kisumu and across Lake Victoria to Entebbe or Port Bell.  Ramsay Nicholson, with the assistance of his younger brother Pearce, was responsible for supervising the construction of the Jinja bridge in 1926 and the following two historic photographs were recently copied from the family photograph album (kindly supplied by Gwen Smart – nee Nicholson).

Pearce-Nicholson Jinja Bridge

Pearce Nicholson supervising construction work on Jinja Bridge around 1925



The rail deck of the bridge taking shape, the roadway has yet to be constructed below the arch



The completed railway bridge plus Garrett 60 taken some time in the 1950’s. The Owen Falls Dam with its own tarmac road having been built by this time, the vehicle bridge was removed from underneath, leaving just the railway bridge in operation. Trains could now pass from Mombasa to Kampala directly. PHOTO EAR&H


Garrett 58 engine and wagons arriving from Kenya at Kampala (lower) foot passenger platform (mid-1960's). The journey would have involved passing over Jinja Bridge, unlike in earlier times when a ferry trip would have been required. Photographer unknown.

Garrett 58 engine and wagons arriving from Kenya at Kampala (lower) foot passenger platform (mid-1960’s). The journey would have involved passing over Jinja Bridge, unlike in earlier times when a ferry trip would have been required. Photographer unknown.

Extensions and branches

Uganda-RailwayThe Uganda Railway is built to metre gauge standard. This gauge is not used throughout Africa, which has at times caused major logistical issues with other neighbouring countries rail networks

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.

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

  • 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
  • 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.

In 1948 KURH became part of the East African Railways Corporation, which added the line from Kampala to Kasese in western Uganda in 1956 and also extended to it from Kampala to Pakwach, near the border with what is now the DRC., in 1964.

Plumtre again “In 1957-8, we were laying out forest boundaries at the southern end of Kibale Forest in Toro. The bottom tip of the forest ended up very close to the Kampala-Kasese railway line. The forest ranger, the workers on the boundary cairns and trenches and I got on the train and went the twenty-odd miles on it to Kasese, rather than fighting our way back up the boundary to the Kampala – Fort Portal road. At one point the rail line went in a complete 360 degree circle under itself going down the escarpment, to lose height. The cost for all of us was just a few shillings and involved considerably less effort.”

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Rare photo of black wood burning 22 Class.  From 1954 four of these wood burning locos (2220-2223) were used on the construction of the Uganda Western Extension between Kampala and Kasese – PHOTO James Lang Brown

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Recently laid track in the west of Uganda at Kamwenge (taken some time in the early to mid 1950’s), 172 miles from Kampala and the second last station before Kasese at Mile 208.  Dura River at Mile 190 was the last station before Kasese.   PHOTO James Lang Brown


The opening of what was officially termed the Western Uganda Extension.   A special train conveying the Governor, Sir Andrew Cohen, and HH the Kabaka of Buganda travelled overnight from Kampala behind a 30 Class locomotive which was named Batoro by the Omukama of Toro on its arrival at Kasese .  The train is seen here arriving at Kasese – the “defaced” blue ensigns are the official flags of the East African Railways and Harbours.  The second coach back from the locomotive is a special vehicle which may have formed part of the “royal” train stock used by visiting royals and colonial governors of the time.  PHOTOs – EAR&H Magazine, December 1956

Uganda Railways today

The 1970’s and Amin’s far-from-glorious period at the helm began the rot that effectively destroyed Uganda Railways (it was subsequently de-regionalised back from East African Railways with the break-up of the Community). Over the intervening years tracks were stolen for the steel, engines broke down and no spare parts were available to repair them and roads and trucks (and the dirty politics relating to truck fleet owners and their anti-Railways sentiments) slowly reduced the rail services to the point of them being so unreliable as to be useless. The published railway schedule became an historical artefact. At one point cargo owners were influencing the route train drivers and railway controllers took with their cargo, including even where and when the Lake Victoria rolling stock ferries docked! The marine side of the Railways is another story in itself, for another day. Passenger services ceased many years ago (notwithstanding one brief attempt a few years back to run a London Overground-type daily commuter service for foot passengers from the Mukono and Jinja areas). First Bombardier and now Rift Valley Railways have started work to try and bring the service back to some semblance of order, including opening up long-abandoned branch-lines, such as Kampala-Gulu, but moving trains in and around the capital are still a relatively rare sight.

first-train-arrives-at-Tororo-StationThe first train arrives at Tororo Station on its way up to Gulu, following the reopening of the line after many years of disuse. Note the omni-present recovery crane lurking in the background. (UAV photography courtesy of www.skyworksafrica.com – HD video of the same subject-matter is also available from the same website)

between-Lira-and-Gulu-stationThe same train somewhere between Lira and Gulu stations, causing much excitement and general happiness. (UAV photography courtesy of www.skyworksafrica.com)

fanfare-and-celebrationTo yet further fanfare and celebration, the first train in many years pulls into Gulu railway station in late 2013. (UAV photography courtesy of www.skyworksafrica.com)

An estimated 98% of in-bound land cargo is now entering Uganda via semi-trailer from Mombasa Port, which discharges some 2000 container trucks a day up the Mombasa single carriageway road, the start of the so-called Trans-African Highway to the rest of East and Central Africa.

between-Lira-and-Gulu-stationOne of the very last trains to leave Kampala for Kasese, the terminus of the now long-abandoned western extension. In 1992, when the last train ran this route, it would take 3 days to do what used to take 12 hours. The train would derail frequently and the recovery crane – usually hitched behind the engine in preparedness – would lift the stricken rolling stock back onto the track and the journey would continue onwards, with hope anew. Much of the western extension track has now been stolen for scrap and the line will need massive investment to ever work again. Photo:- Mohammed Amin (RIP). 

Travel anywhere in the world today is no longer the glamorous adventure that it was 50 years ago. Crowded airports and railway stations, vigorous and often very personal security checks and the pressures on time in modern day life have stripped travel of any vestiges of pleasure. Most journeys are now a means to an end, namely to get there as quickly, cheaply and painlessly as possible.

A visit to some of the remaining infrastructure of the old Uganda Railways does take you back – fleetingly – to a time when the rich travelled two classes above most, when silver service was the norm., purveyed by a well-dressed man in a dinner suit and sporting a fez and when a travel schedule meant what it showed. There is undoubtedly room on this crowded continent for train and truck to co-exist as beasts of burden and one day maybe, just maybe, the opportunity to travel by train as a passenger “Port Out, Starboard Home” (POSH) to an upcountry destination in Uganda will again happen. 

Much of this article has been taken directly from Wikipedia and Malcolm McCrow’s excellent website about the East African Railways and Harbours. The author would like to thank them both, plus those, living and deceased (where known), whose photos have been used. Any editing of information from the above sources or opinion relating to any of it is solely attributable to the author of this article.

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