A Tale of Two Railways

In 1896, the British began building a 600 mile railway that would run all the way from the Kenyan coast to Victoria, Nyanza.  Since its inception, the idea of building a line half way across a foreign, hostile and previously unchartered land seemed ludicrous and impractical to many. Unwanted by the majority and championed for by a chosen few, the birth of the Uganda railway was as chaotic and uncertain as its future.

Now, more than a century later, the Kenyan government has embarked on a similar project of its own, only on a much larger scale. In conjunction with Uganda and Rwanda, the government is in the process of building a Standard Gauge Railway line that is expected to form the backbone of economic activity within the entire East African region.

With an age difference of more than one hundred years, both railways share and differ in various ways. In this article, we shall examine and compare different aspects of these railways …land, technology, environmental impact and more.  Identifying where possible, striking differences and frightful similarities…

Initials: SGR- Standard Gauge Railway, UGR: Uganda Railway


SGR: The Ground breaking ceremony was held on November 28th, 2013 in Changamwe, Mombasa. It was attended by four heads of state from East Africa and leaders from around the country. The project which began in 2014 is expected to take 3-4 years to complete, with the Mombasa-Nairobi line scheduled to be completed by June of 2017.

UGR: On the 30th of May, 1896, railway officials and government dignitaries attended a ceremony in Mombasa to mark the beginning of the construction of the railway. Construction of the main line began in 1896 and ended in 1901, taking a total of 5 years.



Opening ceremonies

SGR opening Ceremony : Source


SGR: Justification for the SGR lies primarily in the economic benefit it is expected to bring to the region. The proposed railway is to run along the Northern corridor which is considered the transport artery for Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Northern Tanzania, Eastern DRC, Southern Sudan and Ethiopia.

Given that in one way or another, all these countries depend on the port of Mombasa for some of their imports/exports, the port has been forced to handle more than 3 times its original capacity. “In 2012 alone, the port handled 19.6 million tonnes of cargo, of which about four million tonnes were imports and five million tonnes were in transit to neighboring countries.” ( source ).

By 2030, transport demands through Mombasa are projected to increase to 30+ million tonnes. Upon completion of the railway, transport costs within the region are expected to reduce by more than 60%, not to mention the significant reduction in time and an expected increase in trade.

UGR: The Uganda railway was more of a strategic endeavor. The initial purpose of the railway was to link Lake Victoria in Nyanza to the Indian Ocean and thereby solidify Britain’s interest in Uganda in light of a German annexation threat. The early railway designers paid no heed to the economic development of the native tribes. Their task was to design a cheap, mainly administrative railway along the easiest and shortest route.


One other main reason for the building of the railway was the abolishment of slave trade. As per the Berlin conference of 1884-1885, it was the responsibility of every colonial power to abolish slave trade in its protectorate(s). It was argued that if a railway was built from the lake to the coast, caravans which were mainly used to transport slaves would become a matter of antiquity all together.

“Now the peculiarity of a railway is that where it is once laid, it kills every other mode of locomotion. After a railway has existed for some time, there cannot be – except as a matter of caprice, any other kind of locomotion to compete with it. “

Lord Salisbury championing for the Uganda railway; Glasgow, May 1891


SGR: The SGR will run for a total of 3,200 KM (1989 miles) . Branch lines include: 472 km Mombasa to Nairobi, 520 km from Nairobi to Malaba, 174 km on Kisumu branch line, 1300km on the Lamu to Nadapal (S.Sudan) line and 700km on the Nairobi–Moyale line.

UGR: The original line running from Mombasa to Kisumu stood at  940 km (584 miles ). Subsequent branch lines included (Konza-Magadi, Nairobi–Nanyuki, Nakuru-Malaba and others). By 1936, the length of open line inclusive of all branch lines stood at 2615 km ( 1,625 miles)



SGR Network Source


SGR:  The Standard Gauge Railway is expected to cost Sh 327 billion ( Mombasa – Nairobi Section ). The government sought around 85% of the financing for the project from the Exim Bank of China on a government–government arrangement. The remaining 15% is to be financed by GOK through budgetary allocation. The whole project  inclusive of all branch lines ) is expected to cost Sh 1.3 trillion .

UGR: At the beginning of its construction in 1896, it was estimated that the total cost of building the Uganda Railway would amount to 3 million pounds. However, by the time of its completion, it had amounted to approx 5.6 million pounds. The money was raised by the treasury mainly through creation of annuities and was entirely  financed by the crown .


SGR: The SGR is expected to provide 60,000 – direct employment opportunities and 200,000 indirect ones, with the majority of them going to locals. As of January 27, 2015, 1,000 Chinese and 8,000 locals were on the ground working on the railway. ( Daily Nation )

UGR: The UGR provided nearly 32,000 direct employment opportunities. Most labourers were from India and were hired on a contractual basis with the crown. The first batch of 350 labourers arrived in Mombasa on January 24th 1896.

By March of 1897, there were close to 4,000 labourers in the country. Native labour was not considered in the early stages mainly due to a lack of skill and the sporadic population density at the time. However, during the initial construction, the railway plate laying gangs depended heavily on the use of porters who were local, most of them being from the Kamba tribe.




SGR Image Source : Mega Projects Ke


SGR: As of 2014, there were approximately 45 million people in Kenya (77 people per square km). Due to the high population density, many Kenyans with land along the railway path will be required to vacate their properties. The Kenyan National Land Commission, which is in charge of overseeing the compensation, estimated that nearly 4.4 billion shillings will be required to acquire land for the SGR.

UGR: In 1900, the population in Kenya stood at an estimated 1.7 million people (3 people per square km). Mombasa was the only place where railway authorities had to purchase land for the railway. In mainland Kenya, any land within a 1 mile radius of the railway was automatically declared crown property.


Nairobi then and now Nairobi today Source


Standard Gauge Railway Meter Gauge Railway
GAUGE 1,435 mm 1,000 mm
SPEEDS Passenger trains: 160 kph Freight trains: 100 kph Passenger trains: 70 kph Freight trains: 65 kph
TRAVEL TIME ( Mombasa to Nairobi ) 4.5 hours 8 hours

“ The new railway line will run generally parallel to the existing metre gauge railway but will deviate as appropriate in order to achieve the desired gradient and curvature “

– Statement from Kenya Railways

UGR: At the time of its building, engineers lacked proper blasting technology. Given the difficult terrain that the railway was forced to meander through, the eventual line ended up having  curves and bends that a modern high speed train cannot negotiate. The meter gauge railway for the UGR was also chosen because it was the most commonly used system at the time and therefore easier to procure rolling stock for.


SGR: From the onset, the construction of the SGR was riddled with allegations of corruption and overpricing. Nandi Hills MP, Alfred Keter was at the forefront in oppossing the project on corruption allegations, publicly faulting the tendering process. There were also claims that the price had been inflated to nearly three times its original price after the cost of building escalated to Sh 1.3 trillion from a previously estimated Sh220.9 billion. (Standard Kenya)

“I am not against the railway. I am supporting it because it will create employment and at the same time boost the economy but other than that we must have value for our money. Let Kenyans have the best deal,”

Nandi Hills MP, Alfred Keter

UGR: The Uganda Railway also faced its fair share of opposition in and out of parliament. Most parliamentarians were skeptical of the initial estimates and the huge burden that the railway would place on the British tax payer.

“What is the cause of the great increase of the estimates for the railroad beyond that originally laid before us? Of course, in these matters, one is well aware that the cost and the estimate are usually figures that are materially different. .. But I am afraid this is not a difference between cost and estimate, but a great rise in the estimate itself, and I think the cost will rise not disproportionately; “

THE EARL OF ROSEBERY questioning the drastic rise in estimated cost to build the railway – 1896

Within the budding colony, the railway also faced a great deal of opposition from local communities especially the Nandi who offered the most fierce resistance. Koitalel Arap Samoei (1860 – October 19, 1905) the supreme chief of the Nandi, led an eleven year resistance against the railway. Prior to the coming of the British he had prophesied that “a black snake that spit fire would wind its way past Nandi land and disrupt people’s lives.”

Nandi raiding parties would often uproot previously laid lines and attack railway workers in their camps. The resistance was eventually quelled after the British invited Koitalel to discuss a supposed truce and in the guise of a staged scuffle, assassinated him


SGR: Railway designers and engineers maintain that environmental compatibility was a major factor when coming up with the design for the new railway. For instance, along the Mombasa–Nairobi line, a section of the railway that passes through the Tsavo East National Park has been raised to provide passage for wild animals. TsavoBridge SGR However, environmentalists and wildlife conservationists have strongly complained that despite these efforts, the railway will directly interfere with animal migratory patterns between Tsavo East and Tsavo West ( Kenya’s largest national park).

Early in 2015, the Kenya Government and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) also came into an agreement regarding the passing of the Mombasa-Nairobi section through the Nairobi National Park. The agreement which was said to be the only pragmatic solution between a ‘Wildlife Protection vs Modern Development’ conflict, will see the railway built on a raised platform in a remote section of the park. KWS officials maintained that it is also unlikely that the railway would have an effect on the number of tourists visiting the park.

Late in 2015 however, a plan has been unveiled for the Nairobi-Naivasha section of the SGR to pass through the center of Nairobi National Park. Conservationists claim this will have a significant impact on the integrity of the park, including tourism, and that this route will also result in significant population displacement.

UGR: Given that the entire railway line was at ground level, the railway did not affect the migratory routes and patterns of the animals. Impact was on a smaller scale and temporary for the most part (during the construction)

The building of the Uganda railway also coincided with famine, locusts invasion and a rinderpest outbreak. As a result, many of the workers fell ill and majority of the animals used for transportation died. It is estimated that over 50 % of all workers involved in the construction, suffered from Malaria.


Tsavo Bridge Old and 2-1

Of all the aspects that characterize the Uganda Railway, perhaps none best represents it as well as ‘The Man Eating Lions of Tsavo’. The lions, whose ravenous killing streak paralyzed railway construction for sometime and left many a worker dead, gained world wide recognition and in later years became the subject of many films and publications.

And as for history repeating itself, well let’s just say the SGR did not fall short of this. Early this year, reports of man eating lions surfaced when railway construction parties set up camp near the Tsavo bridge. Although no deaths have been officially reported, an ominous atmosphere still looms over the Tsavo bridge area, an area whose present and past seem wholly inseparable. Tsavo news



  • Decrease number of trailers and goods being transported via the road , hence reduce accidents and road maintenance costs
  • Attract Investors into the region –(price of transportation is expected to drop from 45% to 15%)
  • Reduce congestion at Mombasa Port.
  • Create employment opportunities
  • Have a significant impact on the Trade, Tourism, Service and Hospitality industries.

  • Attracted settlers who established farms and industries in the country
  • Contributed greatly to urbanization and trade (growth of major towns  within the country along the railway line)
  • Cultural diversity
  • Played a major part in the World War especially during the East African Campaign
  • Created employment opportunities

In Summary …. A Tale of Two Railways


After its construction, the Uganda railway, to whose advent everyone had predicted gloom, went on to become the salvation of a growing country. Sadly, in recent years the great iron snake has come to face a slow, painful decline, mainly due to mismanagement and corruption. As to the fate of the SGR, we can do little but hope that as the pomp and bravado surrounding its construction begins to fizzle out, it will live a much more fulfilling and deserving life; One that will in the least see its quality standards and physical condition maintained through out its lifetime.

What it will cost no one can express,

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 the George Curzon’s superior lecture

It clearly is naught but a lunatic line

Henry Labouchere on the Uganda Railway.

Can you draw any other differences or similarities between the two railways? Feel free to share them in the comment section below.