The Lunatic Express – A photo essay on the Uganda railway.



The term Lunatic Express was coined by Charles Miller in his 1971 book  The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism . Now, more than 3 decades since its conception , no other term could best describe The Uganda Railway and the adversities that befell its construction.

The railway was a purely strategic endeavor having been built by the British to protect their interests in Uganda from the  Germans. As is evident, it was named after its ultimate destination (Uganda ) despite the fact that all 660 miles of it lay in what is today Kenya.

Building of the railway commenced in 1896 at the port of Mombasa and two years later the first passenger train left Mombasa for Voi. Construction was  finally completed at the port of Kisumu ( Port Florence) on the 20th of December 1901.


 From Mombasa to Nairobi ….

Perhaps the most difficult part of the railway’s construction was the 330 miles that lay between Mombasa and Nairobi . A section that was plagued by untold misfortune among them; diseases, drought , desertions  and most infamously  man eating lions …

 George Whitehouse chief engineer of the Uganda railway

Whitehouse arrived at the port of Mombasa on the 11th of  December 1895 . He had previously been involved in the construction of railways in England, South Africa , South America and India but none of them would match up to the difficulties that would be faced in building a railway across East Africa.

George Whitehouse

George Whitehouse

Official plate laying ceremony

Railway officials and government dignitaries attend a ceremony to mark the laying of the first plate of the Uganda Railway on 30th  May 1896 .


Off loading of locomotive boilers at Kilindini harbour.

Most of the first engines were imported second hand from India.


 Image c/o Nigel Pavitt

A sikh railway employee and his son.

The first batch of 350 laborers arrived in Mombasa from India on January 24th 1896 and by March of 1897 close to 4,000 workers had been recruited .


The main reason why most of the railway workers came from India was that no other country would provide so vast and competent a group of engineers, artisans and laborers who were already well accustomed to the tropical conditions.

In all 31,983 Indians were recruited to build the railway : 6,724  exercised their option to remain and work in the protectorate once the construction of the railway was over,  2,000 of whom were employed to work in the railway departments.

Image c/o Nigel Pavitt

Mile 6, Changamwe Railway Station

Was the  first mainland station to be opened on Dec 15 , 1897 .

Changamwe Station

Image c/o @Kresearcher


Getting to Voi.. mile 100

Team of railway workers at a cutting near Voi

railway workers

In 1897 the railhead reached Voi mile 100 .Voi railway station was one of the most strategic points between Mombasa and Nairobi as it had engine changing facilities and also served as the junction for the route that went further down to the Kilimanjaro ( Tanganyika )

Voi marshalling yard

Voi Station Yard

Crossing Voi river.

Voi river was the first decent supply of fresh water after Mombasa . It was a relief for the men who had just crossed the Taru desert where they were entirely dependent on water supply by water trains that were often late or derailed , causing them to somtimes go for days without water.


However, in as much as the water problem was squarely out of the way , a more notorious problem was soon to materialize. After Voi, came Tsavo  which was approximately 132 miles from Mombasa. At the camps in Tsavo, men mysteriously begun to disappear from camps in the dead of night.

Image c/o Nigel Pavitt

 The man eaters of Tsavo

One of the first people to fall victim to the ferocious man eating lions was a Sikh Jemadar by  the name Ungan Singh and it was his death that brought the intensity of the lion threat to light. Singh who was dragged from his tent in the dead of night  had been kept in charge of Colonel Patterson’s well being  and shared a tent with 5 other men, one of who witnessed the entire ordeal.

 The picture blow shows the tent from which Ungan Sing was taken .

maneater tent

The colleague who witnessed the ordeal described how at around midnight the lion put his head through the open tent door and took hold of Ungan who was lying closest to the opening. He then heard Singh scream “Choro! ” (let go ) and next minute he was being dragged out of the tent and into the woods. The next morning Patterson is quoted

 “I was aroused at daybreak and told that one of my jemadars, a fine powerful Sikh named Ungan Sing had been seized in his tent during the night and dragged off and eaten ……On reaching the spot where the body had been devoured, a dreadful spectacle presented itself, The ground all round was covered with blood, and morsels of flesh and bones, but the unfortunate jemadars head, remained intact…

excerpt taken from the The men of the man eaters 

Colonel J.H Patterson

After the unfortunate death of nearly 28 men, Patterson eventually hunted down the lions  killing the first one on 9th December 1898 And the second one 20 days later.


To date the lions remain a popular exhibit at the Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and have since been the subject of three Hollywood films . Efforts by the government and the National Museum of Kenya to bring them back to the country have since failed.

Building of the infamous Tsavo bridge


Tsavo Railway station

A battalion of the Kings’s African Rifles standing outside the Tsavo Railway Station during World War 1 ..


Image c/o Nigel Pavitt 

Sultan Hamud

In 1898 Sultan Seyyid Hammoud ibn Mohammed , the sultan of Zanzibar was invited to inspect the work on the railway. He took the train from Mombasa up to the temporary railhead camp where the railway had so far reached. To commemorate the occasion , the camp was named  Sultan Hamud. To date, the town retains this misspelt version of his name


 Makindu Marshalling Yard …Mile 207

Makindu Station Mile 207

Other stations between Mombasa and Nairobi include: Mtito Andei , Emali , Kibwezi , Masongaleni , Kima , Kiu , Konza and many others

Getting to Nairobi ..mile 326

By 1899  railhead had reached Nairobi which at the time was nothing more than a seasonal swamp . A railway depot was built in the same year and from these humble beginnings  a city was born.

The picture below shows the entire railway estate with the railway houses and offices on the left,  the station in the centre background and the railway workshops on the right.


 Old Railway Headquarters 1898

Old Railway HQ 1898


Train leaving the Nairobi Station 1900


Opening of the new Railway Headquarters building 12/7/1929

Railway HeadQuarters opening 1929

Railway employees boarding a train at the Nairobi Railway Station

Railway Employees boarding a train at the Nairobi station



Mr David Kikwau, first African Steward in charge  of  the upper classs and lowers class buffet wagons

He was 26 years old at the time of his appointment

David Kikwau first African Steward

Interior of the upper class buffet wagon

Interior of upper class buffet


Poster Board at the Nairobi Railway Station circa 1960’s

Poster Boards at Nairobi Railway Station

From Nairobi to the lake…..

The journey from Nairobi to the lake was not as tumultuous as the first half  (Mombasa to Nairobi) . For one, the area was characterized by favorable climatic conditions, and food & water rations were found in plenty. Occasional setbacks included delays in bringing of  supplies and track washaways , but this would only hamper construction for a couple of days and then work would resume.

Kikuyu Station

Twenty miles or so beyond Nairobi , railway officers established a temporary base in Kikuyu while they supervised work on the laying of the track down at the rift valley escarpment

Kikuyu Station

 Image c/o Nigel Pavitt 

 Gilgil Station Yard ..Mile 407, 1900

Gilgil Station Yard

Nakuru Station and Marshalling Yards ..Mile 426

Nakuru Station and Marshalling Yards

New Nakuru Railway Station

Opening of the Nakuru Railway Station 14th June 1957 by the then Governor of Kenya Sir Eveleyn Baring

Nakuru Railway Station

Kitale Railway Station  1929

Kitale Station

Other stations between Nairobi and Kisumu included Molo, Londiani , Elburgon , Kijabe , Naivasha , Mau Summit and many others

End of the line..  Getting to Kisumu, Mile 660

On 20th December 1901, Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, received a telegram informing him that the rails of the Uganda railway had reached the shores of Lake Victoria. The sender of the telegram was George Whitehouse

The end of the line.

Railhead finally reached Lake Victoria (930 km from Mombasa on 19th Dec 1901) at a point named Port Florence after Florence Whitehouse.  The picture below shows Ronald Preston’s wife, ( also called Florence ) driving the last sleeper key in , at approximately 4pm


The Journey of the Lunatic Express…

Apart from ‘ The Lunatic Express’ , the railway has also been referred to as ‘ The Permanent Way ‘ or ‘ The Iron Snake ‘


After much pain and misery, the railway’s journey was finally over ..The total cost of building the railway amounted to approximately 5,502,592 pounds  (est  9,422 pounds per mile) . A burden that was heavily inflicted upon the British Tax payer .  Approximately  2500  men died as a direct result of the construction of the railway, mainly from tropical fever and diseases .

On February 3rd 1926, the name of the railway was changed from ‘ The Uganda Railway’ to ‘ The Kenya – Uganda railway ‘.

However, to define the railway only by  its misfortunes , would be to do a great injustice to this astounding monument of steel that would go on to form the foundation of an entire country. Urbanization in Kenya begun with the railway and for a long time it formed the Socio-Economic backbone of the entire East African Region.

For the next 100 years and more the railway would serve several generations of men. It would draw people towards it; it would watch cities grow around it. But above all else, it would remain a testimony to human grandeur. And remain living proof that once men have set their minds to anything, no obstacle is too huge to overcome. Anything is possible.

Check out SAVE THE RAILWAY – Our mission to preserve Kenya’s antique railway stations

© Thee Agora 2014



    • TheAgora

      Thanks for reading Amritlal glad that you can idenitify with it

  • Vali Jamal, PhD

    Dear Chao,
    Your site is going around now. I used The Men Eaten by the Man-Eaters item for my book Uganda Asians. I attributed you of course. Is it originally from Patterson’s book? We did Kampala to Mombasa every end-of-the-year vacation to be with my maternal grandfather’s family. Once the train just couldn’t climb the gradients because of a locust infestation, as so many locusts were falling dying on the tracks and making them slippery.

    • TheAgora

      Hi Vali ,
      Thank you very much for publicizing the site, would love to read your book on Uganda Asians. The Men of the Man Eaters is compiled from a number of books & research papers, Patterson’s being one of them .
      Interesting to know about the locusts , must have been such an experience, how long did it take to get from Kampala to Mombasa ? thanks for sharing .

      • Vali Jamal, PhD

        Thank you Chao for responding. Kampala dep 11 amNairobi next day 3 pmMombasa next day 9 am.It was epic.Thrice a week. Where are you from and why the interest in East Africa and E African Asians?! Yours is just an amazing site and getting known.  All the best.
        Vali Jamal, BA Cambridge, PhD Stanford, Snr Economist, UN-ILO, 1976-2001. Author: UGANDA ASIANS: Then and Now, Here and There. 1717 pp, 4000 images, US$75 in Uganda; $80 rest of East Africa; $109.99 delivered rest of da world. Forthcoming March 2015. “A national asset in Uganda’s commercial diplomacy.” – HE President Museveni. “Encyclopedic, unequalled, an intellectual asset.” – Professor Mondo Kagonyera, Chancellor of Makerere University.“Joins our campaigns to project the new image of Uganda.” – Professor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, Governor of the Bank of Uganda. “A testimony to the authour’s perseverance, vision, perspicacity and abiding love of his people and country.”  – H E Patrick Edwards, High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago and Doyen of the Ugandan Diplomatic Corps. “One man’s labour of love for his community.” -Prof Dharam Ghai. “Courageous, a generational book for generations to come.” – Prof Yash Tandon. >>Never done before/will not be repeated ever but plagiarized often -sales slogan<<

        • TheAgora

          Thank you very much Vali .
          I am from Kenya and my interest in East Africa stems mainly from my passion for history and all things related . I believe that there are certain aspects of our history that need to be treasured and appreciated, which is why I started this website.

          As for the railway and East African Asians , it is a subject that I am particularly fond of because over the years I have come to believe that the role played by the railway and the men who built it is one that has remained largely unappreciated. Yet the railway played such a huge role in the urbanization and growth of E.A at large and Kenya in particular.

          Have not read or written much about the railways in Uganda and Tanzania but it is a subject that I also hope to cover in the future. Thank you very much for your support.


          • Rauf

            A great article. Very informative.
            Wonder if you could kindle throw a little light on facts behind Mackinnon Rd, esp on a Muslim worker burried there?
            Thank you sir.

          • TheAgora

            Thank you Rauf . Yes I have read about Mackinnon Road and the remarkable story of one Mr Seyyid Baghali who was buried there and a tomb built in his honour . Since his death trains and buses passing along the Mombasa – Nairobi route have slowed / stopped at Mackinnon Road to pay homage to him .. I am currently in the process of writing an article about it and will let you know as soon at is complete. Will also make sure I link the Mackinnon Road story to this photo essay, thanks for reading.



          • Mburu

            TheeAgora- wonder if you have completed the article on Late Seyyid Baghali? Thx.

          • Hi, I am also following up on Syed Bagh Ali’s story. Would love to know more about him. I did read that he died in 1902 while still working on the railway line. Which is strange as the railway was completed in 1901. Will appreciate if you could shed any light on this.

  • Vali Jamal, PhD

    Chao, I think the picture of the people eating in the dining car is a make-up, seeing Africans at the rear. I think non-Whites were not permitted to go to the dining car – especially the upper one.

    • julie pirani

      I completely agree, that was my first reaction that no coloureds were allowed to eat with the whites!! Also at that time hardly any blacks would be dressed in business suits!!!

      • There were many well deducated and in suits Julie…mainly Chiefs and their sons and or family..otherwise known as collaborators or sell-outs like Njonjo, Nyachahe, Michuki etc.

    • TheAgora

      Hi Vali , that particular photo was obtained from the Railway Museum Archives in Nairobi and indicated that was the upper class buffet wagon , it could be that it was taken much later after independence when African’s were given access to things that were previously only entitled to Whites.

  • habib janjua

    Excellent photo article.Thankyou.Father and two uncles worked for East African Railways 1912 to 1960s.Grew up in Railway Quarters and have fond memories of travel by rail both in Tanganyika and Kenya. Tanga to Voi to Nairobi was common train trip from home to RTC Nairobi.Thankyou again.Habib

    • TheAgora

      Hi Habib , thank you very much for sharing your experience with the railway, I’m happy that you can identify with the article.

      The line from Tanzania to Voi is no longer functional so I can only imagine how exciting it must have been to use it . The Mombasa- Nairobi one still is in use but not in the condition that it was during those days. Was a pleasure to read about your experience.

      Many Thanks.

      Regards, Chao

      • habib janjua

        Chao,Thanks for your kind words.Please keep me on your mailing lists for any articles about East Africa and the Indian/Asian contribution to developing many aspects of commerce,transportation and economic life of EA. The broad gauge lines being built by the Chinese Engineers from Mombasa to Uganda and beyond is a worthy current development to explore?Best wishes for your contribution to History of EA.Habib

  • Joe Davis

    Very interesting piece and comments!!! Well, I am not Asian but African. I owe my existence today to the fact that my Grandfather the Late Arapu Okwelle Noah was one of the few Africans who joined in the construction of the railway from Kisumu, through Tororo and towards Pakwach. The last he ever spoke to me about the work he was doing was his first time exposure to houses built using blocks – notably the railway stations. One of the Asians he worked with, later had children with my Grandpa’s sister, but he disappeared and was reported to have either gone back to India or to some place in Kenya. Today I have cousins who have Asian-African blood, I love them so much, they are grown ups and also have children, they make our clan very unique among all clans around us in Soroti Uganda. In my school days, I used this very train route every start and end of school term from Mbale station to Soroti station between 1985 and 1986 when I was still a student at Teso College Aloet.

    • TheAgora

      Hi Joe, was very delighted and honored to have read your comment. Thank you for sharing such a brief part of your life that speaks volumes about the integration of society , development and culture. Thank you mentioning your late Grandfather too, I will in the course of my research try to find out more about the few Africans who were involved in the railway construction and let you know what I come up with . It gives me great joy to have people identify and relate with my work at such a personal and candid level , thank you once more for your kind words that I am sure thousands of people out there will deeply appreciate.
      Regards Chao

    • Robert Kitti

      Great work and great memories!! My father worked with EARC up to 1976 in Kenya, having worked in stations Nakuru, Mombasa, Changamwe and Makindu Moved to Uganda and worked in Tororo and Kampala. I must say the ‘Lunatic’ venture bore tremendous development fruits along the path where it passed including non-railways development. It is very sad if you see the state of the railway infrastructure now in dire straits. The fact that our governments have failed to revamp this once lynch pin of socio-economic development. Lots of good times recollected.

      • Dear Robert, it was a pleasure reading your comment. Yes the Lunatic line lay the foundations for development in the country its role in urbanization cannot in any way be understated. I agree with you that it is indeed sad to see the deplorable state in which it is today. With the new railway being constructed it’s even harder to tell what will become of what’s left of it. Thank you very much for reading.


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  • Cyrus

    Brilliant website, I have learned so much more on my country’s history that I did not see in the history books while in school

    • Hi Cyrus , really great to hear ,I’ll definitely keep writing, thank you

  • Vali Jamal, PhD

    Chao, you do great things for all East Africans.

    • Dear Vali, I am deeply honored by your comment, thank you.

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  • Vivek Kamdar

    An Amazing look into our History, i am now enlightened more, to read about My Country Kenya…I say..ASANTE SANA..

    • Dear Vivek, thank you very much for reading. All the best as you discover more about this beautiful country. 🙂

  • This is AWESOME!

  • Terry N.

    This is by far the best online source of Kenyan history. The history buff in me feels totally informed, and grateful.

    • Hi Terry, that’s wonderful. 🙂 Thank you very much for reading, I am glad that you found it a valuable resource.

  • Duncan kiarie

    This is just amazing. Great work