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Once the true source of the Nile in Uganda had been proved beyond all doubt by Henry Morton Stanley in 1875, the race for African real estate was on when Britain declared a Protectorate over Uganda. But Uganda was some 900 kilometres from the sea and it soon became blindingly obvious that a railway linking it to the coast was the only solution to maintaining control over that distant country. But Uganda was some 900 kilometres from the sea and it soon became blindingly obvious that a railway linking it to the coast was the only solution to maintaining control over that distant country.
In 1894, plans for the construction of Uganda railway had at last been finalized with Mombasa as the starting point and with it the appointment of Mr. George Whitehouse, a veteran of railway building in India. Whitehouse set to his task and the first rails were laid at Mombasa on 30th May 1896. So began the construction of “the Lunatic line”, a name taken from a satirical poem by one of the railway’s most savage critics, the radical British parliamentarian, with the improbable name of Henry Labouuchere:-
“What is the use of it, none can conjecture?
What it will carry, there’s non can define,
And in spite of George Curzon’s superior lecture,
It is clearly naught but a Lunatic Line”
Whitehouse’s first problem was that there was no deep water harbour in Mombasa, Kilindini, Kenya’s main port, in those days being nothing but a gently shelving beach.
the railhead reached an unprepossessin, swampy area at the foot of the Kikuyu escarpment that had the single merit in that it was level ground.this was at kilometer 526 and Whitehouse decided to shift his headquaters from Mombasa to Uaso-en Airobe, a maasai expression meaning “river of cold water” that soon became abbreviated and bastardized to become “Nairobi”.
In spite of everything, on 19th December 1901 the line reached the lake…..and it was over. The Lunatic line comprising 931km of a torturous metre-gauge railway, built at ernomous cost to human life and 160km shorter than first intended was now complete. 2493 of the contract workers died in the process. 4 workers died for each mile. At average 38 workers died per month.
The railway reached its goal of Lake Victoria and East Africa was transformed forever and opened up to the world. Curiously, Kenya was not declared to be a country in its own right (taking its name from the now famous mountain) until 1920 when its great potential had at last been realized.
The railway was expanded from Eldoret to Kampala (1931), bypassing the use of ships on Lake Victoria from Kisumu. Additional branchlines were built from Nakuru to Nyahururu (1929), from Nakuru to Rongai and from Konza to Magadi (1915).
The break up of the East African Community in 1977 marked the perceived beginning of the end of the region’s railway system. Each of the three East African countries took up running of its own system. In Kenya, railway and port operations were split between two state-owned corporations: Kenya Railways and Kenya Ports Authority.
The railway line is still in use today. The Rift Valley Railways, a consortium, runs passenger trains between Mombasa and Nairobi on behalf of the Kenya Railways Corporation – a state regulator.
The Kenya and Ugandan governments signed a joint agreement to allow concessioning of the line. In September, 2006, the World Bank approved the first grant ($70 million) to help the railway regain its position as a relevant and competitive mode of transport.