The Second-Best Exotic Lunatic Line

Updated: Aug 27

By Mark Nicholson

I took a train to Mombasa last week on the Chinese standard gauge railway (SGR, 1.435m) partly out of curiosity and partly because I now avoid the main road to Mombasa, which carries tens of thousands of trucks and buses a day on a narrow two-lane highway. A second-class ticket from Nairobi to Mombasa is amazing value at Ksh.1000 ($9) for 500 km; a first class ticket is thrice the price for hardly any difference in comfort. For comparison, a single ticket from London to Edinburgh (550 km) is $113. The train was clean, comfortable, modern, and full. Food and drinks trolleys plied up and down the corridors. Unlike on a British train, everyone was chatting (masks at half-mast), so it was quite noisy. I was the only one reading a book. The diesel-powered train departed at 15.00 (3 pm) and arrived on the dot of 20.08 (8.08 pm) as scheduled.

The new line replaces the old, small gauge (1m) railway constructed at the end of the 19th century from Mombasa to Kampala in Uganda, via Nairobi. That railway has an interesting history. If you Brits think your H2S is controversial, you should have been in London in the 1890s where building a line from the east African coast up into centre of the still-”dark” continent drove politicians into vituperative debate, personal animosity, despair and indubitably to drink.

It all started in1881 with the ‘Scramble for Africa’ when major European powers began occupying and grabbing vast areas of Africa previously opened up by slave dealers, explorers and missionaries. In 1884/5, the Berlin Conference was convened by Germany’s Chancellor, Bismarck, to bring some order to the subdivision of the spoils. Twelve European powers (plus the United States and the Ottoman Empire) were invited. African leaders were not asked to come and had no say in the decisions made, which has had major political and ethnic consequences ever since.

Ironically, Great Britain had never really wanted to get involved in East Africa. In 1824, a fake Union flag was raised in Mombasa by the local sheikhs who were being bullied by their slave-trading Omani overlords in Muscat. A Captain Owen, anchored offshore on a Royal Navy ship mapping the African coast, was soon coerced into raising the genuine flag. Mombasa became known as Owen’s Protectorate. The East India Company rapidly disavowed the annexation but as we see so often in history and right now, great powers become inexorably sucked into a quagmire. Half a century later, Uganda, 800 km inland, had become a hotbed of unrest between local chiefs, Christian evangelists, and Islamic traders. At the same time France, Belgium and Germany had their eyes on what Churchill would later describe as “the Pearl of Africa”.

In 1892, the Imperial British East Africa Company, originally set up ostensibly to thwart the Omani slave trade in Africa, managed to get the British Government to fund a survey for an inland railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. In Britain, sentiment was strongly divided between the ‘Little Englanders’, led by Gladstone and the Liberal maverick Labouchere, and the imperialists and expansionists under the foreign Secretary Lord Rosebery, and the future Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. Curzon had already warned Parliament that if the British did not build a line to Lake Victoria the Germans almost certainly would (and they did).

By 1895 the work started on the 657 mile (1050km) line. Progress was predicted to be 130 miles (200km) a year but exactly one year after starting, the railway had reached 23 miles (37km) out of Mombasa. At that time Africans were uninterested in paid labour, other than for occasional porterage. By the end of 1896, more than a quarter of the 2,000 Indian workers who had been brought over the ocean (ancestors of the substantial ‘Asian’[1] population of modern-day Kenya) had succumbed to malaria, dysentery, pneumonia, bubonic plague and tropical ulcers. Worse was yet to come: when the railhead reached a river at Tsavo (a local tribal name meaning ‘the place of slaughter’), a camp was set up to take advantage of the river after the waterless Taru desert. Lions were everywhere and a couple of wily old lionesses soon realized that easy meat was to be found among the coolies. Over 130 labourers were devoured over the next twelve months before an Indian Army officer, Colonel Paterson, shot the man-eaters but not before strikes, communal terror and desertion had delayed the work.

From there the line reached the Athi (after the Hindi name for elephant, hathee) Plains on the outskirts of what would become Nairobi. Construction continued into the highlands, beset by downpours, starvation, smallpox and tribal attacks. Thereafter the major engineering challenge began as the railway descended the Rift valley and up again to nearly 9,000ft. (2743 metres).

The railway provoked derision in Britain and a London magazine summed up the prevailing sentiment:

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 nobody knows.

What is the use of it none can conjecture

What it will carry there’s none can define

And in spite of George Curzon’s superior lecture,

It clearly is naught but a lunatic line.

And so it became the Lunatic Line, a name which stuck. Over the next thirty years, the train played a large role in taking European settlers to new pastures and for the transport of agricultural products such as coffee, tea and pyrethrum back to the coast for export.

I travelled on the old train many times. It was fun, quaint, slow, unsteady and rickety. Eventually diesel replaced steam. If I remember correctly, there were three classes of which the superior was the Upper Class. Occasional derailments occurred when a sleeping driver took a bend at 40 mph, well above the average speed of 12 mph (uphill) and 25mph (downhill). It was supposed to take 13 hours but frequently took 20.

Move forward a century and the Kenya Government decided on a replacement. The China Road Bridge Corporation completed the Mombasa-Nairobi section in 2017. It was extremely well-constructed with bridges and huge viaducts over valleys. The average speed shot up to 90-100 kph so the journey time is now 5 hours. Not as fast as the Wuhan to Beijing train I travelled on a few years ago (350 kph) but we climb over 5000ft (1500 m) to get to Nairobi.

If you are lucky you will still see elephants from the comfort of your carriage, but not near Nairobi or Mombasa. In 1899 the railway’s Chief Engineer, Ronald Preston, recorded what he saw on the Kapiti and Athi Plains near Nairobi: “...wherever one looked it was one moving mass of Hartebeeste, Wildebeeste, Zebra and the smaller antelope.” Today, as one leaves Nairobi’s 5 million citizens, one is more reminded of the train journey across the urban sprawl in Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Whitsun Weddings’:

All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense

Of being in a hurry gone. We ran

Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street

Of blinding windscreens….

Yes, the romance has gone. In the film Out of Africa, Dennis Finch-Hatton (played by Robert Redford) is seen halting the train in the middle of the Athi Plains so he can load his elephant tusk on to the train. Today the track runs alongside the manic highway.

The original Lunatic line was to cost £3.68m and ended up costing £5m. The new SGR was to cost $3.6 bn but eventually cost $5bn. (Why are all budgets inaccurate?) Are the costs comparable? The answer, astonishingly, is yes. One pound in 1890 is equivalent to, wait for it, £13,181 in today’s money (see the UK Inflation calculator). This means the original Lunatic line would cost £6.6 bn ($9.9bn) in today’s money but it went well over twice the distance of the second Lunatic Line.

So does the modern SGR deserve the sobriquet, the second Lunatic Line? Yes, primarily owing to the debt burden on Kenya, which took a loan of $3.23bn at a concessional interest rate. Kenya is highly unlikely to be able to service the debt over the 15-year repayment period. Kenya's overall public debt increased from 49% of GDP at the end of 2015 to an estimated 69% of GDP at the end of 2020. And the Chinese will want their money back. Secondly, the cost overrun meant the line only got as far as the middle of the Rift valley about 50 km north-west of Nairobi, where it peters out. The Kenya Government asked for a second loan to take it on to Eldoret in Western Kenya and from there to Uganda. That loan was refused so it is unlikely to go beyond Naivasha. Thirdly, the main railway stations in Nairobi and Mombasa are nowhere near the city centres, unlike traditional railway stations. The Nairobi terminal was built beyond the main airport. To get there, one has a 90-minute exhausting and polluted journey through appalling traffic ($20 by Uber). At the Mombasa end, the traffic is even worse and a taxi late in the evening will set you back $25. So, the first 10km will cost you $20, the second 500 km $9, and the final 15 km, $25. Total is $54 for a train journey time of five hours, plus one hour for security checks by bored Labradors, and then another two hours in a taxi. So I flew back (one hour), which cost $46.

Go figure.

[1]The incorrect term ‘Asian’ in East Africa has traditionally referred to those coming from West Asia or the Indian sub-continent. The term Indian is also incorrect as it does not cover those who haled from Pakistan or Bangladesh. Modern Kenya has seen a huge influx of Chinese who are also strictly Asian but the term is not used for them.