Featured Image Source: SawaSawa, Under Citation, https://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC4M589_the-lunatic-line?guid=cff7bd76-e563-4d7d-97ce-2cf6dc81d3de
Kenya’s historic century-old railway ran it’s last passenger service from Nairobi to Mombasa yesterday. The railway known affectionately as the lunatic line has been one of the most important infrastructure projects in Kenya’s short but incredibly interesting history as a nation. Built by the British with the aim of creating a link between the Indian Ocean and the source of the Nile via Kenya and Uganda. It was an engineering masterpiece and a lasting legacy of the power and resolve of the British Empire. Sadly like most things in the British Empire it was built at the cost of many lives and helped the British increase their control over the native Kenyan and Ugandan tribes living there and the thousands of Indian workers who were transported to the continent to help build the railway.
The railway is the stuff of legends, from Kikuyu prophecy that “An iron snake will cross from the lake of salt to the lands of the Great Lake” to the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo who killed as many as 135 African and Indian workers.
The line’s history is lined with blood and hurt. The British used the line to cement their power in East Africa, moving armies and supplies quickly to crush any resistance before the railway was finished it was already being used to stop any natives of standing in the way of the rail and the British. During the building of the railway almost 2,500 people died, most died because of disease and the hard working conditions of the railway. The most violent encounter was the Kedong Massacre. The Kedong Massacre killed more than 500 Maasai tribesmen and railway workers were killed. There were a number of reasons why the Maasai attacked the railway works, chief among them was the rape of two Maasai girls.
The history of the line is long and complicated but it is safe to say that the railway line changed the face of Kenya and East Africa forever. The places it touched would never be the same. It transformed the lives of millions of people for better or for worse.
It was the main forces and the reason that Nairobi exists. Transformed from just a small refuelling station for the old steam locomotives it turned into one of the largest metropolises of Africa and definitely the most beautiful. It was the reason why Mombasa got its modern port because of it. Many of the towns that lay on the line grew exponentially because of the railway and helped to connect Kenyans across the country and create one nation. Towns like Nakuru, Nairobi, Athi River, Jinja and Kampala. It has helped to transport millions of tonnes of cargo and people across the country, helping the Kenyan economy grow and mature.
The many stations’ buildings the dot the landscape tell a story of the countries history, many of them unchanged since the British left. They stand still in time, keeping the memory of the once great lunatic line alive. The crowning jewel of all these stations is, of course, Nairobi central railway station. The current building was built in 1899 was one of the first stone buildings in Nairobi and has been expanded throughout the 20th century.
On the 29th of April 2017, the lunatic line had its last passenger train pass from Nairobi to Mombasa. The new Standard Gauge Railway will open soon, the SGR will allow fast and more modern travel between Nairobi and Mombasa. The new trains will be more efficient and more reliable, allow more people and cargo to travel across the country. The new SGR will take over from the old British railway line and will help to continue creating jobs and connecting people.
The SGR is not the only reason why the old British railway is stopping passenger services, many years of neglect, little to no maintenance, competition from bus service and trucks have led to the railway being underused. The SGR was just the last nail in the casket.
The hope is that some day the Lunatic Line can become like the Blue Train in South Africa and become a luxury line for tourists to experience Kenya in a truly magical way.