The Uganda Railway at the beginning of 20th century.

I recently picked up a copy of each of the two volumes of ‘Permanent Way‘ written by M.F. Hill and published in 1949. The first volume [1] is a history of ‘The Uganda Railway’ written in the 1940s when the railway company was known as ‘The Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours’ and published at the end of that decade under the jurisdiction of the new ‘East African Railways and Harbours’ which was formed to formally include the infrastructure in the modern country of Tanzania.

Hill’s first volume provides a detailed history of the Uganda Railway until just after the end of World War II. This article covers the period from the beginning of the 20th century up to WW1.

The railway was handed over to the administration of the East Africa Protectorate on 1st October 1903. [1: p236] Before that date, the line was in use  first, until 1901, primarily as a construction line. The period from the beginning of 1902 until 31st March 1903 was treated as one accounting year. In that first ‘year’, the working deficit of the line was £49.690. This figure excludes interest on the capital  cost of the line. [1: p236]

The actual capital cost was assessed as £5,502,592 which had been financed by annuities by HM Treasury. An annual payment of £319,112 [1: p242] serviced these annuities. When they were finally discharged in November 1925, the Uganda Railway had cost the British taxpayer just under £7,909,295. [1: p243]

In the years following its opening a working deficit was converted into a working profit. Yearly figures are provided by Hill within the narrative of following chapters of his book.

1903/1904       –      -£60,101      [1: p280]

1904/1905       –         £2,639      [1: p280]

1905/1906       –       £56,678      [1: p290]

1906/1907       –       £76,763      [1: p293]

1907/1908       –       £64,713      [1: p300]

1908/1909       –       £64,838      [1: p304]

1909/1910       –       figures not provided by Hill

1910/1911       –       £98,519      [1: p308]

1911/1912       –     £131,373      [1: p320]

1912/1913       –     £209,046      [1: p330]

1913/1914       –     £213,484      [1: p337]

Hill provides a snapshot of the situation on the Uganda Railway on 31st March 1905: “the staff of the railway consisted of 53 Europeans, 176 Eurasians, 1,254 Indians and 3,050 Africans. … The railway had 70 engines, 209 units of coaching stock and 947 units of good stock. The engines consisted of the 34 English-built Class F and 36 American-built Class B, which had all been used on construction.” [1: p290]

The profit margins quoted above were struck “without making provision for the renewal of wasting assets, without any charge for interest on the capital cost, and it accrued not to the railway, but to the Treasury of the East Africa Protectorate.” [1: p280] This was done so as to meet the debt owed to the British taxpayer both resulting from grant-aid and the loans made to cover the costs of building the railway. The grant-aid to the East Africa Protectorate was £2,843,383. The charge on the capital cost, as noted above, was £319,112 per annum. [1: p281]

Winston Churchill in 1907, taken in London close to the time of his African Safari. [4]

Winston Churchill visited Uganda in 1907. Speaking about that time he commented that the Uganda Railway was “one of the most romantic and wonderful railways in the world.” [2: p3]

He writes: “Short has been the life, many the vicissitudes, of the Uganda Railway. The adventurous enterprise of a Liberal Government, it was soon exposed, disowned, to the merciless criticism of its parents. Adopted as a cherished foundling by the Conservative party, it almost perished from mismanagement in their hands. Nearly ten thousand pounds a mile were expended upon its construction; and so eager were all parties to be done with it and its expense that, instead of pursuing its proper and natural route across the plateau to the deep waters of Port Victoria, it fell by the way into the shallow gulf of Kavirondo, lucky to get so far. It is easy to censure, it is impossible not to criticize, the administrative mistakes and miscalculations which tarnished and nearly marred a brilliant conception. But it is still more easy, as one traverses in forty-eight hours countries which ten years ago would have baffled the toilsome marches of many weeks, to underrate the difficulties in which unavoidable ignorance and astonishing conditions plunged the pioneers. The British art of “muddling through” is here seen in one of its finest expositions. Through everything—through the forests, through the ravines, 5through troops of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating Parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway; and here at last, in some more or less effective fashion, is it arrived at its goal.” [2: p4-5]

On the Cow-catcher. (Mr. Currie, Mr. Marsh, Col. Wilson, Sir J. Hayes-Sadler, Mr. Churchill.) [2: p7]

Churchill continues: “The Uganda Railway is already doing what it was never expected within any reasonable period to do. It is paying its way. It is beginning to yield a profit—albeit a small profit—upon its capital charge. Projected solely as a political railway to reach Uganda, and to secure British predominance upon the Upper Nile, it has already achieved a commercial value. Instead of the annual deficits upon working expenses which were regularly anticipated by those most competent to judge, there is already a substantial profit of nearly eighty thousand pounds a year. And this is but the beginning, and an imperfect beginning; for at present the line is only a trunk, without its necessary limbs and feeders, without its deep-water head at Kilindini, without its full tale of steamers on the lake; above all, without its natural and necessary extension to the Albert Nyanza.” [2: p6]

Winston Churchill was clearly impressed with the line, in the state that he found it, in 1907.

It was under the tenure of Sir Percy Girouard as Governor that serious thought was first given to real development of the railway and other transport infrastructure – railway, roads, hospitals and schools, and agricultural, veterinary and social services. “The railway needed a deep water quay, or pier, at Kilindini, and branch lines to bring traffic from potentially productive areas, remote from the main line.” [1: p307]

Sir Percy decided that a branch line North from Nairobi through coffee and sisal plantations and on into Kikuyuland was needed, with the hope that later on it could be extended towards Mt. Kenya. This did not receive support from the Treasury until the plan was revised to request permission to build a ‘tramway’ thirty miles long from Nairobi to Thinks. [1: p307]

The Jinja Pier was built in 1912, it once served as the main export gate for Uganda. The the railway tracks can still be seen in the timber planking of the deck. [3]

Winston Churchill was a significant player in a decision to build a line from Jinja to Kakindi (the Busoga Railway) which was reviewed in 1911 as the port facilities developed were inadequate. A decision was taken to extend the line to Namasagali where better quay/port facilities could be developed. An amount of close to £170,000 was allowed for this line which could become a longer route to Lake Albert, a project put forward by Churchill which would have cost around £1.25 million. [1: p309-310]

Magadi Soda Works in 1994 (my photograph).

At a similar time, negotiations were ongoing with the Magadi Soda Company, a new venture, which was given a site at Kilindini to erect godowns and a pier for the storage and shipment of its products. The plan was to build a 106 mile branch line to Lake Magadi to permit economic transport of soda products to the coast. Capital of about £1.3 million was set aside for the whole project on the founding of the company. The Treasury agreed to £350,000 of expenditure on the mail line to upgrade buildings, locomotive fleet and rolling stock. [1: p311]

In order to expedite the development of facilities at Kilindini, the Railway took over responsibility for the port in August 1911.

In 1912 David Lloyd-George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, pushed a bill through parliament in the UK which allocated a loan £500,000 for the development of the port at Kilindini. In addition a series of smaller sums were agreed to cover the cost of: the line to Namasagali; the branch line to Thika; and the main line improvement to facilitate the branch to Lake Magadi. [1: p322]

However, the story of these years before the beginning of WW1 was one of inadequate stock and locomotives, with investment never quite keeping pace with demand. [1: p322ff]

In Uganda in 1912, “In addition to the loan of £170,000 for the building of the Busoga Railway, His Majesty’s Government granted a loan of £125,000 … for the improvement of communications in the Eastern province of the protectorate and the building of a short railway from Kampala to Port Bell on Lake Victoria.” [1: p327]

By March 1913, the Locomotive Superintendent reported: “With the power on order, there will be some 100 engines on the line, eighteen of which will be Mallet engines, equalling 36 ordinary type engines.” [1: p332] Of these Mallets, two were already in service and seemed, after some initial problems with the lack of familiarity of staff with the the locomotives, to be giving effective service. By the middle of 1913, eight Mallet engines had been delivered along with three further shunting engines.

The original Thika Railway tracks before the upgrading and refurbishment in the 21st century. [5]

Major Taylor, the General Manager, reported in March 1913, that the 6 mile long Port Bell railway was under construction and that the Thika line would be open to traffic by the end of October. [1: p333] His promise came to fruition with the opening of the line and in the same month a daily passenger service was inaugurated between Nairobi and Mombasa. [1: p337]

At the end of 1912, the Magadi Railway had reached Lake Magadi. However, it was not until 1914 that the Magadi Works was ready to start production. In the spring of the same year Parliament approved another loan to the East Africa Protectorate – a sum of £3 million of which £610,000 was allocated to Kilindini harbour, £957,000 to railway improvements. There remained £90,000 available from the previous loan associated with the harbour. This meant £700,000 could be spent on the renewed works at Kilindini. [1: p340-341]

Part of the main line improvement was the construction of 18 new crossing stations which would greatly increase the frequency of trains and the strengthening of bridges and viaducts to allow for a maxim.axle load of 15 tons. [1: p335, p337] Also of paramount importance was the strengthening of the rails from 50lb to 80lb and the replacememt of the sleepers with 109lb steel. The old 50lb rail was to be use for the branch lines. [1: p337]

By 1914, “the European population of the East Africa Protectorate was few more than 3,000. Of the 2,321 men of fighting age – including civil servants, missionaries and aliens – 1,987 served in the armed forces of the Crown, some for part of the war and some throughout the war.” [1: p342] The barest minimum of expatriates remained in the Protectorate throughout WW1.


  1. M.F. Hill; Permanent Way – The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway – Volume 1; Hazel, Watson & Viney Ltd, Aylesbury & London, 1949.
  2. Winston Churchill; My African Journey; William Briggs, Toronto, 1909.
  3., accessed on 26th December 2020.
  4. accessed on 26th December 2020.
  5., accessed on 26th December 2020.

3 thoughts on “The Uganda Railway at the beginning of 20th century.


    Good evening Roger,
    i have found your EAR pages fascinating and have read most. However with your knowledge of Uganda and its railways I wonder if you can help. I have been asked to talk about building the UR 1896 – 1901 which is straight forward but I am unsure about rlys in Uganda. When was the first line built. I understood 1921 onwards but was there one before this.
    Look forward to hearing from you. Happy New Year..
    Kind regards Kevin Patience

    1. rogerfarnworth Post author

      Hi Kevin there were two earlier railways run by The Uganda Railway. … The Busoga Railway ran from Jinja to Namasagali … and there was a short line from Port Bell to Kampala.

      An 11-kilometre (7 mi) rail line between Port Bell and Kampala was the final link in the chain providing efficient transport between the Ugandan capital and the open sea at Mombasa, more than 1,400 km (900 mi) away before the extension across the Uasin-Gishu Plateau into Uganda was built. Goods were transported from Mombasa to Kisumu, loaded onto steamers on Lake Victoria and unloaded at Port Bell for the short journey to Kampala.

      The Busoga Railway provided a bypass between Lake Victoria and Lake Kyoga for goods as the Nile was not navigable. Winston Churchill hoped that it might be the first step in a long railway north from Jinja.

      There was also a very short lived attempt to use a monorail near Kampala.


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