Railways in Colonial Times in what was known as ‘British East Africa’ …

John R. Day wrote two volumes in the early 1960s about the railways of Africa. The first was about the southern area of the continent and entitled, unsurprisingly, ‘Railways of Southern Africa’. [1] The second volume was entitled ‘Railways of Northern Africa’ and dealt with the remainder of the continent. [2]

An on-line acquaintance very kindly sent me a copy of the chapter from that second volume which covers British East Africa. Today, the chapter title would give cause for some concern, but colonial attitudes still held sway in the 1960s. [2: p24-41]

Reading that chapter piqued my interest and I managed to pick up a secondhand copy of the book at a reasonable cost.

I have written a series of articles about the Uganda Railway and its successors in Uganda and Kenya. Those articles  can be found here on my blog (rogerfarnworth.com). [3] These articles begin with a history of the mainline and then follow the route of the railway West from Mombasa. Later articles pickup on one of the volumes about the history of the railways in East Africa which were written by M.F. Hill. [4]

Day begins his chapter on British East Africa by quoting from Sir Winston Churchill’s My African Journey, which highlights what was very true in the very early years of the 20th century, “that the Uganda Railway did not pass through Uganda. It was a railway to it, not of it. ‘It stops short of the land from which it takes its name, and falls exhausted by its exertions and vicissitudes, content feverishly to lap the waters of the Victoria Nyanza.'” [4: p24][5]

The Uganda Railway: this map of the route of the line is included in Winston Churchill’s My African Journey. [5]

Day also remarks on the level of vitriol which was directed at the Uganda Railway during its construction, quoting The Railway Gazette of 1911, “It is doubtful whether any project has been so roundly abused and so soon proved successful as the Uganda Railway. Politicians of all shades of opinion had their fling at it in turn, and it was condemned as a permanent money-sink. Yet it went on being built, slowly but surely, and in the second year of full public operation earned a profit over its working expenses.” [6]  Day goes on to state boldly that it was this railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria which created modern Kenya!

In Day’s book a short note follows about the thinking which brought the Railway into being: “The Imperial British East Africa Company, formed in 1888 from the British East Africa Association, played an important part: one of its main objects was to suppress the slave trade. In 1890, the Company arranged for 60 miles of narrow-gauge railway to be built. From England came 65 miles of 2 ft. gauge track and from India came labourers: only seven miles were built, but it was named the “Central Africa Railway”. Later it was pulled up and the material re-used for a tram-line in Mombasa.” [2: p24][7]

Apart from the desire for good communications with Uganda, which, besides being a desirable territory in itself, controlled the head-waters of the Nile and thus much of the economy of Egypt and the Sudan, it was thought that the railway would end the slave trade. The argument was that the slaves travelled with the caravans, but once the railway was built it would so speed up and cheapen travel that the caravans would cease.” [2: p24]

Robert Clemm argues that “the territory of what would become the British colony of Kenya was little regarded by Europeans during the mid-to-late 19th century. At that time, it served as little more than a barrier to cross to places more renowned and important. For explorers who wished to verify if the reports of a snow-capped mountain in Africa were true, it was simply a land to traverse on the way to Mount Kilimanjaro. For British officials in the aftermath of the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, it was a land necessary to possess not for its own intrinsic worth, but only as a means to stabilize “effective occupation” and to preserve British dominance. For officers of the Imperial British East Africa Company, it was an obstacle to surmount to gain access to the much richer lands of Uganda. The construction of the Uganda Railway, however, radically changed the perception, and, by extension, the nature and history of Kenya. … The Uganda Railway was a piece of technology crafted to solve the joint political and economic concerns of the British Government in eastern Africa. In linking the coast firmly to Uganda it would solidify British control over a region contested by German colonial enthusiasts, and would ensure the prosperity of the region through the expected transport of cash crops to the coast. … As much as the Uganda Railway seems to present yet another example of the importance of technology generally, and the railway specifically, to the process of imperialism, it goes well beyond that. The “Lunatic Express,” as the Uganda Railway was nicknamed, illustrates the power of technology to create and transform well in excess of our own intentions. While its creators simply wished to solve the technical question of linking important regions via a stable transportation network, the railway fundamentally transformed the land over which it crossed. The transformation went beyond that of the physical land-scape, which would be leveled and etched with rails and ties, and extended to the very understanding of what Kenya was.” [8: p133f]

Mervyn Hill’s first volume, [4] demonstrates the way in which the Uganda Railway fulfilled the role that Clemm describes.

Day continues, in his chapter on British East Africa, to outline the survey work of a team of three Royal Engineers led by Captain J.R.L. Macdonald which sought the best route to Lake Victoria. Day comments that Macdonald “was concerned only to find the quickest and cheapest way from the coast to Lake Victoria: no one at that time was bothered about the highlands of Kenya.” [2: p25]

Day notes that the election of Lord Salisbury’s Conservative government in Britain in 1895 finally resulted in a decision to build the railway. He describes the decision taken in 1896 to build the line to metre-gauge as ‘unfortunate‘. It was a decision “based on the assumption that, as many Indian railways were of this gauge, rolling stock could be obtained quickly if needed in an emergency.” [2: p26] Day does not state why he sees the decision as unfortunate. It may possibly be because other railways on the continent were being built to a gauge of 3ft 6in, rather than metre-gauge.

Construction started with a 1,700ft timber viaduct connecting Mombasa Island to the mainland. This remained in use until an iron bridge was opened to traffic in July 1901. Day reports that relatively quick progress was made in 1896 with the railhead being 23 miles from the coast by the end of the year.

The story of the construction work in 1896-1898 was, however, a troubling one. “By the end of 1896, the number of Indian labourers had risen to about 4,000; but more than half suffered from malaria, which also attacked the European staff. Troubles continued to dog the work in 1897 and 1898. An outbreak of bubonic plague in India dried up the labour supply for months. All the camels and all but six of the 800 donkeys used to carry supplies died, as did over a third of the mules and more than nine-tenths of the oxen. Water had to be brought by train to supply the labourers. Transport beyond railhead was eased later by the importation of four traction engines and trailers.” [2: p27]

A revolt in Uganda and a mutiny by Sudanese troops saw the incomplete railway transporting large numbers of troops about 100 miles from the coast and it was the successful use of the railway by the military which gave greater impetus to the construction work.

The first 100 miles of the line has been opened to freight at the end of 1897, and to passengers early in 1898. In December 1898, a delay of three weeks with work completely shut down was caused by attack on workers by two lions. These attacks continued into 1900 and meant that the pace of the work was slower than it might have been. Nonetheless, by the end of 1897 rails were 256 miles from the coast.

By the end of May 1899 the rails had reached what became Nairobi and the railway headquarters were built there. “By the end of 1899, more than 18,000 Indian labourers were at work and the line was pressing on from Nairobi toward the escarpment and the site of the inclines. The first few months of 1900 brought heavy rains and partly washed away the earth- works east of Nairobi, causing delays. By this time the survey had been completed to the lake by a shorter route than that first envisaged, the locomotive stock had increased to over 90, and there were about 175 passenger vehicles and 900 wagons of various types.” [2: p29]

Day comments that a “new route had been found into the Rift Valley which avoided the reversing stations which Macdonald had thought necessary. At first, however, the Chief Engineer decided to use a funicular railway to carry material down into the Rift Valley so that the railway could be continued towards Lake Victoria without wait- ing for the permanent line. The vertical height of the funicular was just over 1,500 ft. and it was in four sections. The top section was at 1 in 6, the two middle sections at 1 in 2 and the bottom section at about 1 in 11.” [2: p28f]

On the top and bottom inclines, full wagons going down pulled the empty ones up again. On the centre sections, built to a gauge of 5 ft. 6 in., wagons were carried on special trucks so built as to have a horizontal deck on which were metre-gauge tracks for the railway wagons. These special trucks were hauled by a 1 in. dia. steel wire rope passing round a power-driven drum at the top of the incline. All four inclines were double track, but the lower portions of the 1 in 2 section were of gauntletted track, i.e. the two tracks were interlaced. A temporary railway led from the foot of the incline to the permanent line of route at a point 375 miles from Mombasa. The inclines enabled the railway to advance another 170 miles before the permanent alignment was finished into the valley and the funicular was taken out of use in November, 1901.” [2: p29]

March 1901 saw the railhead having reached 483 miles West of Nairobi, 17 miles behind the earthworks. The line reached Port Florence (later Kisumu) on 19th December 1901. It cost around £5.5 million and climbed more than 6,000ft en-route from Mombasa. Very soon minds turned towards extending the line to Uganda to avoid the need for the transshipment of goods onto and off lake steamers. Uganda was a different world to Kenya. “Sir Charles Eliot wrote in 1903: ‘To cross the lake [to Uganda] is like visiting another continent. The country is cultivated and thickly populated. There are good roads, fences and houses all constructed by the natives. The people are all clothed, and it is a reproach not to be able to read and write.’ The contrast with Kenya as it them was could not have been greater.” [2: p30] It is easy to see why Uganda was a target for colonial powers.

Winston Churchill continued his advocacy for an extension of the railway into Uganda. A deep water pier at Killindini was funded by the British government by means of a loan and £60,000 was allocated for the construction of a ‘tramway’ between Nairobi and Thika in Kenya. The ‘tramway’ was built to the same gauge as the railway and with gradual improvement over the years, became a defacto branch line.

An extract from a map produced by East African Railways and Harbours which shows the branch line heading away from the main line at Nairobi and running through to Thika and beyond. [2: p23]

Churchill’s advocacy resulted in the construction of a line between Jinja on Lake Victoria and Kakindu on the Nile and permitting access to Lake Kioga. The terminus was relocated during construction to Namasagali. The line was given the name, ‘The Busoga Railway’ and opened in 1912. I have written about this line and the article can be found here. [9]

A branch line to Lake Magadi was also constructed, running from Konza (282 miles from Mombasa) to the lake. It was around 100 miles in length. The Lake Magadi Soda Co. was formed in 1911 and later acquired a 99-year lease of the area and powers to build a pier at Kilindini. The branch line was complete in 1915. The line is referred to here and a pictorial record of a visit in the 1990s is included in that linked article. [10]

Another extract from a map produced by East African Railways and Harbours which shows the branch line heading away from the main line at Konza and running through to Magadi. [2: p23]

In the early years of the 20th century traffic on the mainline increased significantly. “In 1902, there were three or perhaps four trains a week in each direction. In 1912 there were 50 or 60: the working profit was £134,000.” [2: p32]

After WW1 the possibility of a line to the Uasin Gishu plateau was reconsidered. It was hoped that this line might eventually result in a further extension into Uganda. There was some heated argument about the best route for this line before work commenced on the new line from a junction at Nakuru in the the last few weeks of 1921. By 1923, a line as far as Sabatia was in use.

Another extract from a map produced by East African Railways and Harbours which shows the new line heading away from what was the main line at Nakuru and running through Sabatia, Equator and Timboroa. [2: p23]

The network continued to develop. The Thika line was extended to Nyeri. Work in the West of Kenya was also moving forward, decisions were taken to: extend the Usain Gishu line; create a branch to Mbale (in Uganda) from Tororo on the border; build a line from Rongai to Solai in Nakuru District; and a branch from Leseru to Kitali. All of these, bar the Mbale branch, were under construction by the end of 1924.

In 1926, the name of the railway was changed from the Uganda Railway to the Kenya and Uganda Railway, and at the end of that year 1,128 miles of railway were open.” [2: p34] By January 1928 the line reached the River Nile and an extension to Kampala from Jinja was under consideration.

In 1927, a further name change to ‘Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours’ was in place and more powerful locomotives were introduced with an increase in rail weight to 80lbs/yard on the length from Mombasa to Makindu. A new causeway was under construction to link Mombasa Island to the mainland. The causeway made room for both road and rail and was completed by a 5-span bridge. The Nyeri Branch was completed mid-year. The Branch to Mbale, extended to Soroti, was under construction and a branch from Gilgil to Thomson’s Falls was agreed.

A further extract from the East African Railways and Harbours map which shows the branch from Rongai to Solai, the branch from Gilgil to Thomson’s Falls and a length of the Nyeri branch. [2: p23]

Construction of the Thomson’s Falls Branch commenced at the beginning of 1928 and was completed by August 1929. The Soroti Branch was completed by September 1929 and the branch from Kisumu to Yala by November 1930. The Naro Moru Branch was extended to Nanyuki (visible to the right side of the image above) by October 1930.

The Jinja-Kampala line was started in early 1929 and the 58-mile line made such progress that track-laying was finished in January 1930. The inauguration has to wait for the completion of the bridge across the Nile, opened by the Governor of Uganda on 14th January 1931.” [2: 35f]

A portrait of East African Railways 59 class Garratt locomotive no. 5902, before it was named ‘Ruwenzori Mountains’. East African Railways and Harbours – A.J. Craddock’s personal collection of EAR&H publicity photos given to him during a visit to the Nairobi HQ in 1954 (EAR&H negative 961/1) – Public Domain. [11]

Engineers and surveyors were at work in Western Uganda in the 1930s looking for ways to connect through to the Congo but the world depression of the 1930s hampered any significant expansion of the network. Only a short length from Yala to Butere was completed. Trade improved in the late 1930s and new passenger and rolling stock arrived by 1939, along with six powerful Beyer Garratt Locomotives. WW2 brought a reevaluation of priorities, railway workshops were turned over to military uses. New lines were considered if they would enhance the war effort. One of these was an extenion of the Nairobi-Thika Branch to the North. A great deal of effort was put into the building of this line which in the end proved of little value as its intended use was overtaken by the speed of the military advance North from Kenya.

After the war, a line to the Kilembe Copper Mine was deemed essential. A route had been surveyed before WW2 and the idea was resurrected in 1950. Kilembe was expected “to produce 20,000-25,000 tons of copper and 1,500 tons of cobalt a year. The Government of Uganda came to the conclusion that a line would be justified and that the area through which it would run would be suitable for crop growing and cattle ranching.” [2: p37] The project was approved in January 1952, work began in the same month. The line was open to Mityana by August 1953 and to Kasese in August 1956. The construction work was demanding. Day tells us that “up to 5,000 men at a time worked on the new line, which ran in places through thick forest and in others demanded heavy earthworks. Embankments were needed to cross the papyrus swamps which the line traverses for some 40 miles of its route, and there are 24 bridges. The Lake George swamp demanded a four-mile earth embankment containing 18 million cubic feet of earth and included gaps spanned by three 60 ft. bridges. The swamp is fed by streams from the Rift escarpment and from the Ruwenzori Mountains, and concrete piers had to be sunk 40 ft. into the swamp to support the ends of the bridge spans.” [2: p38]

Where the railway drops down into the Western Rift Valley a great spiral was built to take the line down part of the 1,000 ft. difference in level. Apart from excavation and moving 60 million feet of earth on this and other parts of the escarpment stretch of line, blasting had to be undertaken where rock barred the way. When the rails reached Kasese, with the Ruwenzori Mountains just beyond, railhead was 1,080 miles from the sea. Traffic was flowing from the mines over the £5 million line to the smelting plant at Jinja, 263 miles away, by the end of the year.” [2: p38]

In 1950 a main line realignment between Nakuru and Nairobi (113 miles) was completed at a cost of £2.25 million, shortening the journey by 10 miles and easing gradients. “It included the 2,500ft Limuru tunnel and another at Gilgil in the side of the Great Rift Valley.” [2: p38]

In 1955, the railways in East Africa had their most successful year. Day tells us that the annual report for 1957 reviewed the decade since the war and the formation (in 1947) of the larger East African Railways and Harbours Co. with the inclusion of what were originally German colonial lines in Tanganyika (Tanzania): “Public goods on the inland transport services had increased from 2.6 million tons a year in 1948 to 3.8 million tons in 1957, and ton-mileage from 769 million to 1,454 million. (in 1962 traffic had risne to4.15 million tons and 1,661 million ton-miles.) The tonnage of imports and exports passing through East African ports rose from 3.1 million to 4.4 million. The locomotive stock rose from 234 in 1948 to 461 in 1957 and the number of wagons rose from 5,764 t0 9,594. The route mileage increased from 2,930 to 3,375.” [2: p39]

At the end of 1957, locomotive stock consisted of, “129 Beyer-Garratt, 222 tender, and 58 tank locomotives as well as 46 diesels. There were 994 coaching vehicles.” [2: p39]

1957 was a pivotal year for traction on the network. The Southern section (Tanganyika) was primarily run by diesel locomotives and railcars and some diesels were in use on the Magadi branch. 1958 saw ten new diesels (1,850h.p.) ordered and over the next few years significant expansion continued. Independence for Tanganyika (Tanzania) in 1961 put in doubt the continuing use of the Southern section as the new state would need to fund at least £200,000/year to keep the system.

In May 1963, an international committee of inquiry recommended that all steam motive power should be replaced by standardised diesel-hydraulic locomotives. Days final comment is that this would be a major undertaking as at the time 406 steam locomotives remained against 56 diesels(of which some of the largest were diesel-electrics) [2: p41]

It is at this point that Day’s history of the East African lines comes to a halt. He was unable to catalogue events of the later 1960s and beyond. His book was published in 1964.

A more detailed history can be found in M.F. Hill’s book Permanent Way: the story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway. [4] This book can cost significant sums on the secondhand market. I have produced a series of articles on it which begin here. [12]


  1. John R. Day; Railways of Southern Africa; Arthur Barker, London, 1963.
  2. John R. Day; Railways of Northern Africa; Arthur Barker, London, 1964.
  3. https://rogerfarnworth.com/category/railways-blog/africa/uganda-and-kenya-railways, scrolling to the bottom of the page will lead to the earliest articles in the series.
  4. M.F. Hill; Permanent Way: the story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway; 1950.
  5. Winston Churchill; My African Journey; Clay & Sons, Bungay, Suffolk, 1909. There is an e-book available on line on this link: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43035/43035-h/43035-h.htm, accessed on 12th April 2023.
  6. The Railway Gazette, 1911.
  7. I have covered the tramway in Mombasa in, “Mombasa, Kenya – A very early tramway?”, https://rogerfarnworth.com/2018/05/21/mombasa-kenya-a-very-early-tramway.
  8. Robert H. Clemm; The Uganda Railway and the Fabrication of Kenya; in Technology, Violence, and War; p133-154.
  9. https://rogerfarnworth.com/2018/06/12/uganda-railways-part-22-jinja-via-mbulamuti-to-namasagali.
  10. https://rogerfarnworth.com/2018/05/22/uganda-railways-part-6-ulu-to-nairobi.
  11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EAR_59_class#/media/File:EAR_5902_left_three_quarter.jpg, accessed on 15th April 2023.
  12. https://rogerfarnworth.com/2020/12/18/uganda-at-the-end-of-19th-century-and-the-events-leading-up-to-the-construction-of-the-uganda-railway.

1 thought on “Railways in Colonial Times in what was known as ‘British East Africa’ …

  1. dgb1959 (David Batho)

    Thank you for this update, Roger. I have now ordered both books to go with my copies of Permanent Way, bought second-hand. (AbeBooks is my friend…!) I keep hoping you might do a series on Tanganyika Railways.


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