Category Archives: Uganda and Kenya Railways

Various posts about railways in East Africa

The Kampala to Bombo Railway

017406I first came across this ‘railway’ completely by accident.

In a listing from a Google search for another matter, I came across the article by Henry Lubega below. I have discovered quite a bit more about the design philosophy since then. The system used for the line, the Stronagh-Dutton Roadrail System, is referred to elsewhere – particularly in “Narrow Gauge Steam … and other railway curiosities, Volume 1,” a ‘bookazene’ published by Kelsey Publishing [1] and in a relatively short publication by the Narrow Gauge Society. [2]

At first look, it seems quite an ingenious idea – removing the weight of the locomotive from the rails enabled much lighter rails to be used. In practice, however a whole series of factors rendered the idea impracticable.

There are a number of sources listed in the references at the end of this article, but it is worth drawing attention to which has a significant number of images relating to this system and its use around the world. [7]

A film of theStronach Dutton system at work [12] …

Henry Lubega speaks, in 2015, of ‘interesting colonial tractor trains that failed to take off in the 1920s and he talks initially of the death of this railway in the 1930s not long before the commencement of World War II. [3] Although later in his article he talks of it being operational until 1926. (The article is repeated almost word for word in the Daily Monitor of 14th March 2015.) [4]

Henry Lubega talks of two railways which were constructed in Uganda as feeder railways for the main Uganda Railway. There were actually three railways constructed in advance of the appearance the Uganda Railway.

One line ran from Jinja alongside the Nile to Namasagali, another ran from Port Bell into Kampala and the third was the railway from Kampala to Bombo.

The line to Namasagali (the Busoga Railway) is covered in  an article which can be found on this link:,

and in the history of the line on this link:

The route between Port Bell and Kampala had two different incarnations in the early years. The first was a monorail which is covered in the article you can find on this link:

The second was a metre-gauge line built some time before the Uganda Railway reached into Uganda. It superseded the monorail and  provided for the transport of goods which had crossed Lake Victoria from Kisumu, the original terminal of the Uganda Railway. You can find out a little more about this line by following this link:

The section referring to Port Bell comes towards the end of the linked article.

In addition, references are made to the line from Port Bell to Kampala in the historical account of the Uganda Railway based on M.F. Hill’s book, ‘Permanent Way’. For example:

The Kampala to Bombo line is not mentioned in the histories of the Uganda Railway. This is perhaps not surprising, as in many ways it was the pet project of the Governor of Uganda and was managed by the Director of Public Works. [2: p13]

Henry Lubega dates the Monorail from 1909-1914 and the Bombo line from 1923 to 1926. The Uganda Railway did not effectively extend beyond Jinja until the 1930s when the Nile Bridge was completed.

Lubega says that “the construction of the Kampala- Bombo road-rail was as a result of the consistent demand from the Uganda Chamber of Commerce and the Planter’s Association to the legislative council. A trial stretch was laid in 1920 from Kampala to Kawempe though the line from Kampala to Bombo did not operate commercially until 1st April, 1923. The following year, a branch of the Kampala–Bombo line to Gayaza was opened.” [3][4][5: p61]

This line was built mainly to facilitate the transportation of cotton from Bulemezi to Kampala, Although Lubega says that “there are speculations that it was built to ease transportation of military hardware to Bombo, hence it being known in some circles as the military railway.” [3][4][5: p61]

Writing in the Uganda Journal of March 1963, W. J. Peal says that “the railway used the ‘Loco-Tractor’ system invented by Frank Dutton of the South African Railways Motor Transport Department. [5: p61] Dutton patented the system in partnership with General Stronach of the Royal Engineers.

“The introduction of a novel form of light railway, cheap to construct and operate, aroused considerable interest. ” [5: p61]

“The major feature of these tractors was their large driving wheels which operated outside the rails on the roadway,” Peal says, and goes ahead to explain that the people behind these Loco-Tractors “claimed that it was capable of handling heavy loads on considerably steeper gradients than could be achieved by conventional railway locomotives.”

After the demonstration on 26th August 1920, of how the Loco-Tractor was to work, the Uganda Herald newspaper praised the new transport venture, saying: “Thus in a simple way has come what will in all probability prove to be the solution of the transport problems in the protectorate for if the tractor will do only half what is claimed for it, the results will be far reaching indeed. To H.E (His Excellency) who originated the idea of this form of transport in the protectorate are due the thanks of the community.” [5: p61-62]

The Development and Use of the Railway

While going for his annual leave in 1919, governor Sir Robert Coryndon left instructions with the then director of public works (the equivalent of a Minister of Works) Mr Claude Espeut to go ahead with experiments on the railway as soon as possible. Tracks were bought from the War Salvage Board for experimental purposes and a 300-yard (274-metre) track was laid near the Kampala station for the trials which were carried out in February 1920.

Trials were so unsatisfactory and public opposition so strong that the acting governor reported back to the colonies office saying: “The trials should be discontinued as they will take a much longer time to bear fruits yet the country’s transport needs were immediate.” [5: p62]

The governor, however, “insisted on having the project continue and he directed the director of public works to go ahead with the construction of a five-mile track, against the advice of all those concerned with the improvement of transport system in the country.” [5: p62]

The Governor, according to Peal, listened to two people whose advice he relied on in making his decision: “First was Frank Worthington, the governor’s brother-in-law, acting on behalf of road-rail Company in Uganda, who in September 1920 had applied to have his company construct the Mbale-Majanji railroad. The other was Major E. A. T. Dutton, the secretary to the governor and a relative to Frank Dutton, the inventor of the railway system.” [1: p62]. R.G. Cash, however, considers the two Duttons to be unrelated and of significantly different social standing. [2: p12]

By the time of Coryndon’s return from leave, the track from Kampala to Kawempe was complete and the trial run was done in August 1920. The experiment’s locomotive was a converted Ford Box motorcar from which the front axle and wheels had been removed to fit a rail bogie. The experiment journey from Kampala to Kawempe was covered in 12 minutes with a cotton cargo of three tons. [3]

Commenting on the experiment, The Uganda Herald of September 24, 1920, reported: “Perhaps more important, it convinced the members of the Chamber of Commerce of the potential of the road-rail.” [3]

In the Chamber of Commerce’s next sitting after the experiment from Kampala to Kawempe, it was resolved that “the chamber approves of the decision of the government to order a further 50 miles to be laid along Bombo Road. The chamber would welcome the opportunity of giving its opinion on the most suitable routes for any extension to be placed”. [3]

“One of the main attractions of the railway was how it was laid along the edge of the existing roads, for it to serve the public better by going through existing towns and villages. Some sections of the public were disappointment when government decided to reroute the Bombo railway along the Kitante valley from South Street because some sections of the drainage on Bombo road were badly affected during the rainy season. … Another reason was that it was better for the railway not to run through the centre of Kampala in order to avoid traffic distraction and the necessity to maintain level crossings.” [3][5: p64]

Upon completion of the construction of the track, two tractors were imported in mid-1922, however, in a joint report by the directors of public works and transport — G.N. Loggin and Major R.B. Hill respectively — entitled “The Stronach-Dutton system of road rail transport as in operation in the Uganda protectorate,” they stated: “As these two tractors were the first to be constructed much trouble and expense had been incurred locally in remedying the defects in both engines and chassis.” [3] [5: p64]

The first two tractors did not perform well. Replacements were ordered which arrived in May 1924. The Uganda Herald was skeptical. It predicted their failure. At first it seemed to be vindicated as without adaption, the tractors could not operate efficiently on wood fuel. It was the intervention of the foreman from the Busoga Railway which resulted in changes to operating procedures that they started performing to expectations.

However, in service, the railway did not perform well. In 1924 an average of 100 tons of cotton were produced in the Bombo region. The most that could be transported in one trip was 15 tons and only 46 trips occurred in the whole of that cotton season between March and May.

A commission of inquiry headed by Major Rhodes, the chief engineer of the Uganda Railway was set up. That commission concluded that the tractors would have been far more efficient using coal as fuel rather than wood or parafin and that maintenance of the permanent way required improvement. [5: p65]

“In 1925, the Uganda railway recorded its highest transport tonnage, but the following year it nosedived to its lowest. The fall was due to handling procedures at Kampala station, forcing ginners to resort to sending their cotton direct to Port Bell by motor vans than the railway.” [3][5: p65]

On 31st December 1926, the line was closed. Its performance is summarised by Peal in a small table which he gleaned from a letter sent by F. J. Hopgood: [5: p65]


The route followed by the line is illustrated on an sketch map which Peal included in his article in The Uganda Journal [5: facing p62] and which is reproduced below:


The Kampala to Bombo Railway. The loops of track shown on the enlarged view were required because the locomotives were unable to reverse! [5: facing p62]

The Road-Rail system was unable to pay its way. Despite providing attractive rates, customers were not willing to entrust their product to the railway because it was unable to function with sufficient reliability to compete with road transport. Peal provides income and expenditure figures [5: p68] which he extracted from the Director of Public Works’ final report on the line: [6]c


Peal provides details in his article in The Uganda Journal [5] of the ‘locomotives’ used on the line. He provides 4 illustrations which cover: first, in figures 2 & 3, the Guy-engined tractors [5: facing p66] and secondly, a prototype of the William Beardmore supplied steam tractors. [5: facing p67] 

Locomotives used on the line were: [5: p65-67]

  1. A Lacre 2-Ton van (1920 trials – locally converted road vehicle [2: p44])
  2. A Ford box car (1920 trails – locally converted road vehicle [2: p44])
  3. An Albion 32h.p. Lorry (converted locally, used for short journeys and shunting).
  4. Two Guy-engined Tractors (each had two 25h.p. internal-combustion engines).
  5. Two Steam Tractors (built by William Beadmore with Sentinel boilers [2: p46]).

R.G. Cash tells us that the two Guy-engined tractors were provided with bogies made by John Fowler & Co of Leeds. [2: p44] By the time these were supplied William Beardmore had become the sole supplier of Stronach-Dutton locomotives. [2: p24-25, p46]

Rolling Stock

Peal tells us [5: p67] that the Kampala to Bombo line had:

  • 10 No. 6 ton covered bogie wagons.
  • 2 No. 6 ton covered bogie wagons.
  • 2 No. bogie passenger cars each with a 28-person capacity
  • 20 No. 8 ton bogie platform wagons

Stations and Signalling

Peal notes that three locations were provided with lockable sheds which served as stations and goods yards. These could be found at Kampala, Gayaza and Bombo. they allowed goods and rolling stock to be stabled overnight. Each was 116ft x 25ft in size and in each case the line passed through one side of the structure, leaving the remaining 16ft width for the handling of goods. [5: p67]

Signalling was felt unnecessary as traffic was controlled by a self-contained telephone system. [5: p67].

Bombo 2The Route of the Line ……

Bombo 3I have been unable to find much in the way of records of the route of the line. However, based on Peal’s sketch map above, The line appears to have run Northeast along the modern Station Approach and Station Rd in Kampala to the junction between Station Road and what is now Yusuf Lule Road. The line seems to have followed the verge of Yussuf Lule Road, crossed the modern Kira Road at what is now Mulago Roundabout. There was a short branch at this location noted on Peal’s sketch plan as Mulago siding. At the end of the siding closest to the Bombo Road, there was a turning loop. That siding is not shown on the adjacent satellite images as its location is at the junction of the first two images.

I have endeavoured to transfer the probable/ possible route of the line to the adjacent satellite images. In some places the route seems relatively obvious and road alignments seem to support the existence of the old line at those points – these lengths are shown as a solid red line imposed on the satellite images sourced from Google Maps. However, even though shown as solid lines, the route should be considered probable rather than likely and others with better local knowledge my need to correct my assumptions.

Bombo 4In other locations, the route of the is shown with red dashes. At these points on the line, I cannot be sure of the route taken by the line, only that the line traveled through the area. At these locations the line shown should be considered as possible rather than probable. Again, I should be delighted if others with greater knowledge can correct my assumptions.

Please note, also, that the mapping follows the line South to North, rather than North to South. This means that the top of the first image will marry with the bottom of the second image … and so on.

Bombo 5It is worth noting that in Kampala and its suburbs, even if any remnant of the line existed as long as the middle of the 20th century, the modern intensive use of tarmac on main roads in the city and its suburbs will have completely covered any possible remnants of the narrow gauge line.

Bombo 6The line then followed the verge of what is now the Binaisa Road, passing Mulago Hospital and on towards the junction with the Bombo Road. There is now a roundabout at that point. The line did not, however, follow the Bombo Road, it seems to have more closely followed what is now the Gayaza Road on the East side of the Kalelwe River. It seems to have crossed the Gayaza Road in the vicinity of Kalerwe Market.

Bombo 7A short siding ran close to what is now the line of the Kampala Northern Bypass Highway, west towards the Bombo Road. This branch was known as the Kawempe Siding. It terminated in a loop adjacent to the Bombo Road. From this point Northwards the Bombo Road is marked on current maps as the Kampala-Gulu Highway or the Kampala-Masindi Highway.

North of the Kawempe siding the mainline followed a course between the Gayaza Road and the old Bombo Road. The route drawn by Peal approximates to the line of the Ttula Road. This appears on the third and fourth satellite images.

Bombo 8On the fifth image, a longer branch can be see diverging from the mainline to Bombo. As noted earlier, I have shown the first length of this branch-line in red dashes because it is impossible to tell what the alignment may have been over the first few hundreds of yards until the branch reached the Kampala-Gayaza Road.

Bombo 9The next few satellite images follow the assumed route of the branch-line alongside the Gayaza Road. On his sketch map (above), Peal shows the line following the road through to Gayaza.

There is little to note about this branch-line except perhaps its length. It was about 7 miles long, according to Cash. [2: p30]

Bombo 10Wikipedia tells us that in the early 20th century, Gayaza started as a road junction, where the road to Gayaza High School branched off the main road from Kampala to Kalagi.

Shops began to appear in the middle of the century when the Uganda Ministry of Agriculture opened an agricultural research center at Namulonge. Later, Makerere University opened a crop and animal farm at Kabanyolo to cater for the faculties of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine.

Bombo 10AToday, the township continues to grow and is continuous with Kasangati, a short distance to the south-east. [8] included in the run of satellite images is a typical Google Streetview image of the main road approaching Gayaza. The old narrow gauge branch line was alongside the old road which would have been much narrower.

Bombo 6Returning to the mainline, I have repeated the satellite image which shows the approximate location of the junction between the Gayaza line and the Bombo line. That appears just below the Streetview image of Gayaza.

It is difficult to be sure that the line I have chose to illustrate is the actual line of the Bombo railway. It seems from examination of the staellite images and Peal’s sketch (above) to be the most likely. I have, as elsewhere in this article assumed that, in general, the road alignment followed by the line will have survived, or that the presence of the line in the 1920s would have established a more widely used right-of-way which  over the decades has become more established.

The mainline continued North along the West side of Mpererwe. Even in the 21st century its surroundings are increasingly rural and we are approaching the limits of the Streetview images available through Google Maps.

Bombo 6AThat the alignment of the railway shown on the satellite images is at best tentative is perhaps best illustrated by a further Streetview image of what I think was the route of the line back in the 1920s. The image was captured in 2015. It shows the North-South road on the satellite image just to the north of the probable location of the junction between the Bombo and Gayaza lines.

Wikipedia tells us that Mpererwe is a trading centre that is gradually turning into a busy commercial area. Schools, gas stations, small-scale factories, hospitals, and a cinema hall are in this neighborhood. In up to 50 percent of homes, backyard urban agriculture is practiced. Because of the rapid urbanisation rate coupled with high unemployment, particularly among young people, the area is prone to crime. Despite those challenges, the neighborhood remains close-knit, with a modest cost of living compared to other areas of the city. [9]

Bombo 11The mainline probably continued in a generally Northerly direction through Kiteezi, which had a large landfill site to its Southeast. The Uganda Observer carried a short article about the landfill site in 2013, written by one of the site managers. [10]

Bombo 12It then turned more to the Northwest beginning to drift towards the Bombo road from Kitagobwa.

Bombo 12A These areas seem quite built-up on the Satellite images but much development is single storey and dispersed.

Bombo 13The next Google Streetview image shows the location of the junction between the Kigaga Road and the road to Kiti in the village of Kitagobwa. If I have the line of the railway correct, it followed the left fork in the Streetview image – to the left of the large tree in the centre of the picture.

Bombo 13AThe line passed to the Southwest of Kiti. The village/town is off to the right of what appears to be the alignment of the old narrow gauge railway. The railway followed the right fork in the Streetview photograph – essentially straight-on from the camera.

Beyond this point Google has not yet provided Streetview images and we will have to rely on just the satellite images from Google Maps.

Bombo 14The next district along the presumed route of the old railway is Buwambo which appears at the top of the next segment of the satellite imagery.

Bombo 15North of Buwambo, running through Migadde, there is much more uncertainty over the line followed by the old Railway, There are no roads following the approximate route shown in Peal’s sketch map above.

Bombo 16The old railway route is represented by red dashes through this area as it approaches the main Bombo Road – the Kampala – Gulu Highway.

Bombo 17North of Migadde, which straddled the Kampala-Gulu Highway, the narrow gauge Road-Rail line followed the verge of the old main road. Before branching away to the East-Northeast towards Bombo Town.

Bombo 18Bombo was the ultimate destination of the line. It has been a relatively significant centre since the formation of the Uganda protectorate.

It was an important cotton growing area at the time that the Kampala to Bombo Railway was operational. It was cotton growers need for good transport that  saw the railway built and it was its failure to meet the needs of the cotton growers which meant its failure and its closure were sealed.

Wikipedia carries details of the history of Bombo, but only from the 1960s. [12] ……

The area in which Bombo town is a main township became Bombo District, one of the first regions that initially received district status when Uganda became independent in October 1962.

In 1967, the district was renamed East Mengo. In 1974, Uganda reorganized from districts into provinces, and East Mengo became the Province of Bombo.

Provinces were reorganized into districts in 1980, and the district of Luwero was created, with Bombo town as one of the main town councils.

Many officers and soldiers of the Uganda Army (UA) settled in Bombo upon their retirement during the Second Republic of Uganda (1971–79). At the time, many inhabitants were Nubians, an ethnic group whose members were viewed as supporters of President Idi Amin.

The town also hosted the barracks for the UA’s Malire Regiment. As a result, Bombo was affected by the Uganda–Tanzania War. After Idi Amin’s government had been factually overthrown and Kampala been captured by the Tanzania People’s Defence Force (TPDF) as well as allied Ugandan rebels on 11 April 1979, UA soldiers of Nubian origin as well as their families began to terrorize other locals in Bombo.

After several killings, many younger soldiers fled the town, but the retired officers set up defenses to oppose the TPDF’s 201st Brigade that was approaching the town from the south. … The Battle of Bombo in April 1979 resulted in a Tanzanian victory. Several Ugandan defenders were killed, much weaponry was captured by the TPDF, and the town suffered substantial damage. Many Nubian, Kakwa, and Lugbara locals subsequently fled the town, fearing reprisals by anti-Amin groups.

Following the war’s conclusion, Bombo was not provided with relief aid like other settlements, as the new Ugandan government suspected its large Nubian population. Many buildings in the town continued to display damage suffered during the 1979 battle for decades.

Bombo’s barracks continued to be used during the Ugandan Bush War, and the Uganda National Liberation Army was known to imprison civilians there from 1981.

In the 1980s, Kenya forced many former Nubian inhabitants of Bombo to return to Uganda. They were denied refugee status, and often fell into poverty.

In 1995, Bombo was also stripped of its municipality status. Since then, locals have struggled to regain this status.

Encyclopedia Britannica  notes that Bombo, town is located in south-central Uganda about 23 miles (37 km) north of Kampala. Located in an agricultural region, it is a centre of trade for cotton, coffee, and bananas. Industries produce plywood and other wood products, footwear, beverages, textiles and apparel, rope and twine, glass, and structural clay products. The Encyclopedia records the population in 2008 as  19,400. [11]

As we noted above, the Stronach-Dutton Roadrail system was only in use in Uganda  for a few years in the 1920s. The route shown on the satellite images above assumes that Peal’s sketch map can be accepted as drawn and assumes that for the major part of the route of the line existing highways were followed, or the presence of the railway resulted in a public right of way becoming established. There are, however, gaps in the suggested line which may mean that too many assumptions have been made about the route followed. If other people have more, or better, information, it would be good to hear from them and then to adjust this article.


  1. Derek Rayner; The Stronach-Dutton Roadrail System; in ed. Paul Appleton, Narrow Gauge Steam … and other railway curiosities, Volume 1, Kelsey Publishing Ltd, Yalding, Kent, 2020, p72-79
  2. R.G. Cash; The Stronach-Dutton Roadrail System; in series ed. Alan Burgess; The Narrow Gauge; Special Issue No. 234; The Narrow Gauge Railway Society; Autumn 2015.
  3., accessed on 16th March 2021.
  4., accessed on 16th March 2021.
  5. W.J. Peal; The Kampala to Bombo Railway; in The Uganda Journal, Volume 27 No. 1, March 1963, p61-70, via, accessed on 16th March 2021.
  6. Entebbe Archives No. 6085 (Loco-Tractor) Part III, via via, accessed on 30th March 2021.
  7., accessed on 20th March 2021.
  8., accessed on 2nd April 2021.
  9., accessed on 2nd April 2021.
  10.…/23761-heres-the-truth-about-kiteezi-landfi…, accessed on 2nd April 2021.
  11., accessed on 2nd April 2021.
  12.,_Uganda, accessed on 2nd April 2021.
  13., accessed on 3rd April 2021.

The Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours – The Second World War ….. and after. ….

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 is the last article based on Hill’s book. Previous articles in this series based on Hill’s 1949 book are:

The Second World War

It was anticipated that, given the international situation in the first 8 months of 1939, followed by the first 4 months of the War, trade would decline significantly to the detriment of the railway. In fact it only declined 2% on the record levels of 1938. [1: p531]

Rates were pushed down to support the economy, but the railway still made a surplus of £208,422. The position was satisfactory with the one exception, provision to cover outstanding loans meant that the railway’s free reserves were only £155,045. This sum was clearly inadequate for the size of the undertaking. [1: p531]

“The railway was not called upon to undertake any major troop movements immediately upon the outbreak of war, because there were few troops to move.” [1: p532]

Initial fears in the British sphere of East Africa were allayed when it was discovered that the feared invasion by Italian forces was not going to happen soon. Mussolini decided to remain ‘non-belligerent’ during the first nine months. This gave East Africa important time to prepare.

“The railway had 3,000 goods wagons and 175 passenger coaches, of which 54 were derelict four-wheelers rescued from the scrap heap. Throughout the war there came no reinforcement of coaching stock, ships or lighters, and only thirteen new engines and 380 goods wagons – in terms of the work done, it was a very small reinforcement. During September and October all the obsolete engines, lying idle and waiting to be sold as scrap-iron, were quickly reconditioned, re-equipped and made ready for service. Fortunately the stock of coal was sufficient for eight months.” [1: p532]

“In general terms, the work of the railway went on in the normal manner, and there was no reduction of African and Asian staff. The earthworks on the realignment between Uplands and Naivasha has been started in August and the work was allowed to proceed. By the middle of 1941 the earthworks, retaining walls and the culverts of the new alignment were completed beyond Naivasha as far as Gilgil. Due to the general shortage of materials, completion of the realignment was then postponed until after the war.” [1: p532]

A reconnaissance survey  for the extension of the Nanyuki branch-like into the Northern Frontier Provence was finished by the end of September 1940.

“The total available European man-power in Kenya was 8,998, and soon more than 3,500 men were serving in the armed forces. Of the remainder, rather more than 3,000 were retained in occupations essential to the community. The great majority of the thousand or so European farmers left alone on farms were elderly or of low medical category. They were nobly reinforced by more than 800 European women, many of whom were left alone on farms and many of whom looked after more than one farm. About 6,500 European women, between the ages of sixteen and sixty, were registered for essential service in one form or another, and more than half of them were soon engaged in war-work outside their own homes.” [1: p533]

The railways made a significant contribution to the war effort. “The Nairobi workshops became the Ordnance Main Base Workshops of the East Africa Command. There was a wide range of excellent machinery and skilled men to run it. The shops were the only well-equipped mechanical workshops of any size in East Africa. … In the last 6 months of 1940 more than half the shops’ capacity was devoted to the equipment of the forces. During these months, the maintenance of the railway took second place to an extent which later made it difficult to cope with the arrears of repair. … [At the end of 1939,] the workshops were asked to design and build bodies for 22 motor ambulances, the first of 250 which were eventually built; to manufacture 72 three-inch mortars, 25,000 screw pickets for barbed-wire entanglements, 600 four-gallon water tanks; to make hundreds of stretchers, target frames, supports for anti-tank guns, and to undertake repairs to scores of Bren guns.” [1: p534]

Four Kenyan and seven Tanganyikan coaches were converted to form an ambulance train.

The list goes on and does not need to be repeated here. It is worth noting that in addition to the work at Nairobi, the railway workshops at Mombasa were proving of great value to the Royal Navy and to the Mercantile Marine. A variety of marine repairs were undertaken before the Navy installed their own dockyard facilities. [1: p536]

The transportation and engineering departments began to experience added strain because of the war effort. Between 2nd September and 2nd November 1939, 473 Eritrean deserters and 7,000 Abyssinian refugees had to be moved in 15 train loads, away from potential conflict areas in the North of Kenya. Throughout the war, dramatic increases in both traffic and passengers occurred. “By 1944, the goods traffic had soared to more that 2,000,000 tons, double that of record ore-war years, while the number of passenger journeys, exclusive if special troop movements, rose from about 1,000,000 in 1938 to 2.75 millions in 1944.” [1: p536]

The first clash of arms of the East African Campaign occurred at Notable, in the far North of Kenya. A force of 150 men held the British position in the first of ‘Beau Geste’ against overwhelming odds, around 10 times the ground force strength and Italian Air Power. The eventual retreat of the British force was achieved by stealth and guile.

The Italians began their advance into the Northern Frontier Provence, occupying Dobel and Buna. Another Italian force attempted to invade the Sudan without success. The Italian bombers were billeted within range of both Nairobi and Kilindini, but made no attempt to to bomb either target. [1: p540]

In the Northern Frontier Provence, highly trained British commanded troops soon gained the upper hand. “In Kenya, as in Libya and the Sudan, bluff was a potent secret weapon in the British armoury. The Italian intelligence reports presented a fantastic exaggeration of the real land and air strength. … A few technicians with carefully manipulated wireless sets … so deceived the Italian command that they were convinced of the arrival of an Australian division.” [1: p541]

By the autumn of 1940, the British forces main preoccupation had moved from defence to the mounting of an offensive against Italian Somaliland with The port of Kismayu as a target. [1: p541]

In November 1940, it was decided that the projected offensive “against Italian Somaliland required the building of a railway from Thika, on the Nairobi-Nanyuki line to Garba Tulla, a point in the Frontier Provence roughly halfway between the northern bend of the Tana River and the Uaso Nyiro which flows into the great Lorian Swamp. … The railway was called upon to build the new line, nearly 250 mike’s long, through grim country, as quickly as possible. … By the end of March 1941, when work was stopped due to the unexpected speed of … [the[ offensive, 217 miles of the line had been surveyed, and 117 miles staked out; 81 miles of earthworks had been completed, 7 major bridges were nearly finished, and 12 miles of track had been laid.” [1: p544]

The figures for 1940 were: “including the balance of £119,325 brought forward from 1939, there was a surplus of £554,433 for the year. … Of this sum, £21,000 was allocated as a reserve for the Superannuation Fund, £120,000 was contributed to the Betterment Fund, £300,000 was devoted to be a remission of charges on military traffic and £113,433 was carried forward.” [1: p544]

The rates charged on military traffic were radically reduced. Very low rates for troop movements were introduced. Speaking in 1946, the General Manager said that these rate reductions amounted to a saving to the British taxpayer of over £2 million. In addition, early in the war, a direct gift from the railway of £655,000 was made and an interest-free loan was made to the British Government of £500,000.

“On the other side of the ledger, Kenya colony and the railway were relieved of the contingent liability of £5,592,592 in respect of the original cost of the Uganda Railway on 21st May 1940.” [1: p545]

Total first- and second-class journeys rose firm 46,601 in 1938 to 77,089 in 1940. Increases in the population through settling refugees, the presence of the army, and petrol rationing all contributed to an increase in travel by train. Goods traffic in the year rose to 1,257,158 tons. This produced revenue of £2,184,752, only marginally above the receipts from 1935 which were achieve on transporting 849,795 tons of goods.

Although ton-milesbwere down on both 1939 and 1938 figures, wagon-miles increased from 68 million in 1939 to 74.5 million in 1940. [1: p545]

Public traffic was more evenly spread over the year but instead of significant amount of long-haul goods, there was intensive military traffic with frequent short-hauls and uneconomic wagon loads. [1: p545]

By the end of the year, the strain on the railways increased immensely.  In December, 46 special troop trains were run. In addition to the building of the railway towards Garba Tulla, the demands of the Army for sheds and sidings, stores and offices, were so large that a special engineering section had to be set up to cope with military work. [1: p545]

The military campaigns of 1941 which entered the Italian sphere and routed their forces was a great success. According to Hill: “In strategic conception the campaign was bold; in terms of organisation and execution it deserved all praise; and the most remarkable feature was the triumph of the engineers and of transport over immense distances and great natural difficulties.” [1: p550]

In comparison to the battles fought in “Russia, in northern Africa, in Italy and western Europe, the East Africa Campaign was a small thing. But it was the first complete success of British arms on land,band it had a far greater influence on the outcome of the war than us often realised. Of events had turned out otherwise … as once seemed possible and even probable – would it have been possible to hold the Middle East, or the Indian Ocean? If those two vital zones had been lost, the Germans and the Japanese might well have linked hands and the war would have been immeasurably prolonged.” [1: p551-552]

The railway was a major contributor to the war effort, between August 1940 and September 1941, “the railway carried 670,600 tons of military supplies, … special troop trains moved nearly 155,000 soldiers and 22,000 Italian prisoners of war. … Thousands of military passengers travelled by the ordinary train services.” [1: p552]

In 1941, traffic was greatly increased over the figures for 1940: freight ton-miles increased by 87 million; passenger traffic increased to 1,614,156 excluding military passengers (204,522); goods traffic increased to 2,257,761 tons; Kilindini Harbour dealt with 2,101,970 tons (cf. 1938 – 1,261,812 tons).

For the first time railway earnings exceeded £4 million, the surplus including carry forward was £1,217,083 (of which: £365,539 was devoted to remission of charges on military traffic, £321,214 was allocated to the Betterment Fund; £20,000 to the Superannuation Fund; £160,000 to the Rates Stabilisation and Relief Fund; and £350,330 to the General Reserve). [1: p552]

A wagon shortage was a serious problem, exacerbated by a concentration of wagons at depots awaiting shipments; demands for export cargoes at the coast at short notice; uncertain arrival dates for ships; the cancellation of shipments already notified; the use of covered wagons for troop movement; carriage of prisoners of war, third class passengers and livestock. Every effort was made to increase wagon turn-round times which resulted in shorter trains, over-use of coal, increased use of wood (which resulted in the use of less powerful engines0. [1: p552]

Six new Garratt engines in December 1940 and throughout 1941, was a  welcome improvement in haulage power but the Garratts were unable to operate with wood fuel. The rapid increase in passenger traffic could not be efficiently accommodated, rolling stock was aging  and available coaching stock was always given to the miltary as a priority. Public criticism grew. [1: p553]

Closer cooperation between the railway and Sudan Railways and the marine services on Lake Victoria became essential, as did better connections with the Tanganyika rail system. The General Manager (Brig.-General Sir Godfrey Rhodes was seconded to the Army in October 1941. He was transferred to Iran and as a result he finally resigned his post as General Manager in June 1942, after being absent for some 8 months. [1: p553]

His replacement was not appointed, even on a temporary basis, until May 1942. 1942 saw a further increase  in goods traffic and passenger numbers. Although military goods traffic fell slightly to 667,000 tons, “the total goods traffic increased to 1,808,624 tons and the passenger journeys by 42 per cent, to 2,333,033. The goods traffic would have been greater still if the short rains had not failed int eh later part of teh year, a misfortune which was partly responsible for the food shortage of 1943.” [1: p555]

Great difficulties were experienced in sourcing spare parts for the railway which were normally imported. The workshops had to rely much more on their own resources. Many engines had missed their intermediate 60,000 mile repairs and repair intervals were extended to 120,000 miles. Despite this the railways we able to meet the increases in engine mileage from 4,071,238 miles in 1939 to 5,546,577 in 1944. The workshops performed admirably, especially as they were still being called on to meet military needs as well as those of the railway. [1: p556]

During 1942, the railway placed a substantial order for new engines and rolling stock. In order to finance the deal, £500,000 was temporarily transferred from the  Renewals Fund to the Betterment Fund. Half of which was covered by an allocation from the 1942 surplus. At the end of the year, the railway was left with a surplus of £893,620, (of which £447,626b was paid to the Betterment Fund; £250,000 was repaid to the Renewals Fund; £26,369 to the Superannuation Fund; and £69,625 to the General Reserve). [1: p557]

Despite significant increases in income, the massive increase in traffic resulted in a rapid deterioration in the general condition of the railway infrastructure and rolling stock. All non-urgent work was deferred.

“By the end of 1944 the railway’s Capital Account amouted to £24,255,938, of which sum £14,139,229 was interest-bearing capital and £10,116,709 was free of interest,” coming from Parliamentary Grants and the railway’s own revenue streams. [1: p559]

in 1943, military traffic increased to 889,000 tons. Rainfall was was short of expectations, navigational difficulties began to be experience on the Great Lakes and a plague of locusts and famine once again threatened. Exports decreased in imports rose. The total goods traffic on the railway increased to 2,024,238 tons. Passenger journeys rose to 2,745,229. [1: p560]

In December 1943, the workshops had to  build 250 covered wagons and 130 high-sided open wagons which had been delivered as parts from the USA.

There was another large surplus at the end of 1943, (of this, £270,743 went to the Betterment Fund; £250,000 was used to wipe out the loan from the Renewals Fund; £29,500 went to a Gratuity Reserve Account; £100,000 to the Rates Stabilisation and Relief Account; £11,1430 to the Wartime Contingency Fund, and £152,831 was carried forward.

1944 brought no respite to the railway. Military traffic fell to 688,000 tons but the total goods carried rose to 2,084,594 tons. Passenger journeys rose to 2,752,647.[1: p561]

Seven new Barratt engines arrived – the ‘EC4’ class, as shown below, “although they were far less satisfactory than the engines of the ‘EC3’ class. The design of the new engines was imposed by the exigencies of war, and they gave a lot of trouble with hot axles and other defects. Due to unsatisfactory design, they required an intermediate overhaul sooner than was expected, and so they gave less assistance in hauling the heavy traffic than had been estimated.” [1: p562]


The official works photograph of a EC4 Class Garratt. [5]

“Although the machine shop was run night and day it could not produce enough finished parts to cope with the needs of incoming locomotives, which had generally run a greater mileage than was considered permissible before the war, in many cases without intermediate repair.” [1: p562]

Locomotives ran an average of 41,835 miles per engine. Very high mileages for Metre-gauge locos!

Both staff and stock were over the limits of their capacity/endurance. [1: p563]

“On paper the railway again earned a large surplus of £821,027; after adding the balance brought forward from 1943, £624,613 was allocated to the Betterment Funds, £267,245 to the Rates Stabilisaton and Relief Fund, £29,500 to the Reserve for Gratuities, and £52,500 to a Passages Equilibrium Reserve which was created to meet the heavy expenditure on passages for staff travelling on overseas leave, which was to be expected after the war.” [1: p563]

As is clear from these notes, the financial position of the railway was essentially no where near as good as the above figures suggest. The railway was rundown but because of the war it did not have the personnel resources to make use of surpluses in maintaining the railway. It was living off its capital! “The introduction of large engines and heavy and long trains … made it imperative to replace the present type of coupling and to effect improvements and alterations in the braking system if the standard of safety [was] to be maintained.”[1: p563]

The large surpluses of the war years  would not be sustained indefinitely. Further problems would need to be addressed so as to secure the future of the rail network. Hill points out that providing an adequate water supply and an adequate fuel supply was paramount. “The shortage of water [had] resulted in damage to and repeated failures of locomotive. …. Progressive steps [needed to] be taken to re[place wood as a lcomotive fuel. Apart from the fact that it [was] a comparatively inefficient for the production of motive power in a steam locomotive, there [was] always the ever-present risk of causing fires on land adjoining the railway, with consequent economic loss to the country.” [1: p564]

1945 was the fiftieth anniversary of the railway. “Bay 11th December 1945, the achievements of the railway had far surpassed the most optimistic dreams of its creators. By that time, also, the demands made upon it were creating a situation which grew the more difficult as the moths slid by.” [1: p564]

Strenuous arguments were made back in the UK in favour of radical action to increase the number of engines, rolling-stock, general equipment and staff. The entreaties fell on deaf ears and only two light Garratt engines were procured during the year. These were Class EC5 locomotives as shown below. The railway demanded 443,00 engine miles per month, the workshops had such a backlog of work that a reduced mileage had to be agreed. A guarantee of 390,000 miles per month was negotiated. In the end, through all manner of means, an average locomotive mileage of over 465,000 per month was sustained throughout 1945. [1: p564]


EC5 Garratt locomotive. ” of these were supplied to the network after WW2. [4]

The rolling-stock position was greatly hampered by the failure of wheel sets obtained in the USA – by the end of the year 160 bogie wagons were out of service. [1: 564]

Passenger traffic increased once again to 2,838,250 journeys. Freight traffic dropped as a result of a significant decrease in military traffic after the end of the war. However, there was a marked decrease in the goods carried which attracted significant subsidies. The result was a record revenue form goods traffic of £3,106,671. [1: p364-365]

“Despite attempts to tap new sources of supply, a shortage of water again proved a serious handicap. The rainfall was generally below average, and the lack of water caused grave anxiety in many directions besides the railway. In Nairobi the situation was critical, and it was patent that drastic measures to increase the supply were essential.” [1: p365]

Labour difficulties in Uganda adversely affected the running of all trains into the protectorate. Those difficulties and some lesser issues in Kenya led to a significant re-evaluation of wages and war bonuses. [1: p365] The administration of the rialway also needed to enhance productivity and sought ways to incentivise increased output. [1: p566-567]

Towards the end of 1945, it was agreed that the 1921 loan should be redeemed at the earliest opportunity. In December 1945, the complete amalgamation of the Kenya and Uganda Railway and Harbours with the Tanganyika Railway and Ports Services was proposed. [1: p567] Political expediency placed this proposal on hold. [1: p568]

From a financial perspective the railway did far better in 1946 “than had been expected, for earnings were £896,750 above the estimate. … The surplus amounted to £745,992 compared with an estimated deficit of £59,522. In 1947, there was much the same story to tell. The railborne tonnage incrased by 6.08 percent. over 1946, and the ton-mile figure for March was the highest ever achieved. The earnings were more than £1,000,000 above the estimate and the surplus amounted to £888,214. [1: 569]

“The shortage of materials of all kinds, especially wagon tyres, exacerbated the problems of coping with the increased traffic, and a series of coal crises made matters worse. … The difficulties of ensuring an adequate coal supply impelled a decision to change over from coal to oil, which would also cause a reduction in the fuel bill.” [1: p570]

During 1947, “32 third-class bogie coaches [arrived] and enabled an end of the practice, enforced by the war, of carrying some third-class passengers in goods vehicles. A Diesel rail-car service was introduced on the Kisumu-Butere branch in August, and proved very popular with the local population.” [1: p570] Two examples of these Wickham rail-cars are shown below.


Metre gauge 200hp Wickham Rail Car No. 3, one of the three 58 seater railcars built for the Kenya & Uganda Railways Kisumu-Butere branch line. Works Nos. 2828-2830 ordered in January 1939 and finally delivered in May 1946. Fitted with Saurer BXDL engines. (Public Domain [2]


Metre gauge 200hp Wickham Rail Car No. 2, numbered 2829 and delivered after WW2. (Public Domain) [3]

“Work on the Nairobi-Nakuru realignment, which had been held up during the war … was resumed” and eventually completed. [1: p570]

And over the period to the 1st May 1948, negotiations were undertaken to amalgamate the two railway systems in East Africa. This negotiations concluded on 1st May 1948 and Hill’s story of the old Uganda Railway ends at that point. He was, after all writing in 1949. We need to look elsewhere for the ongoing story of the railway network in East Africa from 1948 on through the gaining of independence by Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda up to the present day.


  1. M.F. Hill; Permanent Way – The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway – Volume 1; Hazel, Watson & Viney Ltd, Aylesbury & London, 1949.
  2., accessed on 29th March 2021.
  3., accessed on 29th March 2021. 
  4., accessed on 21st March 2021.
  5. and, accessed on 19th June 2018.

Uganda Railways – Part 10A – West of Nakuru – Sugar Factory Branches on the approach to Kisumu.

On the final approaches to Kisumu the line passed through a significant sugar cane growing region. Sugar processing factories were set up in two locations along the line – Chemelil and Miwani. Both these locations were provided with short branch-line connections to the main Nakuru to Kisumu line. Both of these branch-lines are shown on the 1:250,000 OS Maps from the second half of the 20th Century. [1] The extract below is taken from an image file very kindly sent to me by James Waite.


Chemelil Railway Station was 26 miles East of Kisumu and was mentioned in Part 10 of the main series of articles about the Uganda Railway which can be found on this link:

chemilil-railway-station-25-03-2016-e1484401060558Chemelil Railway Station. [2]

Chemelil in the mid-1950s. A double headed passenger train arrives at Chemelil, 26 miles from Kisumu .  The pilot engine is 2445  (c) Ron Bullock. [3][4]

Children cross the tracks at Chemelil. [2]

The short branch-line to Chemelil Sugar Factory left the mainline just to the Southeast of the Station beyond the C37 road. The next image shows a trip-working on the branch-line in the 1970s.


Although the condition of the locomotives running on the mainline freight service dictated the need for a double-header, the short branch to the sugar mill at Chemelil was out of bounds to heavier of the two locomotives in charge of the train, No. 2924. This meant that No. 3145 had to make the trip along the branch-line on its own. This picture is (c) Rob Dickinson and used by kind permission. [8]

The branch travelled over relatively flat land, its junction with the mainline is shown on the first satellite image below it is followed by a series of satellite images which follow the line of the branch.

Chemelil 1

The branch junction at Chemelil was sited to the Southeast of the C37 road (Google Maps).


Chemelil 2

The branch travelled North East away from the mainline (Google Maps).


Chemelil 3

The C37 and the route of the branch-line soon converged (Google Maps).


Chemelil 4

Road and rail ran parallel to each other for a short while (Google Maps).


Chemelil 4a

Road and Rail ran parallel to each other just a few metres apart (Google Streetview)


Chemelil 6

As the C37 approaches a large roundabout, the branch turns gradually away form the road (Google Maps).


Chemelil 7

Just Southeast of the large roundabout junction between the C37 and the C34 the route of the line crossed the C34 and turned further round towards the East (Google Maps).


Chemelil 8

And across the southern side of the workers village at the Sugar Factory (Google Maps).


Chemelil 9

The line continues across the South side of the Factory workers village (Google Maps)


Chemelil 10

Before swinging away to the South (Google Maps)


Chemelil 11

And then round to the North along the West side of the settlement (Google Maps).


Chemelil 12

Then back around to the West as it approached its terminus in the industrial complex (Google Maps).


Chemelil 13

Chemelil Sugar Factory from above (Google Maps).

The Mainline to Kisumu travelling Northwest from Chemelil Railway Station followed a straight line to Kibigori. The next two images are taken just a short distance to the Northwest of Chemelil Station.

Chemelil 1A - (c) Joshua Obera - April 2018

Looking Southeast towards the Chemelil Railway Station (c) Joshua Obera – April 2018. [9]

Chemelil 1B - (c) Joshua Obera - April 2018

Looking Northwest towards Kibigori, from the same location (c) Joshua Obera – April 2018 [9]


Rehabilitated bridge at km 174 on the Chemelil – Kibigori Section (c) Kenya Railways January 2021. [5]

Kibigori Railway Station was only a short distance Northwest along the mainline beyond the Nyando River. The adjacent photograph shows the station building. [6]

Leaving Kibigori, the line now travels due West to Miwani and then on to Kisumu.

Kibigori Station 1

Kibigori Railway Station (Google Maps)

Miwani 1

The Miwani Sugar Factory branch-line. [1]

Miwani Station building is shown below, the Sugar Factory branch-line left the mainline just to the East of the station and ran directly to the Sugar Factory. Subsidiary lines spread out at the factory to serve close-by cane fields. It is interesting to note that there were also a series of more temporary light tramway lines in use, as explained below.Miwani Railway Station Building. [7]

The route of the branch-line is shown on the satellite images that follow:

Miwani Station 1

Trains from the East were able to access the branch on a facing turnout/point (Google Maps).


Miwani Branch 2

The branch ran alongside the railway station approach road from the Sugar Factory and the C34 to the North, almost all the way to the Factory. The full length is not shown in these satellite images (Google Maps).


Miwani Branch 6

Immediately before reaching the factory sidings the line crossed the access road while turning towards the Northwest and was joined by one of the distribution lines from/to the cane fields (Google Maps)


Miwani Branch 7

The Miwani Sugar Factory. Its sidings were on its Northeast flank (Google Maps).


Miwani Branch 8

The approximate layout of the feeder lines to the Factory. These were supplemented by lighter tramways which are explained below (Google Maps).

Miwani Sugar Factory was once named the Victoria Nyanza Sugar Company and was one of the earliest plants of its kind in Kenya. The notes which follow are gleaned from a paper written by Godriver A. N. Wanga Odhiambo, “Colonial Sugar Production in Nyanza: (Kibos-Muhoroni) The Asian Initiative, The Genesis, and
Development of Kenya’s Sugar Industry, 1903-1963.” [10]

Given the problems of transporting sugar cane along relatively poor roads The Victoria Nyanza Sugar Company set up an alternative means of transport to the raods and the heavier metre-gauge lines. Large-wheeled metal containers were moved around the sugar cane estates on the Company’s own trolley or tramway lines. This network required its own ordinance, (the Victoria Tramway Ordinance No.1 of 1922). This ordinance was introduced specifically to enable the company to convey sugarcane from the neighboring farms to the factory on trolley lines which were drawn by small locomotives. [10: p205]

Wanga Odhiambo says that “a tramway was built in 1923 by the Victoria Nyanza Sugar Company, starting on its own estate and running along a line of a public road, and terminating at the Kibos railway station.” Wanga Odhiambo [10: p206] If this is correct, the trolley way would have followed the line of the C34 road which appears in the satellite images above and would probably have been an extension to the short length of line that appears on the satellite image above.

Wanga Odhiambo also comments that: “According to the agreement between the Victoria Nyanza Sugar Company and the railway, the company was allowed the use of the railway siding line from Miwani railway station to the company’s nearby sidings. This was meant to be used for light trolley conveyance; thus the railway provided the engine for use of the trolley.” [10: p206]

“Farmers were expected to allow feeder lines to be laid and maintained in their fields for transport of cane from the adjoining farms by extension of the feeder line. Farmers also had access to portable tramlines which were connected to the nearest mainline and when not in use these were removed and returned to the nearest mainline. This arrangement by the Kenya-Uganda Railway facilitated the transportation of cane from the farms to the factory, but again it could only help those farmers whose farms were near the railway line, since the feeder lines were not very long.” [10: p207] 

The cost of using the mainline was high and only 8 wagons were provided by the Uganda Railway per day for moving cane along the mainline. The result was quite an extended network of trolley lines being created to enable  cane to be transported to Miwani from as far away as Chemelil.

The majority of these tramways/trolleyways have left little evidence of their existence, they were light and easily moved and they were often moved to suit the needs of farmers.


  1. Modern versions of the 1:250,000 Map of Kenya can be sourced from a variety of online sales sites. This extract can be found on Map No. SA-36-04. 
  2., accessed on 24th May 2018.
  3., accessed on 25th May 2018.
  4., accessed on 22nd March 2021.
  5., accessed on 24th March 2021.
  6., accessed on 22nd March 2021
  7., accessed on 22nd March 2021.
  8., accessed on 22nd March 2021.
  9.,35.111779,3a,75y,90t/data=!3m8!1e2!3m6!1sAF1QipOswTA_nt0PRTN_1v6oYXNZrtHhPp95MV0Ifcm4!2e10!3e12!!7i1920!8i2560!4m5!3m4!1s0x182a85c2400ef241:0x40029cd4350e8b0a!8m2!3d-0.1059847!4d35.111779, accessed on 23rd March 2021.
  10. Godriver A. N. Wanga Odhiambo; Colonial Sugar Production in Nyanza: (Kibos-Muhoroni) The Asian Initiative, The Genesis, and Development of Kenya’s Sugar Industry, 1903-1963; West Virginia University; Chapter 5 p199-228; accessed via, on 24th March 2021.

The Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours – The Great Depression and Years of Argument

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.

Previous articles in this series based on Hill’s 1949 book are:

The Great Depression and the Pre-War Years

This article covers the final period between WW1 and WW2. Despite the title of this chapter in Hill’s book which refers to years of argument, these notes focus on the railway rather than on the political machinations of the time.

“Towards the end of 1928, the representatives of the Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours and of the Tanganyika Railways met in Nairobi to consider ways and means of securing an assimilation of the traffic of the two systems.” [1: p 476]

The two railway systems abandoned preferential rates for local produce [1: p476] and arranged for the through booking of passengers and goods [1: p477]

Throughout 1928 and 1928, the development and improvement of the railway made good steady progress. Twelve Mikado engines, pictured below, arrived, along with 3 modified corridor coaches. [1: p477]

The East African Railways and Harbours Magazine carried a single page article on the Class 28 locos in 1955. [4]

Mombasa to Nairobi replacement of rails was completed in February 1929. Between M’bulamuti and Namasagali two additional sleepers per length of rail were added to permit the use of larger locomotives. At Kilindini further improvements were made and a new tug was purchased. [1: p477]

Railway construction was progressing well:

  • Gilgil to Thomson’s Falls: started January 1928. – 48 miles completed by 31st August 1929.
  • Tororo to Soroti was completed in September 1929.
  • Jinja, Uganda – The Bridge Over the Nile. The completeion of the bridge and its opening in January 1931 saw the completion of the route from Mombasa to Kampala. [2]

    Kisumu to Yala was delayed by heavy rains and only completed  in November 1930.
  • Naro Moro to Nanyuki was completed by October 1930.
  • Jinja to Kampala started in 1929 and other than the bridge over the Nile was completed in January 1930. The bridge was opened to traffic in January 1931. [1: p478]

Further extensions West from Kampala were under consideration. Survey parties looked at possible routes to the border with the Belgian Congo – South of Ruwenzori and South of Lake Albert. [1: p478] Revenue estimates were not possible without a clear commitment from the Belgian authorities. [1: p479]

“By the end of 1930 the days of inflation, the years of heavy loan expenditure and of soaring revenues were finished, and the railway was struggling to balance its budget by drastic economies which, in effect, added to the havoc of a vicious deflation. At that time, the total route mileage of open lines had increased to 1.557 miles and the route mileage on the Lakes to 3,246 miles. The railway’s expenditure on capital account amounted to £21,463,704 of which £13,097,160 was interest-bearing capital. … The annual loan charges borne by the railway amounted to £690,181 and they were still rising.” [1: p481]

From Autumn 1928 to the end of 1931 two plagues of locust devastated the East African economy. [1: p481/482] In tandem, the stock market collapse at the end of 1929 in New York led to international problems with deflation. There was a startling drop in the value of primary products on world markets. [1: p482]

East Africa was particularly susceptible to the combined problems of drought, locusts and economic disruption:

  • Maize dropped in value to around 1/3rd of its 1928 price;
  • Sisal dropped to around a quarter of its 1928 value;
  • Butter to around 1/3rd;
  • Wattlebark to around 1/5th (Wattle is the same as ‘Acacia’)
  • Hides in Narok fell to 1/5th of their former price;
  • Ghee fell by 66%; and
  • Beans and Wimbi (finger millet) fell by 50%. [1: p483]

The value of Uganda’s exports at the ports fell from £4.3 million to £2.1 million in 1930. It was estimated that the fall in value of Uganda’s exports reduced railway revenue by around £400,000. [1: p483]

The situation in Kenya initially appeared different, heavy rains contributed to a sharp increase in the colony’s domestic exports by around £677,000, but by the following year they had fallen by over £1 million and they continued to drop. They’d sunk to £1,910,000 by 1931. Uganda’s exports had fallen in value to below £2 million. [1: p483]

Early in 1930, the important reduction of the 2% grade on the main line between Makupa and Mazeras to 1.5% was started. It was complete by November 1930 and included the provision of a spiral which lengthened  the line by 3/4 mile. [1: p501]

Nairobi-bound trains pass under the higher level of the spiral before then crossing over the lower line. Malcolm McCrow provides a few images from 1970s. [3]

In 1931, the combined earnings of the railways and harbours declined to £2,246,837, and in 1932, to £2,172,946. [1: p502] By 1934, the combined earnings of the railways and harbours were £265,270 less than in 1929 but ordinary working expenditure had been reduced by £543,120 as a result of reductions and efficiencies made by the railways. The nett surplus was £344,654. The countrywide  reduction in the transport of lower value crops meant that traffic reduced but was focussed on higher value traffic. [1: p517-518]

In 1935, the surplus increased to £362,391. A succession of good cotton crops in Uganda contributed to the restoration of the railways finances. [1: p518]

In 1936, the surplus improved again, to £415,048 even though the railway authorities had applied some rate reductions for the transport of goods at the end of 1935. [1: p518-519]

In 1937, gross earnings of the railways and harbours reached a peak of £3.35 million and the surplus was £584,326, of which only £105,196 was carried forward, the remainder was committed to Betterment, the General Reserve, the Pensions Reserve, and depreciation. Hill provides a table which shows that 1937 compared well with 1929: [1: p524]

Year                                                                           1929                            1937

Railway Revenue (excluding Harbours)     £2,448,960                  £2,715,524

Railway ton/miles                                           385,708,364                504,274,001

Railway Working Cost                                     £1,445,070                  £1,261,278

The Great Depression was described by the General manager as a “blessing in disguise, in so far as it had imposed new standards of efficiency and economy. During 1937, rate reductions estimated to cost £155,000 were introduced and further reductions estimated to cost £146,200 came into force on 1st January 1938.” [1: p524]

In 1938, the railway surplus was £285,796. In order to assist coffee producers through a period of low international prices, rates for them were reduced in both 1938 and 1939.

Planned railway improvements included regrading the main line between Uplands and Nakuru at an estimated cost of £446,000. Work started between Uplands and Gilgil but the remaining length to Nakuru was delayed by negotiations with farmers over transport rates. The advent of WW2 put the argument and the improvements into abeyance. [1: p525]

Throughout 1938 and 1939 railway policy was influenced by a growing recognition that another world war was inevitable. In September 1939, the General Manager wrote that “the railways and harbours had never been in a better position than they were in the September of 1939 to meet all the demands that might be made on them. In 1938 and 1939, the railway received a substantial reinforcement of new rolling stock, including 193 covered goods wagons,b115 open trucks and 35 third-class corridor coaches which were to prove invaluable for troop movements. Six new Garratt [EC3 Class] engines, built to specifications worked out by Mr. K.C. Strahan, the Chief Mechanical Engineer, and his staff, arrived in 1939 and proved a great advance on earlier types. The railway workshops were well equipped and the general stores position was satisfactory. In consequence, the railway was able to play an indispensable part towards the victory of the East African campaign and the maintenance of Kenya and Uganda’s economy,” during World War 2. [1: p526]

The KUR EC3 class, later known as the EAR 57 class, was a class of 4-8-4+4-8-4 Garratt-type articulated steam locomotives. The twelve members of the class were built by Beyer, Peacock & Co. in Manchester, England, for the Kenya-Uganda Railway (KUR). They entered service between 1939 and 1941, and were later operated by the KUR’s successor, the East African Railways (EAR) [5]


  1. M.F. Hill; Permanent Way – The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway – Volume 1; Hazel, Watson & Viney Ltd, Aylesbury & London, 1949.
  2., accessed on 18th February 2021.
  3., accessed 14th May 2018.
  4. Staff writer (April 1955). “”28″ Class Locomotive” (PDF). East African Railways and Harbours Magazine. East African Railways and Harbours. Volume 2(2): p57. Accessed on 17th June 2018.
  5., accessed on 19th June 2018.

The Uganda Railway: the Gilded Years 1924-1928

Great advances in the development of East Africa occurred during these years. A serious attempt was made to unify the East African Territories. “Kenya became a playground for wealthy sportsmen who came to shoot, or to photograph, big game, and they spent much money on their sport.” [1: p443]

The following Earnings/Working Profits are recorded in or estimated from Hill’s narrative:

Year           Earnings        Working Profits

1924          £1,635,189       £756,722            [1: p447]

1925          £1,993,509       £903,438            [1: p456]

1926          £2058,710        £841,937            [1: p459]

1927       £2,257,403       £1,030,000           estimated [1: p463/4]

1928       £2,511,227               –                     [1: p475] working profit not recorded by Hill

1929       £2,825,310               –                     [1: p475] working profit not recorded by Hill

The 1924 the working profit was reduced by £149,004 of loan charges.£165,579 was credited to the Renewals Fund and £438,139 to the Betterment Fund. Together with other sums, the result was that in 1925, £750,000 was put to a programme of renewals/betterment. There was also heavy expenditure on port development, new lines, rolling-stock and equipment. East Africa’s transport needs were expanding rapidly. [1: p447]

A search on Facebook produced this composite image on the Baringo New Channel [2]


Twitter carries this image of a railway bridge on the metre-gauge line in hilly Timboroa [3]

By the end of 1924, the Uasin-Gishu line had reached Timboroa; the Thika line had been extended to the Tana River. The Solai branch and the Kitole branch were under construction.

During 1925, the Thika line was expected to reach Nyeri, and the Uasin-Gishu line beyond Timboroa, through Turbo into Eastern Uganda was being funded by a £3.5 million loan. It was required – there had been a very rapid increase in traffic which was causing significant connection at the ports on Lake Victoria and at Mombasa. [1: p448/9]

At the end of 1924, 30 miles of the Mombasa to Nairobi mainline had been relayed with 80-lb rails. Work continued slowly through 1925. [1: p450]

On 3rd February 1926, the Kenya & Uganda (Transport) Order in Council was promulgated. The name of the railway was changed from the ‘Uganda Railway’ to the ‘Kenya & Uganda Railway’. [1: p453] At this time the Inter-Colonial Railway Council held its last meeting. The railways were placed under the command of the High Commissioner who was also Governor of Kenya and a new ‘Kenya & Uganda Railway Advisory Council’ held its first meeting in February 1926 at Entebbe. [1: p453/4] It decided that the most pressing need was for there to be negotiations with the Tanganyika authorities to ensure that the two railway systems collaborated, rather than competed, with each other for custom. [1: p454]

There was continued criticism of congestion at ports and in Uganda, [1: p457] with goods delayed and damaged in transit. Criticism failed to take account of a significant increase in demand for railway services, nor of problems at ports which were outside of the control of the railway authorities.

By 1926, the mainline rail replacement programme had reached Makindu, 207 miles from Mombasa. New Central railway offices were under construction in Nairobi. The Uganda extension has reached the Eastern edges of the M’pologoma Swamp but the length heading East was over 10 months behind schedule due to supply problems across Lake Victoria. [1: p462]

In 1927, a commission to review the possibility of uniting the three East African Territories was set up. When it reported in 1929, it suggested that the two railway systems of East Africa must eventually be amalgamated under one management. “Meanwhile … there was much that could be done in the direction of assimilation of rates, the standardisation of engines, rolling stock, equipment and rules and regulations, all of which would greatly facilitate amalgamation in due course.” [1: p467]

In September 1927, Felling, a strong supporter of ‘Closer Union’ spoke his mind in the Legislative Council. As part of his comments he stressed that one management of the Kenya and Uganda Railway and the Tanganyika Railway must “come in due course, but there [was] no urgent need for amalgamation of management’s; and anyway, such an amalgamation would be very difficult to arrange until there  [was] a definite railway link connecting the two territories.” [1: p468]

Further, he said, on the same occasion, that “it [was] clear that it [was] necessary for the general development of this part of the Empire that there should be rail communication between Kenya and the Central Tanganyika line, also a steady programme of railway construction to connect the Tanganyika Railway with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland …  [and] perhaps two lines, to the Congo.” [1: p468]

He argued that “railway development in East Africa should not be looked upon so much as an East African investment as a sound Imperial investment, as in the interests of the people of Great Britain even more than in the interests of the native inhabitants of the territories concerned.” [1: p469] He also argued for the rapid completion of a rail link from Jinja to Kampala.

In 1927, developments in the railways brought the advent of corridor coaches and dining cars. These were essential to a satisfactory timetable. 6 No. Mikado (2-8-2) locos were put to work on the 89-lb rails between Mombasa and Makindu. [1: p470/1]

Kenya & Uganda Railways Mail Train 1930’s Vintage Card. [4]

Kenya & Uganda Railways Mail Train 1930’s Vintage Card. [5]

The KUR EA class, later known as the EAR 28 class, was a class of 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 3⁄8 in) gauge 2-8-2 steam locomotives. The six members of the class were built in 1928 for the Kenya-Uganda Railway (KUR) by Robert Stephenson and Company. Builder’s numbers were 3921-3926. They were numbered 2801-2806 on the Kenya & Uganda Railway. [6]

A road and railway causeway/bridge between Mombasa Island and the mainland was commenced in June 1927.

In addition to the Uganda extension, building of branch lines continued:

  • On 1st November the Nyeri branch reached lnaro Moru.
  • In Uganda, work commenced on the Tororo, Mbale, Soroti branch in February 1927.
  • A branch from Fulfil to Thomson Falls was approved.
  • A line from Kisumu towards Mumias was proposed.
  • A preliminary survey for a branch from Turi to Sotik was completed. [1: p471]

The Kenya & Uganda Railways & Harbours Logo, (c) Martin Greave, 2003 [7][8][9]

The railway’s name was changed by Order in Council on 20th December 1927, to the ‘Kenya and Uganda Railway and Harbours’. [1: p472]

On 15th January 1928, the final section of the Uganda Extension from Broderick Falls to M’Bulamuti opened to traffic. Within 9 months Christian Felling had died as a result of a severe attack of malaria.

The figures listed above show impressive growth in the years to 1929. The figures fr the following period fell just as rapidly as we will see. Hills says that “although it was not yet apparent, the railway, in common with Kenya and Uganda and the greater part of the civilised world, had come near to the end of the gilded years of prosperity.” [1: p475]


  1. M.F. Hill; Permanent Way – The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway – Volume 1; Hazel, Watson & Viney Ltd, Aylesbury & London, 1949.
  2., accessed on 6th February 2021.
  3., accessed on 6th February 2021.
  4., accessed on 6th February 2021.
  5., accessed on 6th February 2021.
  6., accessed on 6th February 2021.
  7., accessed on 6th February 2021.
  8., accessed on 6th February 2021.
  9., accessed on 6th February 2021.

The Uganda Railway in the first 5 years after World War 1

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 between WW1 and WW2.

In the years immediately after WW1, further European settlement was encouraged and ‘European’ electoral areas were set up. By 1921, the Census revealed the European population of the EAP to be 9,651 and the Indian population to be 22,822. [1: p379]

No effective provision was made in the 1919 Ordinance which established the European franchise, for Indian elected representatives. This was a cause of Indian resentment [1: p379f] Changes in India led to a greater Indian interest in politics in what, in 1920, became the Kenya Colony. The annexation of the EAP took place in June 2020, only the area lease from the Sultan of Zanzibar were excluded (a 10 mile wide costal strip).

In addition to the Indian issue, political turmoil/controversy revolved round issues which had an ill-effect on the new colony’s economy. These included:

  • the virtual bankruptcy of The Uganda Railway;
  • the need for drastic reorganisation;
  • the lack of aboriginal contribution to the colony’s economy – the native population was producing little of value on world markets;
  • the Indian community had yet to make a net contribution to the economy of the Colony.

The number of ex-pat European farmers was only 1,339, most in financial difficulty because of lack of experience, falling prices and a “disastrous currency conversion.” [1: p381] …… The rising value of the Indian Rupee against the pound resulted in a dramatic increase in the sterling value of all local services and commodities. The European settler in 1919 received 850 rupees for £100 instead of the rate before the War of 1500 Rupees for £100. If the £3 million loan first discussed in 1913 had been raised in 1919 its value would have been a third less than in 1913. The farmer also received far fewer Rupees for his sterling exports – he had to sell twice as much produce to meet his liabilities. [1: p382]

After much debate and extensive negotiation the sterling value of the East African Rupee was fixed at 2 Shillings. This was relative parity with the Indian Rupee at the time, but within 6 months the exchange rate in India settled back to historic levels of around 15 Rupees to the pound. [2: p384f]

Settlers costs were as a result fixed at a very high level, their income was held down and then they had to watch as Government salaries were increased by 50% to maintain the value of salaries at an equivalent sterling value. All government related costs charged to settlers where increased by more than 50%. [1: p385f]

Pressure to revert to a conversion rate of 15 Rupees to the pound was resisted by HM Government, the 2 Shilling (Florin) of the Rupee was maintained. However, a local review highlighted a need to create a lower standard denomination and this was eventually accepted. The order came into force on 1sr January 1922 and the Shilling became the standard currency its value set at 20 Shillings to one pound sterling. [1: p388]

The new currency maintained the high exchange rate and as a result local costs had to be reduced. Native labour lost 33% of the increase which came from the high exchange rate although, in practice, this meant that their buying power returned to historic levels.

Hill comments that another effect was the greater pressure placed on the aboriginal/indigenous populations in the reserves to take up paid employment outside the reserves. The terms on which this occured were seen by Mission Societies and the Aboriginal Protection Society. Hill says that this was an ill-informed response, however the parallel scheme in Uganda was more onorous. “In Uganda a native could be called out to work, by compulsion and with no pay, for thirty days a year,band for a greater variety of communal purposes than in Kenya.” [1: p392]

Hill says that by 1920, Kenya was planning to extend the line across the Uasin-Gishu Plateau towards Uganda and the Thika Line to Nyeri. The lack of local labour resulted in the Kenyan authorities it arrangements for forced labour into line with Uganda which inevitably drew more criticism. [1: p392]

Hill tells of a significant debate over the relative merits of the settler’s need for labour and the protection of the rights of indigenous labourers. By 1921, Winston Churchill, who had just inherited the role of Secretary of State ensured that the Kenyan Government would only use forced labour when it was absolutely necessary. In 1922, this became a statute at the time when it also became a requirement to seek HM Government approval for the use of compulsory labour. In 1923, Uganda followed suit. [1: p393]

Between 1919 and 1939, compulsory labour was only once called upon to work for the State. “In 1925 the Secretary of State agreed that compulsory labour should be employed on the extension of the Uasin Gishu Railway and on the line from Thika to Nyeri. In each case the need was urgent, because construction was severely retarded – with heavy financial loss – by a lack of labour. The largest number of compulsory labour employed in any one month was 1,500 on the Uasin Gishu line and 1,300 on the Thika-Nyeri line.” [1: p394]

Hill notes that as of the end of March 1920 the outstanding grant and loan balances available to improve the railway were £1,301,033. The settlement of the rupee-shilling conversion in 1921 enabled the colony to raise a loan of  £5 million of which over £4.2 million was designated for use on the railway.

In May 1921 it was decided at a meeting in London that the financial year of the Kenya Colony should become the same as the calendar year.

Over the next few years, the recall of the Military Governor, Sir Edward Northey, led to a significant change in direction for the colony. Northey had worked to the dictum that European interests were paramount and that Indian interests should not be ignored [1: p397ff] The new commitment of HM Government is described by Hill, quoting from the Devonshire White Paper: [2]

“The general policy underlying any decision that may be taken on the questions at issue must first be determined. It is a matter for satisfaction that, however irreconcilable the views of the European and Indian communities in Kenya on many points may be, there is one point on which both are agreed, namely, the importance of safeguarding the interests of the African natives. …” [1: p399]

This policy change was significant. Hill says that HM Government now regarded “themselves as exercising a trust on behalf of the African population, … the object of which may be defined as the protection and advancement of the native races.” [1: p400]

Whether Hill interprets the situation correctly may be open to interpretation, certainly the Wikipedia article about the White Paper suggests a slightly different motivation. [2] However, it does seem to be the case that the net result was Kenya avoiding the route that was pursued in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. [2]

Returning to focus more directly on The Uganda Railway. … The Working Profit of the Railway, even when enhanced by some creative accounting was much lower immediately after WW1 than in earlier years. The figures from within Hill’s account are:

1919-1920         £62,582        [1: p402]

1920-1921      £155,916        [1: p404]

1921                  £15,883        [1: p407]   –   only 9 months and in the midst of a worldwide depression.

1922                  £56,785        [1: p436]

1923                £300,910        [1: p439]

34 No. ‘G’ Class locomotives were delivered by the North British Locomotive Co. and 17 of these were in service by the end of March 1920. At that time, two more were on order from Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. Ltd. A daily service once again became possible along the full line. However, of the 36 new locomotives, 21 were intended for the Magadi Line traffic. [1: p402]

It was as late as 1st April 1921 that the Secretary of State finally rules that the working profit of the railway was no longer to be regarded as available for general colonial revenue purposes and that any surplus generated was to be used:

  • first, for renewals, upkeep and betterment of the railway;
  • second, for meeting loan charges on future development costs;
  • third, for a reduction in railway rates. [1: p404]

Hill notes that the general improvement in the economy brought significant pressure to bear on the railway – the numbers of engines, carriages and goods wagons available  for use was short, it seemed, on what demand required. Despite night-shift working in the maintenance facilities, 24 engines were in the year awaiting overhaul in August 1920. [1: p405] These problems were mitigated by using 17 locomotives and 108 covered wagons intended for the Magadi Line, as anticipated traffic did not arise from the Soda Works until 1921. [1: p406]

At the end of 1920, Lieut.-Colonel F.D. Hammond was appointed by the Secretary of State as Special Commissioner for Railways, Eastern Africa. He arrived in Kenya on 20th January 2021 and left on 24th August 2021 after completing his tour of investigation. His report brought about a new era in the history of The Uganda Railway [1: p409,410]

Meanwhile, Hill writes, there was a significant debate being played out over the route of the Uasin0Gishu Line. An argument had been put forward for a revised alignment which left the existing main line  on the Mau Plateau rather than at Nakuru. There would have been significant initial cost savings if proponents of this route were to prevail. However, given the increasing levels of traffic from Uganda, major improvements on the existing line between Nakuru and Mau Summit would inevitably be necessary in the relative near future. The ruling grade would have needed to be improved from 2% to 1.5% and concomitant improvements to structures would also be required if transportation costs were to be kept as low as possible. The originally surveyed route from Nakuru would, while costing more initially, would result in lower transportation costs. [1: p410-414]

Hill comments: “There is no doubt that the conclusion reached … in favour of the Nakuru route was sound, although much of the financial argument could not be sustained. … The line took far longer to build than was expected, it proved exceedingly expensive and, during the building, there was persistent friction between … the Chief Engineer … and the senior representative in Kenya of the contractors.! [1: p141]

Hammond, says Hill, reported in May 1921 that he was in full agreement with the Nakuru route “being economically the proper one to choose.” [1: p415] He strongly urged acceptance of that route. Hill goes on to say that while this debate was raging, “Hammond was devising a plan for the complete reorganisation of the railway.” [1: p415]

A new ‘Inter-Colonial Railway Council’ was set up with terms of reference provided by Lord Milner, the Secretary of State, which made that Council the effective administration authroity for the railway and all auxiliary services. Hill says that they were “to be administered as a single instrument for the benefit of Kenya and Uganda by a body of men who, with the expection of the Chairman (Hammond was in the Chair at first) were unlikely to have much experience of railway policy or practice.” [1: p419]

When Hammond left Kenya in August 1921 the position of General Manager of the railway was decreed by the Secretary of State as including the role of Chair of the Council. [1: p422]

Hill goes on to discuss the Hammond report – the main points raised were that there:

  • had been gross inefficiencies in freight transport – goods from Kisumu to Mombasa were taking close to 8 days to travel a distance for which the working timetables allowed 2.5 days. Goods from Mombasa to Nairobi were taking as much as 12.5 days to cover the scheduled running time of 1.33 days. Hammond estimated that the efficient running of the network would result in an 11% surplus capacity with the existing availability of goods wagons at the heaviest envisaged traffic levels (including for Magadi’s output). [1: p422-423]
  • was a need for a marked improvement of the telegraph system to ensure safe operating of the railway; [1: p 423]
  • was a need  a better cleaning regime, particularly of passenger stock; [1: p 423]
  • was too much centralisation of maintenance and no progress in developing maintenance facilities, particularly for locomotives; [1: p 423-424]
  • were huge stocks of coal; [1: p 424]
  • was major work required to maintain/replace machinery in teh worskshops; [1: p 424]
  • were ineffective financial controls in the workshops and in the Chief Mechanical Engineer’s Department; [1: p 424]
  • was a major need for investment in replacement of time served timber buildings; [1: p 424-425]
  • was undue pressure on the General Manager from the Protectorate Government to minimise expenditure on the railway; [1: p 425]
  • was no programme for replacement of railway structures.  Although properly maintained, structures would not be adequate for the axle loads of the next generation of locomotives; [1: p 426]
  • was an over-provision of steamers on the Lakes with no possibility of sale to others; [1: p 426]
  • was no possibility of improving the capacity of Lakes steamers as Kisumu Port could not be developed to accommodate ships with a greater draught; [1: p 426-427]
  • were significant losses on the Busoga Railway and the Port Bell-Kampala line caused by a failure of the Railway to properly credit income to those lines. Thos losses were then being born by the Uganda Government; [1: p 427]
  • was a need to focus on generating traffic from Uganda and the Belgian Congo [1: p427]
  • was work to do to address expensive, slow and cumbersome systems in the Stores and Accounts Departments.
  • were too many staff drawn from India rather than from a wider pool and very little intention to employ local staff to do anything other than manual roles. [1: p427] This meant that the railway was entirely dependent on the economic and political circumstances which might arise in India. [1: p428]
  • had been a failure over 20 years to train local technical staff especially when compared to the situation pertaining in Tanganyika which had been in the German sphere of influence. [1: p428]

Hammond placed the highest priority for action on creating a comprehensive technical training scheme for local staff. He proposed the diversion of capital from the £300,000 fund set aside for the provision of additional rolling stock.

He instituted, with Railway Council agreement, a new goods tarrif system which focussed on maximising revenue. It had a tapering system of rates dependent on volumes carried and a far simpler classification of goods. The system was uniform across the network and ensured that “no transport be done at less than cost price.”[1: p429]

He also insisted that the General Manager should place a high priority on public relations and must “be directly represented on Chambers of Commerce and other local associations.” [1: p429]

Hammond estimated that the required annual contribution to a Renewals Fund should be around £280,000 and that there should also be:

  • a three-year programme to replace worn out plant/machinery at a cost of about £24,000/annum; and
  • a five-year programme of building replacement costing £112,000/annum. [1: p 430]

He emphasised the paramount importance of separating colony and railway finances, and suggested that capital costs for the development of the railway were for the colony to bear, withe the railway being tasked with the operating of the network. [1: p431]

Hammond also stipulated that, to ensure fair-dealing with Uganda, Kenya and Uganda should be placed under one Governor-General or High Commissioner to whom the railway would be responsible. [1: p432]

As a final matter, he looked into the status of the Voi-Kahe branch built during WW1. His recommendation was that “the last 57 miles of track at the Modi end of the Tanga line be picked up and used for the betterment of the costal section [in Tanganyika] and that the Voi-Kahe line be retained, regraded and realigned. He considered that the cost of the reconstruction of the Voi-Kahe line should fall upon Tanganyika as the chief benefactor, and he devised a financial arrangement whereby the Territory would bear all loss and collect all profit derived from the line. [1: p433]

Implementation of Hammond’s report was delayed by political issues. There was major controversy over the probable impact of his recommendations and implementation was delayed “pending further negotiations and discussions.” [1: p434]

The railway concentrated on reform of its own administration. The Railway Council pressed for urgent action where economies could be immediately effected. [1: p434-435]

In January 1922, the Council considered the reduction of coal stocks. It decided that the General Manager had acted in the best interests of the railway in purchasing the coal but considered that the information given to him “as to the state of the home markets at the time in question left much to be desired.” [1: p435] It was resolved to sell surplus coal stocks at the best prices obtainable.

At the end of 1922, a new General Manager was appointed. Within 3weeks or arriving, C. L. N. Felling, ” had devised a scheme for the control of the railway. It was discussed for nearly two years, but the eventual Order in Council differed little from Felling’s original draft. [1: p435]

After considerable debate, a final decision over the Voi- Moshi line was made. It was resolved to keep the line open. [1: p437-439] “Within a few years the line was paying its way, and it later became the first section of any railway in British Africa where the engines were driven by Africans, who also provided the bulk of the signal and station staff.” [1: p439]

At the end of 1923, the General Manager’s report announced a significant programme of new construction which included  the extension of the Uasin-Gishu line to meet the Busoga Railway in Uganda. “Considerable extensions and improvements to the mechanical workshops were carried out during the year and the repair of locomotives … was up to date. During 1823, thirty-seven engines were thoroughly overhauled, five were scrapped, … and twenty new engines were erected.” [1: p441]

A Uganda Railway GD Class 4-8-0 Locomotive. The first of these was built in 1923 by the Vulcan Foundry of Nasmyth, Wilson and Co. They were numbered 162 to 217 and layer became Class 24 Locomotives as The Uganda Railway developed. [6]

Hill comments: “Within a year, Christian Felling had created an amazing improvement in the working of the railway. The financial position and prospect had changed for the better beyond the most optimistic prediction. It was only the start of great achievement: in the next 4 years he was to transform the railway and it’s finances.” [1: p442]



  1. M.F. Hill; Permanent Way – The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway – Volume 1; Hazel, Watson & Viney Ltd, Aylesbury & London, 1949.
  2. Wikipedia notes: This document was intended to create “a compromise between Indian interests and those of the Europeans, despite its affirmation of African paramountcy. [3] Nevertheless, the Paper allowed for the (slow) improvement of African conditions, such as the establishment of technical schools for Africans by a 1924 Education Ordinance, as well as the appointment of Eliud Mathu to the Legislative Council, the first African to hold a seat. It also allowed for the formation of an African party, the Kikuyu Central Association, which presented African grievances to the colonial government. Although the Indians were prevented from settling in the White Highlands, they were granted five seats on the Legislative Council and immigration restrictions imposed on them by the white settlers were removed. [4] The White Paper was used by the British government to retain control over the Kenya Colony, and is cited as one reason why Kenya did not develop as a white minority ruled country, as South Africa and Southern Rhodesia did.” [5]; accessed on 3rd January 2021.
  3. Robert M. Maxon; The Devonshire Declaration: The Myth of Missionary Intervention; History in Africa Volume 18,1991, p259–270.
  4. History and Government Form 2 Teachers Guide. East African Publishers. p91–92
  5. Robert M. Maxon; Struggle for Kenya: The Loss and Reassertion of Imperial Initiative, 1912-1923. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1993, p270–279.
  6., accessed on 8th January 2021.

The Uganda Railway during the First World War

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 of WW1.

Hill provides, at least as far as I can tell, what appears to be a very fair compilation of activity throughout the East Africa Protectorate (EAP) and the Uganda Protectorate UP) during the War. [1: p344ff] There was significant unrest in the EAP contributed to by a range of incompetencies exhibited by the EAP Government based in Nairobi, during the first year of the War. He highlights the importance of a meeting of Settlers in September 2015, which pressed on the Government the need for effective organisation and which resulted in the first elected representation for the Settlers onto a War Council.

Hill says that organisation improved markedly from this time on, although there were still significant losses in the community and the forces particularly due to fever. The German resistance throughout the War is noted by Hill as being one of “courage, endurance and astounding ingenuity” before it surrendered eventually on 25th November 1918. [1: p354]

Hill’s summary of the EAP campaign says: “The most ardent advocate of the East African campaign cannot maintain that it contributed to the ultimate to the ultimate defeat of Germany. The most caustic critic cannot deny that the story of the campaign is an epic of human endurance in the face of terrible trials. Fever, disease and starvation, through the breakdown of a suicidal system of supply, were von Lettow’s [2] allies, and they caused far more casualties than his soldiers.” [1: p354]

British troops after their train has run over a German mine. [3][4]

Hill points to the War Office record which states that, “during the campaign, 976 officers and 17,650 other ranks were killed, died or missing. Those figures covered the East African, South African, West African, British and Indian troops engaged in the campaign. In addition, 44,572 African porters were killed or died of disease. The maximum strength employed at any time was 24,156 combatants and 187,369 non-combatants. Altogether 112,000 fighting troops and 261,000 non-combatants took part in the campaign. Of the vast army of African porters, on which the transport and supply of the troops in the field mainly depended, nearly 60,000 were recruited in Uganda and the great majority of the remainder came from the Native tribes of the East Africa Protectorate. They were called upon to pay a terrible price in human life and misery because the First German War overspilt from Europe into Africa ” [1: p355]

H.M. armoured train, ‘Simba’ was built in the workshops at Nairobi to counteract the German mounted patrols that carried out nuisance raids on the railway during the War. [3][4] It was destroyed by a mine.

He goes on to talk about ‘The Uganda Railway’. Throughout the text of the chapter on the War, Hill again provides details of the working profit each year:

1914-1915     –      £180,600     [1: p355]

1915-1916     –      £287,300     [1: p360]

1916-1917     –      £351,815     [1: p364]

1917-1918     –      £208,986     [1: p368]

1918-1919     –      £152,255     [1: p370]

During 1915, Parliament approved a loan of £1.868 million for further expenditure at Kilindini Harbour, for railway improvements and for roads and bridges. Only a fraction of the loan was spent until the end of the War. Survey work onthe line from Nakuru across the Uasinn Gishu Plateau did continue. Oil storage at Kilindini and at Kisumu was increased along with work to piers at several ports and Harbours associated with trade on Lake Victoria. One new ship, the ‘Rusunga’, was launched on the lake. [1: p355f]

Hill highlights locomotive developments in 1915: 3 new tank engines were put into service; seven ‘G’ class engines were erected but not out into service until 1817 for lack of flangeless tyres for the leading powered axle/wheel set.

Twenty-nine of the ‘F’ class locos were still working. By the start of the War, the annual engine mileage was 1,862,453 of which the ‘F’ class locos were doing about 50%. The Mallets (18 No.) were doing good work, hauling satisfactory loads, but we’re proving very expensive to maintain. [1: p356]

The Magadi Line opened on 14th January 1915, the Thika Line was still passenger only and already paying its way. The Busoga Railway was crippled by the major drop in export and import traffic. It had also been realised that the costs associated with making Lake Kioga navigable would be exorbitant.

Towards the end of 1915 it was decided to build a new branch line from Voi to Maktau to solve supply problems for the proposed offensive into German East Africa. In due course this line would be extended to Kahe and so would link The Uganda Railway with the line from Tanga to the foothills of Kilimanjaro. [1: p358]

At around this time the military took control of The Uganda Railway. [1: p358f]

By June 1915,1,166 vehicles were being dispatched  monthly from Kilindini. In January 1916 this had increased to 2,994 vehicles. Before the end of March 1916, 25 engines and 200 ten ton covered wagons had been imported from India, mainly for the Voi-Maktau line, but also to receive pressure on the main line. Further wagons were purchased from the contractors for the Magadi Line. [1: p359]

A working profit of £287,000 was achieved in the 1915/1916 financial year but there was no significant allowance made for necessary maintenance and a renewals fund had still not been created. The survey of the line across the Uasin-Gishu Plateau was completed and the first mention appeared in an Annual Report of the General Manager of this route becoming the start of a trunk line through Uganda to the Congo. [1: p361]

In November 1915, the Port at Kilindini was taken over by the Royal Navy and closed to civilian traffic. The inadequate Old Port at Mombasa had to be used for all exports.

The March 1817 report if the General Manager drew attention to the wretched state of engines and rolling stock.

Little had changed by March 1919. The General Manager’s report was a repetition of the difficulties of previous years:

“Little had been done to remedy a chronic decay, the difficulties had, inevitably, become more critical. Several engines had been taken out of service either for lack of spares or as not worth repairing. In February 1919, fifteen new ‘G’ class engines were ordered, but they were not expected to arrive before the end of the year. Meanwhile, of the railway’s ninety-two engines, only seventy-seven were in working order and many of those were in bad shape. Most of the railway’s original rolling-stock particularly the second- and third-class carriages, was virtually beyond repair except at great and uneconomic cost. The majority of the machines in the workshops were worn out and incapable of turning out accurate work.” [1: p371]

All the subsidiary lines were also showing a loss and it was recognised that the two lines in Uganda (Busoga and Port Bell) were too small to be operated effectively as separate systems. [1: p372]

“For years the Treasury of the EAP had pillaged the railway in order to balance its budget. Now the Treasury had extended the field of pillage to Uganda. By this time the state of the railway was so derelict and critical that some radical reorganisation could not long be avoided. The surcharge, and the protests of Uganda, proved to be the last straws. Undoubtedly they impelled the series of events and the design of policy which eventually placed the railway on a sounder constitutional basis and a very much sounder financial basis. Unfortunately, this ill-advised surcharge, following upon the long struggle to secure to Uganda a fair allocation of the customs revenue derived from its imports via Kilindini, left a legacy of suspicion and resentment which exercised an unhappy influence on relations between the two territories for many years.” [1: p373]


  1. M.F. Hill; Permanent Way – The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway – Volume 1; Hazel, Watson & Viney Ltd, Aylesbury & London, 1949.
  2. Lieut.-Colonel (later General) von Lettow-Vorbeck was the German commander-in-chief in East Africa and remained so throughout the conflict until the end of November 2018 when surrender became inevitable.
  3., accessed on 28th December 2020.
  4. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern; Military Operations East Africa August 1914 – September 1916; Battery Press, Nashville, Tennesse, 1990.
  5. The featured Image at the start of this article comes from, accessed on 28th December 2020

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.

Uganda at the end of 19th century and the events leading up to the construction of the Uganda Railway.

It has been some time since I last posted about the Uganda Railway. I have very recently picked up a copy of each of the two volumes of ‘Permanent Way’ written by M.F. Hill 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.

In order to provide the context for the construction of the Uganda Railway, M.F. Hill saw it as imperative in his book to provide a social and economic history of the East African region. It is impossible for me to judge the veracity of what he writes, but it clearly is written from a British Colonial perspective. In addition to covering the strife between the European powers who sought to increase their influence in the Great  Lakes region of the continent of Africa, Hill provides extensive quotes from leading British figures in the region about the Uganda that they knew before the coming of the railway.

It must be acknowledged that the perspective is essentially that of those who were seeking to enhance British influence and eventually to establish Colonial rule, however, it also has to be said that these men (and it was always men) sought, within their own Colonial and paternalistic terms of reference, to be a benign civilizing force. The picture which develops, as one reads M.F. Hill’s book, is, on the one hand, one of competition for influence between Germany, Britain and to some extent, France and Belgium, but on the other hand, a significant and seemingly quite unhealthy competition between three main religious groups, Roman Catholics, Protestants and followers of Islam.

Within the sphere of the Buganda ‘nation’, the influence of the two forms of Christianity was very significant, with adherents to the Muslim faith being a significant minority. The conflict between these groups has to be seen as one of the major influences on the choices made by Colonial emissaries. Yes, there was also an urgent consideration of competition with Germany for control over the Great Lakes region but it is significant that much of the focus of those who were leaders in the development of the British sphere of influence seems to be on the internal tribal conflicts in the region which seemingly were fueled by the rivalry between Protest and Catholic leaders.

Sir Gerald Portal, who led an overland expedition to Uganda in the early months of 1893 at the insistence of the 5th Earl of Rosebery (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the 4th Gladstone administration) commented in a despatch to Lord Rosebury on the situation he discovered on his arrival in Uganda in March 1893, “he emphasised both the evils of the native system of administration and the curse of the religious conflict which largely arose from political causes.” [1: p103]

The decisions being made about the possible/probable construction of ‘The Uganda Railway’  were equally focussed on the possibility of these tribal/faith conflicts flaring up as they were on firmly establishing British interests over-and-against those of Germany.

In this light, it is worth quoting directly from Hill who is himself predominantly quoting Portal:

Portal described Uganda as a ‘whited sepulchre’, and traced the country’s tragic story from the bloody despotism of Mutesa, and the early years of Mwanga’s reign, when the condition of Uganda had been scarcely rivalled by the horrible records of Dahomey.

“The form of government in Uganda,” he wrote, “is nominally a despotic monarchy, and in the days of the late Mutesa it was really so; but his successors, and notably the present King Mwanga, have been unable to maintain either the prestige or the power of the Crown. . . . At the time when I arrived, the whole population of Uganda was divided into three semi-religious parties, two of which acknowledge no authority on the part either of Mwanga or his Council. Uganda is divided into ten provinces, each of which is under the nominal governorship of a chief. Under these governors again are an immense number of minor chiefs, one below the other, in a complicated system of transmitted authority. . . . In theory, at first sight, this organisation would appear to be not a bad one; in practice, it has proved to be the cause of a vast system of oppression and robbery. The unfortunate peasantry are forced to toil for the support and glory of an immense number of useless and idle petty chieftains who would think it beneath their dignity to do a stroke of any sort of work from one end of the year to another. In recent times, even the small chiefs had powers of life and death over the peasants, and although this has been stopped, there can still be no doubt that cruelty and oppression in various forms are rife throughout the provinces. Economically, the present system is as bad a one as could be devised; certain taxes in kind have to be paid to the King from each province; these taxes are levied solely from the lowest classes, but as they have to pass through the hands of a long gradation of chiefs, the amount which ultimately reaches the King does not represent more than a fifth part of what has been paid by the villagers.”

Portal pointed out that this administrative system accounted for the importance attached by the Bishops and the political leaders of the opposing parties to the possession, on their side, of certain chieftainships or provincial governorships. The acceptance by a great chief of the Protestant creed might mean the addition of a thousand fighting men to the Protestant cause, whilst the appointment of a Catholic governor to the command of a province might mean that every chief, sub-chief and villager in the province had to make up his mind quickly between embracing the same faith, or being forthwith turned adrift and deprived of his house, dignity and position.

The miserable history of Uganda during the previous few years had shown how inextricably religion and politics were interwoven. The three great parties, Mohammedans, Catholics and Protestants, were nominally divided only by religious tenets, but in fact they were adverse and jealous political factions, two of which were led, to all intents and purposes, by European missionaries. [1: p103-104]

Portal went on to say:

“That the missionaries, on both sides, are the veritable political leaders of their respective factions there can be no doubt whatever. As regards the Catholics, Mgr. Hirth and the Fathers would probably be the first to admit this to be the case. On the Protestant side, it is not, I believe, admitted, but the fact unfortunately remains. . . . The present state of affairs is that the natives on both sides have acquired the habit of appealing to their respective missionaries on every possible question, whether it be a personal quarrel with one of the opposite faction, an assault case, an eviction from a plantation, a murder, a decree from the King, or a decision or order from Her Majesty’s Commissioner. There has thus grown up a sort of dual or even triple system of government, which adds very seriously to the difficulties of administration. It will from this be readily understood that the race for converts, now being carried on by the Catholics and Protestants in Uganda, is synonymous with a race for political power. To-day the Protestants are the strongest, and the most numerous, party; to-morrow a successful battle might place the Catholics in a dominant position and, in such case, that religion would gain on the second day many thousands of converts, from among those who are now reckoned as belonging to the Protestant party. Catholics and Protestants here seem to look upon each other as natural enemies; no doctrine of toleration, if it has been taught on either side, appears to have been received by the native Christians; the fear of English officers and of the Nubian soldiers at the Fort may keep them from overt acts of hostility towards one another while this control remains here, but as soon as it is withdrawn, the war of extermination will at once be renewed. It is this feeling which, through the introduction of the two forms of Christianity into Uganda, has cost so many hundreds of lives, and has thrown the country fifty years back in its advance towards prosperity. It is deeply to be regretted that the avowedly great influence of missionaries in Uganda is not used to introduce a spirit of tolerance and peace even at the risk of the loss to the party of some political power of a few wealthy chieftainships.” [1: p104]

Hill continues:

The Mohammedan party was weaker in numbers, wealth and arms than either of the two Christian parties. In the event of the withdrawal of British control, the strength of the Mohammedans lay in their power to hold the balance between the two Christian factions. When it became known that the Company proposed to withdraw from Uganda, overtures to the Mohammedans were made, almost simultaneously, by the Catholics and by the Protestants. Portal realised that the Mohammedan influence in Uganda was inevitably doomed. If civil war again broke out, whichever party gained the Mohammedans’ affiance would certainly win the day—and then turn upon and annihilate the allies who had assured their victory. If peace continued, the Mohammedan party would inevitably be wrecked on the same rock which destroyed the power of so many Mussulman states—that of slavery. [1: p104-105]

Mwanga II was kabaka in Buganda from 1884 – 1888 & 1889 – 1897. He died aged 34 or 35 in 1903. There are notes about his reign below the references at the end of this article.

In retrospect it seems as though there is ample evidence in the story told here for a rejection of all religious influence in matters of state/politics. However, the world is not such a simple place. Portal did not regard all the Christian converts in Uganda as animated solely by political or material motives. He knew that only “a proportion of the so-called Catholic and Protestant parties could truly be called Christians, but Christianity had undoubtedly gained a firm hold in the country. Mwanga’s persecutions, [2] a few years previously, had proved that there were a considerable number of sincere-Christians prepared to die for their faith.” [1: p105] In addition, politics is a descriptive term for all interactions between differing groups of people. Where people exist, politics will occur. It is to be sincerely regretted that denominational loyalties in the West were imported into the Great Lakes region of Africa in such a way as to promote conflict rather than tolerance and understanding! The level of trust between the principal Christian denominations was not high in Europe at this same time.

The primacy of religious leaders in the politics of the time meant that one of Portal’s first tasks was to seek an accommodation between Bishop Tucker, the Protestant Bishop of East Equatorial Africa and Mgr. Hirth, the Rpam Catholic Bishop of Thereste and Vicar Apostolic of Nyanza. Careful negotiation brought reluctant agreement to the partition of provinces between Catholic and Protestant factions.

On 8th April 1893, 40 Protestant Chiefs signed a statement agreeing to release all their slaves. On 29th May, Mwanga also signed an agreement which accepted British authority. On that same day, Portal left for the coast.

By late 1893, Portal’s health was failing and he made his last report to his masters in London before setting off for the UK himself, where he died very early in 1894. Much of the report had to do with the management of British interests in the Great Lakes region. As [part of that report he strongly recommended the building of a railway from the coast to Kikuyu, not to Lake Victoria Nyanza, but including a significant enhancement of the British fleet on the Lake. That report was considered, after his death, by Parliament in London.

In June 1894, the British government was still hedging its bets and not making a commitment to the construction of a railway, although a decision was taken to declare a Protectorate over Uganda. This move was proclaimed in Uganda in August 1894 and was heartily welcomed. A further Protectorate covering the area from Uganda to the coast was proclaimed in 1896 – the ‘East African Protectorate’.

The Report of the Committee on Railway Communication with Uganda was submitted in April 1895, by the end of June 1895, Lord Rosebery’s Government had fallen and the new Tory administration under Lord Salisbury lost no time in deciding that the railway should be built. It was seen as essential to the life of the Uganda Protectorate. Preliminary expense were granted in the sum of £20,000 in August 1895. And the decision was taken to construct the full length of the railway from the coast at Mombasa to Lake Victoria Nyanza – a distance of 650 miles. Through choosing a reduced gauge and a lighter rail, the cost estimate for the work was set at about £2,700 per mile – a reduction from £3,409 per mile in the early estimates of cost. However in April 1896, a Government committee recommended that the gauge should be increased to one metre and the rail weight restored to that originally recommended – 50lb per yard.

The engineering team arrived in Mombasa in late 1895 but the empowering Act was not to achieve its passage through Parliament until August 1896 with a budget of £3 million.

Earlier posts in my series on the Uganda Railway cover the line and its construction. That story starts with the following article on this site:

Hill continues with the story of the building of the line. [1: p139-244] Given that this series is meant to be primarily about the Uganda Railway, this article has been something of a diversion.

As I am an Anglican priest it seems worthwhile to me to  return to the religious issues mentioned above. These will, in due course, be the subject of a further article in this series.

To restore the balance in favour of the railway itself. I will finish this post with some images directly associated with the railway which come from the pages of Hill’s book. [1]

Sir George Whitehouse KCB., the first Chief Engineer and General Manager of the Uganda Railway. [1: facing p144]

Rope Inclines on the Eastern face of the Rift Valley during construction in March 1900. [1: facing p179]

Kilindini in 1900. [1: facing p208]

Nairobi Railway Station in 1900. [1: facing p228]

Nairobi in 1900. [1: facing p228]

Uganda Railway – Class G 0-4-2 steam locomotive Nr. 101 and passenger train (Hawthorn 1746/1878). This locomotive was a one-off import from India, ex South Indian Railway. This image was posted recently on a French language site associated with the LRPresse Magazine(s), rather than coming from Hill’s book [3]

British East Africa in 1910. The Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Victoria Nyanza. Also included on the LR Presse forum. [3]


  1. M.F. Hill; Permanent Way – The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway – Volume 1; Hazel, Watson & Viney Ltd, Aylesbry & London, 1949.
  2., accessed on 17th December 2020. Part of the text of this Wikipedia page is reproduced in italics below.
  3.; accessed on 19th December 2020.

Mwanga came to the throne at the age of 16. He increasingly regarded the greatest threat to his rule coming from the Christian missionaries who had gradually penetrated Buganda . His father had played-off the three religions, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims, against each other and thus balanced the influence of the European colonial powers that were backing each group in order to extend their reach into Africa. Mwanga II took a much more aggressive approach, expelling missionaries and insisting that Christian converts abandon their faith or face death. A year after becoming king he executed Yusufu Rugarama, Makko Kakumba, and Nuuwa Sserwanga, who had converted to Christianity. On 29th October 1885, he had the incoming archbishop James Hannington assassinated on the eastern border of his kingdom.

For Mwanga, the ultimate humiliation was the insolence he received from the (male) pages of his harem when they resisted his sexual advances. According to old tradition the king was the centre of power and authority, and he could dispense with any life as he felt. It was unheard of for mere pages to reject the wishes of a king. Given those conflicting values Mwanga was determined to rid his kingdom of the new teaching and its followers. Mwanga therefore precipitated a showdown in May 1886 by ordering converts in his court to choose between their new faith and complete obedience to his orders and kingdom.

It is believed that at least 30 Catholic and Protestant neophytes went to their deaths. Twenty-two of the men, who had converted to Catholicism, were burned alive at Namugongo in 1886 and later became known as the Uganda Martyrs. Among those executed were two Christians who held the court position of Master of the Pages, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe and Charles Lwanga. They had repeatedly defied the king by rescuing royal pages in their care from sexual exploitation by Mwanga which they believed contrary to Christian teaching.

These murders and Mwanga’s continued resistance alarmed the British, who backed a rebellion by Christian and Muslim groups who supported Mwanga’s half brother and defeated Mwanga at Mengo in 1888. Mwanga’s brother, Kiweewa Nnyonyintono, was elevated to the throne. He lasted exactly one month and was replaced on the throne by another brother, Kabaka Kalema Muguluma. However, Mwanga escaped and negotiated with the British. In exchange for handing over some of his sovereignty to the British East Africa Company, the British changed their backing to Mwanga, who swiftly removed Kalema from the throne in 1889. He later converted to Christianity and was baptised.

A Monorail in Kampala?

Charles Ewing who was based in India designed a monorail system. It was a single rail tramway arrangement. [1] His invention was a success. By 1899 a number of his design of lines had been laid in India. These included a twenty-two mile line at the Scottish firm of Messrs. Finlay, Muir and Co.’s tea estates in the Travancore Hills. [2]

In 1902, the Madras (now Chennai) Government approved the construction of a Ewing type monorail tramway in the environs of Madras, in the Chingleput (now Chengalpattu) District which was about 56km south west of madras. [3]

Ewing type monorail tramways became popular. In Patiala State, one connected Sunam to Patiala via Bhawanigarh. [4] An earlier line connected Sirhind to Morinda via Bassi and Alampur.  [5] In the Punjab a line was constructed between Morinoa and Karar. [6] In Kerala, a similar monorail was constructed between Munnar and Top Station [13] in the Kundala Valley. [14]

Patiala State Monorail Trainways (PSMT) was a unique rail-guided, partially road-borne railway system running in Patiala from 1907 to 1927. [9]. PSMT was the second monorail system in India, after the Kundala Valley Railway [10] and the only operational locomotive-hauled railway system built using the Ewing System in the world. [11]. The Kundala Valley Railway pre-dated this, also using the Ewing system between 1902 and 1908, although this only used bullocks for haulage. Following the conversion of the Kundala Valley Railway from a monorail to a narrow gauge railway in 1908. [12] PSMT was the only monorail system in India until its closure in 1927.

Uganda – Of great interest to me, given my personal interest in the Country of Uganda, is the fact that Ewing’s system spread outside the sub-continent of India. “In 1907, Winston Churchill visited Uganda and discussed with the authorities ways of improving transport between Port Kampala, known then as Luzira, and Kampala town. Amongst those consulted was a Mr Watts who had experience of the Ewing system in India. The environment and transport needs were considered to be similar and the Ewing system was subsequently adopted.” [7][8] The rolling stock was pulled by bullocks throughout its life.The short article in the ‘Uganda Journal’ in 1969. [8]

The Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911 notes the presence of the monorail between Kampala and the port: “Some 7.5 m. S. by E. of Kampala, and connected with it by monorail, is Kampala Port, on Victoria Nyanza.” [15]

It was a short-lived experiment, because by 1913 when a metre-gauge railway was being constructed, the monorail was not in a sufficiently usable state to serve as a construction line. [8]


  1. Adrian S. Garner; Monorails of the 19th Century; Lightmoor Press, Lydney 2011; p226
  2. Ibid.; p227.
  3. Ibid.; p227.
  4. Ibid.; p230.
  5. Ibid.; p229.
  6. Ibid.; p233.
  7. Ibid.; p233.
  8. W.J. Peal & J. Crompton; ‘The Luzira-Kampala Monorail’; Uganda Journal, Volume 33, Part 1, 1969, p88-89; accessed via, on 27th February 2019.
  9. The Imperial Gazetteer of India. Volume 20, p44; accessed via, on 27th February 2019.
  10. Mumbai gawks as train chugs overhead;, 19th February 2013, accessed on 27th February 2019.
  11., quoting Cassell’s Railways of the World By Frederick Arthur Ambrose Talbot, 1924 edition; accessed on 28th February 2019.
  12., quoting “Sands of Time” (PDF). Newsletter of Tata Central Archives. Tata. V (1): 5–6th January 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19th July 2008; accessed on 28th February 2019.
  13., accessed on 28th February 2019.
  14., accessed on 28th February 2019.
  15., accessed on 28th February 2019.