The Kenya-Uganda Railway
How the Railroad Shaped the Development of Kenya

The Kenya-Uganda Railway emerged in the 1890s and had a profound impact on Kenyan society until it met with problems late in the twentieth century.

The calm, quiet haze of the early morning day settles on a town. The people there have seen thousands of days like this, and for what reason should there be any surprise? It is midafternoon when a group of investors roll on through, talking about building some railways. Within a few months they are gone, and soon the townspeople awake to the sound of bellowing horns and terrible crashing.

The train has come to town, bringing with it a chance for townspeople to purchase goods, to sell their own wares, and to meet people from faraway lands. And in a few more months, it stops being a novel occurrence and becomes part of a weekly or monthly routine. But for the younger generations, born into the crash of the steel and the roar of the locomotive, there is only the mystery as to the line’s history. How did the steel that bites the earth come into their country, and indeed their continent? This paper shall examine the railroad situation of Africa, focusing in on Kisumu and the Kenya-Uganda line and the luxurious South African Blue Train.

Why did the British insist upon the Kenya-Uganda line? The main reasoning, besides the standard rationale for railway building, was also in the strategic sense of promoting British power in the region, as the Maasai would later show it was considered lacking. In fact, the Kenya-Ugandan Line was built by Indian workers, as India was a British colony that had British firepower well understood, due to the restlessness of the indigenous population.

Thus, the line was created and built. And in the end, the railway ended up being very important during World War I, when it helped the British defeat Germany in East Africa and allowed Britain to maintain communication with other colonies. Thus, the strategic value of the line was repaid despite its hardships.

Which brings us to one of the most important railways in Africa, and certainly one of the more well-known lines- The Kenya-Uganda Line. The line started in 1896 in the port city of Mombasa before reaching Kisumu in 1901 and ultimately Kampala, Uganda, in 1903. The railroad improved the economic power of the country, and made trade relations very beneficial for the nations involved.

Aside from the trade advantage for countries, towns also benefited from the stops, as it gave them the opportunity to trade their valuables and buy the offered goods. This in part also led to certain towns becoming trading hotspots, and the rail increased their power yet again. The speed and size of the rail allowed for people to move rather quickly, and get to places of economic activity. Thus, towns could suddenly have a sizeable population of workers, which lead to the growth of towns. Naturally, the growth of towns and cities led to an increase of economic power for the country, and thus a cycle of growth was fostered by the sound of a train horn.

The line was, naturally, plagued by disasters, including the so-called Man-Eaters of Tsavo, a pair of lions that attacked the rail workers in December 1898, when the line went over the Tsavo River. There was also the Kedong Massacre, a little-known event that rivals the Man-Eaters for bloodshed and sordidness, that occurred before the Tsavo River was even reached. In 1895, the Maasai tribe and the British came to a brutal impasse. Two Maasai girls had been raped, and in response the Maasai attacked a railway workers caravan, killing close to six hundred.

Thus, before construction truly started, the Line was already under threat. However despite the setback the line was still ready to be constructed, and in 1896 the ground was broken for steel to replace it. The work itself was dangerous as well. High explosives, tunneling and sunstroke were all horrid risks for the workers to push through. And of course, the predators of Africa were pleased to see humans in such numbers in such circumstances. Such was the case of the Man-eaters of Tsavo.

Of course, the Tsavo lions were just one of many dangers the wilderness consisted of. The dreaded Tsetse Fly, a fly notable for spreading the horrific sleeping sickness. Indeed, it appears as though the Tsetse fly helped create the Tsavo Nightmares- “The Death rate was high; it was a bad area for Sleeping Sickness from the tsetse fly.”

However, not every railroad was, or is, as disaster prone as the Kenya-Uganda line, nor was it used in such a way that mandated strategic use. Enter the Blue Train, the luxury train of South Africa. It started as two regular train lines before becoming merged into one. However, as gold and diamond resources were discovered, “The Railway lines became utilitarian, ferrying society on the move.” Thus the Line evolved from a commercial into tourist line, “boasting everything from card tables to ceiling fans, to hot and cold tap water.” During World War I, the line saw military service before being brought back as the modern luxury train that still operates today.

With so many dangers and opportunities that railroads provide, and the contrast shown between the Kenya-Uganda Line and the Blue Line, it becomes apparent that the rails are a very complicated subject. The Blue Train was built in far calmer areas with a native population willing to work it- the Uganda-Railway was beset by issues from the planning stage. But with a more collected Kenya, the metamorphosis that allowed the Blue Train to become a modern luxury train could occur today. All the luxury train shows is the ability for certain trains to go beyond commercial and become tourist areas.

Indeed the Kenya-Uganda line had certain tourist qualities that appealed to a certain type of individual, including US President Theodore Roosevelt. With time, and indeed dedication to maintaining the lines, any nation with an established rail system could have their own luxury train.


Kisumu Railroad Monument

Kisumu Railroad Monument: The monument that was built in 1901, and later on refurbished, consists of wheels and a rail track. This monument is reputed to be one of the first colonial structures in Kisumu. At the time the monument was built, Kisumu was known as Port Florence. The monument was built in 1901 to mark the arrival of the Kenya-Uganda railway in Kisumu [Port Florence] . A lot of people don’t know about the existence of this monument. ~ Photo by Meshack Owino, July 3, 2015

Driving the Last Spike at Kisumu, 1901

Driving the Last Spike at Kisumu, 1901: Florence Preston drives the last peg of the Uganda Railway at Port Florence (Kisumu). The arrival of the railroad signaled the development of Kisumu's port. ~ Original source unknown; reproduction at Imperial Hotel, Kisumu

Map of British East Africa and Uganda Protectorate, 1908

Map of British East Africa and Uganda Protectorate, 1908: This map shows how the railroad connected the Indian Ocean at Mombasa to Lake Victoria at Kisumu. ~ T. Broadwood Johnson, _Tramps Round the Mountains of the Moon and Through the Back Gate of the Congo State_ (London: T. F. Unwin, 1908), 21, Internet Archive,

Plaques marking anniversaries of the Kenya-Uganda Railway

Plaques marking anniversaries of the Kenya-Uganda Railway: The top plaque marks Kenya-Uganda Railway’s 60th anniversary, while the lower one marks its 100th anniversary. ~ Photo by Meshack Owino, July 3, 2015

Railway Workingmen’s Houses

Railway Workingmen’s Houses: The British built this compound to house Indian railway workers around the turn of the twentieth century. The tin-roofed barracks housed the workers while British colonial supervisors occupied the tile-roofed dwellings. Today the houses still stand close to the railroad and port of Kisumu, although a recent plan to create a leisure- and recreation-oriented waterfront district alongside the city center may relegate this vestige of the railway-building era to memory in the near future. This view was captured from the roof of Varsity Plaza on the Maseno University City College Campus. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 6, 2015

Kenya-Uganda Railway

Kenya-Uganda Railway: The Kenya-Uganda railway during its earliest years. The Kenya-Uganda Railway was a very expansive project, completed during the early days of African industrialization. ~

The Tsavo Man-Eaters

The Tsavo Man-Eaters: The epitome of the dangers of wildlife during railway construction and one of the more famous man eaters. the Tsavo Man Eaters killed around 135 people according to John Henry Patterson, the hunter hired to kill them. ~

Uganda Railway Poster, ca. 1900s

Uganda Railway Poster, ca. 1900s: The Uganda Railway became a favored route for foreign tourists planning safaris to make their way inland from Mombasa. This poster depicts a member of the Maasai people as an exotic attraction. ~ Public domain, via Wikimedia

Theodore Roosevelt on Uganda Railway, 1908

Theodore Roosevelt on Uganda Railway, 1908: After he left the U.S. presidency, Theodore Roosevelt went on safari in British East Africa. Here he sits with British colonial leaders on the front of a locomotive to dictate when the train should stop for shooting big game. ~ Public domain | December 31, 1908 |

Kibigori Railway Station in Kibigori

Kibigori Railway Station in Kibigori: This used to be one of the main railway stations along the Mombasa-Kisumu railway route. This is its current status after the collapse of the Kisumu railway. his railway station in Kibigori is where the first group of the landless of Kisumu settled first before they were joined by the rest from other places of Kisumu. ~ Leonard Odhiambo Obiero | March 29, 2015

The Kisumu-Butere Train

The Kisumu-Butere Train:

Section of the Abandoned Railway

Section of the Abandoned Railway: The railway has fallen into disuse after the collapse of the Kenya-Uganda Railway. ~ Mark Tebeau | July 3, 2015

The South African Blue Train

The South African Blue Train: The luxury train known as the Blue Line. It is located in South Africa and travels throughout the country. ~

Uganda Railway Poster, 1908

Uganda Railway Poster, 1908: Port Florence, later renamed Kisumu, lies in the upper part of this stylized map of Kenya. As the poster suggests, tourists could reach destinations like Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro by first taking the train inland from Mombasa. ~

The Rift Valley Railway

The Rift Valley Railway: The Kenya-Uganda railway is now known as the Rift Valley railway, named after the take over of the railway service by a private company. The Kenya-Uganda railway has changed names many times. It was initially known as the Uganda Railway, then, due to economic and political reasons, changed its name variously to: Kenya-Uganda Railway, then the East African Railway, then the Kenya Railway, and now the Rift Valley Railway. ~