Brief History of the Railways in East Africa

The first operational railway in East Africa was a two foot gauge trolley line in the port of Mombasa operated by hand propelled wagons, the original route being supplemented with track recovered from the abortive Central African Railway which had reached a mere 11 kms inland from Mombasa Island.
By 1896 all was ready for a second attempt to build a railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria and the inaugural platelaying ceremony was performed on 30th May, 1896. However the German East African railway had already commenced construction of the line from Tanga in May 1893, but after taking two years to build 40kms of line, the Usumbara Bahn was declared bankrupt and construction had to be taken over by the German Government. The line eventually reaching Moshi in 1912.

The Uganda Railway was constructed to metre gauge as this was already in common use in India which meant there was a ready source of locomotives and rolling stock. In addition, most of the labour, skilled and unskilled, was imported from India, many of whom remained after their contracts ended to become the nucleus of the Asian community in Kenya and Uganda.

Ryall`s Saloon No. 13
After leaving Mombasa, the line had to cross the waterless Taru Plain, a slow job with every drop of fresh water having to be taken by train from Mombasa to the construction camps. By 1898 the line had reached the Tsavo river. At first the line was carried across the river by a temporary wooden trestle to allow the railhead to move on while a permanent bridge was built under the direction of Captain, later Lt. Colonel, J. H. Patterson. The construction was held up for several months by two man-eating lions, who attacked the camp and killed scores of African and Asian workers, before being eventually hunted down and shot by Patterson. The stuffed and mounted carcases of the two lions are now on display in the Field Museum in Chicago.

This was not the last time lions were to disrupt the line. In 1899, a road engineer by the name of O’Hara was dragged from his tent near Voi and killed. A year later, on 6th June 1900, at Kima station, Police Superintendent C. H. Ryall was sleeping in his observation saloon, number 13, when he was killed by a lion which entered the carriage and dragged the body through a window and off into the bush. Two other men in the saloon, Heubner a German trader who ran a store in Nairobi, and Parenti, an Italian merchant, had narrow escapes. The lion was eventually captured in a baited trap and shot.

By 1899 nearly 500 kms of track had been laid and the line had crossed the Athi plains and arrived at the foot of the Kenya Highlands. The railhead reached an area of swampy ground known by the Masai name of Nyrobi. Here a major depot was established to facilitate the construction of the line up into the highlands. The administrative offices were also moved here from Mombasa and homes built for the staff. This attracted an influx of Asian merchants to supply goods and services to the railway workforce. In addition, the Colonial Administration headquarters was moved from nearby Machakos, a settlement by-passed by the railway. In 1900 the spelling was changed to Nairobi and the future capital city was born.

East African Railways
Midway between Nairobi and Lake Victoria was the great natural obstacle of the Rift Valley with its 450 m drop from the Highlands to the floor of the valley. In order to speed up construction an inclined railway was constructed down the steep sides of the rift. The steepest part of the incline descended for 210 m at a gradient of 50°. The inclines were cable operated with the main descent utilising two counterbalanced transporter wagons running on broad gauge tracks, each carrying one metre gauge wagon. Some of the brickwork for these inclines can still be seen. This enabled the railhead to be pushed on across the floor of the Rift Valley towards Lake Victoria while the permanent descent of the rift was still being constructed.

The railway was originally intended to link directly with the Ugandan capital of Kampala and the route had already been surveyed. However political and economic pressure from a British Government that was never more than lukewarm about the project meant a quicker and cheaper alternative had to be found. A new route was surveyed from Nakuru to the nearest point on Lake Victoria on the Winam Gulf and the line built to there as an interim solution.

Railhead finally reached Lake Victoria, 930 km from Mombasa, on 19th Dec 1901 at a point called Port Florence, named after Florence Preston, wife of the chief foreman platelayer, Ronald O. Preston, who had accompanied her husband on his 5 year journey all the way from Mombasa. Mrs Preston was given the honour of driving home the last key at the waters edge¹. Port Florence was later renamed Kisumu. After the First World War a new main line was constructed from Nakuru on the original, more northerly, route around the head of the lake which eventually reached Kampala in 1931. A branch to the soda deposits at Lake Magadi was completed in 1915. The Nanyuki branch reached Thika in 1913, Naro Moro in 1927, and finally arrived on the foothills of Mount Kenya in 1931. The Solai and Kitale branches were completed in 1926 and the Kisumu line was extended to Butere in 1932.

In Uganda, the main line was extended from Kampala to Kasese near Mount Ruwenzori, the Mountains of the Moon, in 1956. The Northern Uganda branch from Tororo had reached Soroti by 1929 and was later extended to Pakwatch on the Nile above Lake Albert, arriving there in 1964. This line was has now been extended across the White Nile to Arua near the border with Zaire.

¹ Another version of this story has it that the port was named after the wife of George Whitehouse, Chief Engineer of the line, also called Florence. Whitehouse was, alledgedly, later reprimanded for it. I can see a scenario where both men told their wives “It’s named after you, Dear.”

In Tanganyika, the Germans started construction of the Central Line from Dar es Salaam in February 1904. This line eventually reached Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika in 1914. A branch line was built from Tabora to Mwanza on the southern shore of Lake Victoria, being completed in 1928. A line from Tanga was commenced in 1899 reaching Mombo in 1904. The line then headed for Mount Kilmanjaro, reaching Moshi in 1911. A link line was constructed in 1924 connecting it to the Uganda railway at Voi. In 1929 the line was continued to Arusha. Another link line was constructed as late as 1963 to connect the northern and central lines. The other Tanganyikan branches were from Manyoni to Kinyangiri, built in 1934 but lifted in 1947, the Mpanda branch in 1949, and the Kilosa-Kidatu branch completed in 1965.
The last main line to be built was the Chinese funded and equipped Tazara line (TAnzania-ZAmbia RAilway) from Dar es Salaam to Tunduma on the border with Zambia. This line, intended to give Zambia an alternative outlet to the coast for its exports after Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, was completed in 1976. Unlike the other East African lines the Tazara was built to the 3’6″ gauge of the Southern Africa railway system. This allows through running to Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa if required. There had, for many years, been a plan to convert the East African network to “Cape Gauge” with some of the later steam engines and the earlier diesel classes being designed for easy conversion.

The railheads on Lake Victoria are connected by a steamer service, the ships having been transported to the lake in pre-fabricated sections and assembled at Kisumu. As well as providing a vital transport link for various lakeside settlements, the service used to be a popular tourist cruise. Although there is no longer a passenger service, the following train ferries are currently in service on the Lake: Uhuru, Kahawa, Umoja, Pamba and Kabalega. The ex-railway steamer Nyanza is under conversion to diesel engines for use as an oil tanker.

The East African island of Zanzibar has a railway history predating that of the mainland. Sultan Bargash bin Said had a seven mile railway constructed from his palace at Stone Town to Chukwani in 1879. Initially the two Pullman cars were hauled by mules but in 1881 the Sultan ordered an 0-4-0 tank locomotive from Bagnall. The railway saw service until the Sultan died in 1888 when the track and locomotive were scrapped. In 1905 a second line was constructed from Zanzibar Town to Bububu, again about 7 miles long. This line survived until 1930, despite a reputation for repeatedly setting fire to the adjacent countryside.