The lunacy and legacy of the metre-gauge railway

The "Lunatic Express" near the standard gauge railway's terminus in Mtito Andei, Makueni. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The “permanent way” is no more.

  • Behind it, we have memories, rich history, landmarks and broken dreams.

It was supposed to be the "permanent way", but lack of foresight, politics and mismanagement drove the lunatic express to a dead end.

The “permanent way” is no more, and its replacement with the Chinese-built Madaraka Express was a matter of time.

Behind it, we have memories, rich history, landmarks and broken dreams. The most remarkable aspect was that it essentially built the British colony — and the history of Kenya will never be written without a look at the impact of that railway.

Let me look at a few memories, lest we forget.

Unknown to many, the Mombasa-Nairobi railway is as old as the famous Trans-Siberian system which was built by Tsar Alexander III and his son Tsar Nicholas II between 1891 and 1916. It also dates to the same period that South Africa was developing its Natal rail systems — and is older than most of the Chinese systems — that were developed later by the French, British, Germans and Russians who demanded rail concessions from a weakened China after it lost the Sino-Japanese war.

To digress a bit, China was supposed to pay indemnity fees to Japan, and banks and capitalists lined up to loan China money to pay the fine in return for railway concessions as part of their control of a weakened nation. That is how China got its 10,300 km of new railway systems within a few years as it mortgaged its national sovereignty at a time when it was almost bankrupted by the 450 million silver taels ($330 million) fine to Japan.

Back to Kenya, the British had decided to build a new railway to mark its territory from the Kenyan coast to Uganda and had in 1891 sent Captain J. R. L. Macdonald to carry out a preliminary survey of the line. It was Macdonald who recommended the building of a 3 foot 6 inch railway — by then the standard in all British empires and Japan too.

And then the mistakes began.

The first town to be created was Machakos, a town that had been planned to be the future capital of Kenya and was by then the headquarters of Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA), which was administering the interior on behalf of London.


If you visit Machakos town and venture outside the local police station, you will see two pillars and an engraved marker at what was once the entrance to the Machakos Fort. This was the original headquarters of commerce and politics in Kenya.

But the railway did not pass through Machakos for a number of reasons. First, a famine had killed a third of locals and hence the engineers feared they would not get labour and secondly, there was deep suspicion between IBEA officials and the railway engineers.

For that omission, IBEA Commissioner John Ainsworth — who was running a broke company — never forgave railway engineer George Whitehouse. It was Ainsworth who would be forced by London to follow the railway and establish what is today Nairobi. Here, he found that another IBEA official Francis Hall of Fort Smith Dagoretti had befriended the “railway people’ and ordered him to return to Machakos. Hall had never hidden his dislike for Ainsworth and once wrote: “These fellows, brought up behind a counter, get too big for their boots and make life unbearable for others.”


Hall was a “social snob” too and even looked down at Ainsworth’s American wife, Inca, for the simple reason that Inca’s sister was married to Hall’s cashier! It was this contempt that would eventually see Hall later transferred to Murang’a in 1900 where he established the modern-day town, which until independence was known as Fort Hall. He only stayed there for one year and died of dysentery aged 32.

Apart from the railway engineers, nobody loved the Nairobi site with one writer describing it as a pit of mud when it rained. But Ainsworth, determined to make a success of the swampy site wrote to his superiors in London requesting for survey arrangements to make Nairobi a township. In May 1899, as the railway reached Nairobi, he arrived with a Mr Cranfurd, the acting commissioner and spent three days surveying the land.

The site did not impress them but they soldiered on pestered by London.

In one of his letters to Cranfurd, Ainsworth, who brought his family to Nairobi on August 25, 1899, details his attempts to plan Nairobi as a town: “I would like to get the Nairobi Township question settled as I do not want people to commence building there without some plan and order... if the applications already sent in are not attended to people will begin to think we are indifferent to their interests and to the interests of the place.”


In Nairobi, the railway engineers were given immense powers. Because of the rivalry between them and Ainsworth, they had their own police — they still do — and the Foreign Office had given them powers to grab all the land they wanted for the railway. That is the reason that the railway managed to hold all that land in Nairobi.

From their house at the compound of the current Museums of Kenya, Ainsworth supervised the growth of Nairobi. According to records and diaries, Ainsworth was told he could only use those areas that the railway had no interests and design on — and was asked to use the land north of Nairobi River.

Ainsworth watched in awe as the railway started auctioning plots for the construction of shops and living quarters near what was baptised the Indian Bazaar. He decided to write to Commissioner Sir Charles Elliot on April 2, 1902: “I have all along disapproved of the present site selected for Nairobi…unfortunately at the time of the selection, the railway interests were predominant and what the railway wanted was a large flat space and this they found here”.

And that was the other imprint that the railway left on Kenya — a town in the wrong place.


A new breed of entrepreneurs followed the railway and they were many.

For instance, Mayence Bent arrived in Nairobi in 1902 to become the town’s first hotelier. She opened her first hotel on the second floor of a building along Victoria Street (now Tom Mboya) that also served as the first Post Office in town. The building was owned by Tommy Wood who went down in Nairobi’s history as the town’s first mayor. The Bent family, husband and wife, had arrived in Kilindini in 1898 and she was the Secretary of the European Colonists Association a position she quit in January 1903 to run the hotel. But there was something about this hotel in that it grew to become the modern-day Stanley Hotel. It was a legacy of the railway.

The entertainment joints were opening fast too. In 1912, two years before the First World War, Alec Medics opened the Theatre Royal, or what later became known as Cameo Cinema. This was not only a theatre but also a cinema hall which showed films shot in Kenya by Cherry Kearton and Martin and Osa Johnson, some of the pioneer film directors in the US.


When colonial aristocrat and writer Lady Eleanor Cole arrived in Nairobi in 1916 she observed: “Transport in Nairobi was by rickshaw, one man in front between the shafts and one man behind, either pushing or acting as a brake!” It was at the racecourse, then in modern-day Kariokor, where most of the early business discussions took place. One early pioneer noted that here “you could look for a wife, discuss crops, sell a duff threshing machine to an unsuspecting newcomer and lobby the governor about quarantine regulations.”

Even with those teething problems the town went on and in April 1908 the Nairobi Fire Station was completed as the results of funds raised by David Garrick Longwork who raised 5,000 Rupees at his bazaar in April 1907. That station still stands at the end of Tom Mboya Street. Out of Nairobi, the next problem was on the financing of future railways and graft.

As early as the 1920s the government was getting concerned about financing of the railway.

With no money to expand the rail network, many proposals were put forward including sale of concessions and participation of private companies following the success of the Magadi line which was built by Magadi Soda Company and handed over to the East African Railway and Harbours (E.A.R. &H.) for maintenance. The government refused to give any more money an indicator that the entrepreneurs were on their own.


Take the other case of Kericho for instance. It was thought, and farmers were promised, they would be able to transport their tea produce by rail. In 1930, a survey was actually carried out for a new branch line in the hope that it would support the emerging tea industry — and the emerging township. It was never built.

The matter was revisited in 1960 in the Legislative Council (then Parliament) when Kericho legislator Mrs Margaret Ramsay Shaw — a big farmer in Sotik complained that the failure to connect the line from Kericho towards Kisii would lead to wastage. At that time, the government was giving transport subsidy to white farmers via discriminatory legislation. But this subsidy was removed ahead of independence. What was known was that the then colonial government was not willing to support the East African Railway and Harbours (E.A.R. &H.) in its scheme to expand the railway.

There were many businesses that arose as a result of the railway — but it is the small story of Kiburi House that illustrates how local entrepreneurs cashed in on the steam engines where they sold fuel wood.


A national monument along Nairobi’s Kirinyaga Road, this house hardly features among the celebrated buildings in Nairobi. But the story of Kiburi House is also the story of Kenya Fuel and Bark Supplying Company Limited which purchased the building in 1948.

Documents held by the company show it was registered on May 2, 1946. The inscription seal reads: Colony and Protectorate of Kenya. This was one of the first limited liability companies owned by indigenous Kenyans and its founder chairman was Kiambu trader Kiburi wa Thumbi.

Two years later, the company shareholders bought a building in downtown Nairobi and named it Kiburi House in honour of the founder chairman. It was the first building owned by indigenous Kenyans in central Nairobi.

The company was unique in its own ways. The original constitution stated that only Kikuyus would buy shares in the company, though Merus and Embus were counted as Kikuyus.

The earlier minutes of this company were written in Kikuyu and one document dated September 7, 1963 shows Kiburi House was bought for Sh80,000. Its initial letter heads indicates the owners were “wood fuel contractors and wattle bark agents”.


But Kiburi House was also the political headquarters of the freedom movement. The names of the company shareholders also reads like who is whom in the Kenya African Union (KAU) politics. KAU was the predecessor to Kanu, the party that won Kenya’s independence.

The company membership shows Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President, was shareholder number 937 while his first wife, Wahu Kenyatta, was shareholder number 1421.

During the height of the freedom struggle in the 1950s, Kiburi House was the headquarters of the Mau Mau War Council. Many other businesses owe their rise to the railway and this space is too small to document that.

On the other side, the railway managers were perennial complainers. They always demanded to be a monopoly, fought for subsidies, and fought bus and cargo transporters. They hated competition and said as much. Although they were efficient, until after independence, the railway was unable to open up new routes or develop urban transport systems. They had thought the government would do it. It never did.

As corruption and politics set in after independence, there was nothing remarkable remaining of the railway. Its land was grabbed, stations started to deteriorate and the concession was sold to Rift Valley Railways.

But looking back, the legacy of the East African Railway, its imprint on the country remains. Expectations will now be on the standard gauge railway to leave its mark.