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Uganda Railway

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The Uganda Railway was a railway constructed at the end of the 19th century, originally from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, later to Kampala. It had remarkable effects, mostly unintended, on the development of both Kenya and Uganda. The railway later fell into disuse along much of its length, but in 2013 agreements were reached for its reconstruction with a different gauge.

Original purposes

The intentions of the British governments which undertook the building of the line were to assist in the suppression of the slave trade and to maintain British interests in the face of French and German ambitions in the region. In 1890, the same year as Britain declared a protectorate over Uganda,[1] the Brussels conference on the suppression of the slave trade committed the participating European powers to action to stop the Arab trade in slaves from Africa. It specifically mentioned the building of railways and the use of lake steamers. The Imperial British East Africa Company used the treaty as a reason to press the government for construction of a railway. Probably just as important was the fear of the Germans and French becoming considerable powers in the East of Africa. In the various debates in the House of Commons, trade with Uganda was also occasionally mentioned.

Construction of first line

Proposals from original survey

The British government had been persuaded to back the Imperial British East Africa Company's plans for a railway to Uganda, but on receiving the views of engineers, it decided to commission a survey before putting the project before the House of Commons. The survey report was received in 1893. It proposed a line of 657 miles, with a gauge of 3' 6", a maximum gradient of 1.5% and a maximum curvature of 10°. It would be accompanied by a telegraph line, and it would reach Lake Victoria at the outflow of the river Nzoia at the north-east corner of the lake. There would be one steamer on the lake. An engine of the type used in India was proposed. The report expressed optimism about there being no major difficulties, and showed inadequate knowledge of the country.

Actual construction

In 1895 an undecided Liberal government was replaced with a Conservative government determined to press ahead with the line. It decided to undertake the work directly, not by contract, and to use a 1 metre gauge, partly because this would enable use of Indian rolling stock, and partly in the mistaken belief that it would be the same gauge as a projected line through the Sudan. In August 1896 the bill to authorise construction and an expenditure of £3 million was passed. However, by that time the chief engineer, George Whitehouse, had already arrived at Mombasa in December 1895 and started work, overseen by a committee of the Foreign Office in London. The first labourers arrived from India in January 1896. The base was established at Mombasa island, and the first length of railway connected with the mainland by a temporary wooden viaduct. Later Kilindini docks on the mainland became the effective coastal terminus. By the end of 1896, only 23 miles had been completed. The first 100 miles were certified for passenger use at the end of 1897. New surveys ahead of the progressing works resulted in decisions on a new route down the Rift Valley escarpment and a new route to a nearer point (Kisumu) on Lake Victoria. In 1899 the headquarters of the railway was moved to Nairobi. So as not to hold up construction across the floor of the Rift Valley while the descent was constructed, an "incline" was built to lower railway waggons 1500 feet, This was completed in May 1900 and dismantled in November 1901, when the permanent route was completed. By the end of 1901, the rails had reached the shore of Lake Victoria at Kisumu, which Whitehouse had named "Port Florence". This did not mean, however, that construction was completed, as much of the bridging work was temporary. The date of completion depends on one's definition of the term, but in October 1903 the railway was passed as fit to hand over to the administration of the East Africa Protectorate, and it was handed over accordingly. The length was 572 miles, and the final cost to the British exchequer was £5.5 million.

Engineering problems

The line had to cross what was in effect a desert, in climbing to the East African plateau. Because of the time pressure, the line in this area was not initially ballasted. A couple of years into the operation, rain came in great quantity, disrupting services, and the ballasting had to be done in haste. The engineers had to cope with numerous ravines and with the crossing of the Rift Valley. In order to progress as fast as possible and make the best use of the labour force, all bridging work was initially temporary and was later followed by properly constructed bridges which were then linked in to the original line. The eastern escarpment of the Rift Valley is the more obvious and steeper, and here the temporary incline was used. The line zigzagged to and fro with near-hairpin bends, though not the need for reversing that was originally envisaged. The western escarpment is more complex and the soil more uncertain. As a result, the costings based on previous experience proved inadequate.

Human problems

It was generally acknowledged that the principal engineers engaged on the undertaking were very competent. Some of the subordinates were less so; while the management of the labour force, in particular the state of discipline, was heavily criticised by some of the inspectors sent out to report and by local commentators. Nearly all the manual workers were Indian labourers, "coolies", who were initially employed on terms which did not encourage them to put in the amount of work expected. It took some negotiation to get this changed to payment by results. Medical and hospital support was provided, but there were nevertheless considerable health problems. Although the killings by lions, in the area around Tsavo particularly, attracted more publicity and were highly damaging to morale, they were not very significant in comparison with the deaths by disease.

Construction of Kampala line

The first of the branch lines of the new railway was built north from Nairobi, to Thika, later to Nyeri, and another line to Lake Magadi was undertaken by a private company to exploit the soda of the lake.

In Uganda itself, the first railway construction work, 1910—11, was a line from Jinja, on the shore of Lake Victoria at the source of the Nile, to Lake Kyoga. This too was the responsibility of the Uganda Railway, as was a very short line from Kampala to Port Bell on the lake. A survey for a possible line north from Kisumu into the Kavirondo region was abandoned in favour of one heading north-west from Nakuru through Eldoret towards mount Elgon. It was realised that this offered the possibility of extending the line into Uganda. A dispute over the route to be taken was settled by a survey in 1920. Although it meant making a second ascent of the western escarpment of the Rift Valley at a different point, the route offered an easier gradient than that on the Kisumu line, and it was foreseen that this would have operational advantages. The work was initially undertaken by a company on very costly terms, and at one stage it was thought necessary to use forced labour. The new line met up with that from Jinja to Lake Kyoga at the beginning of 1928. Construction of the line from Jinja to Kampala started in 1929 and was completed in early 1930, all but the Nile bridge, which opened in January 1931.

Locomotives and rolling stock

The railway started functioning with F class locomotives as used on Indian railways. By the time it ceased to operate as a continuous concern, the main locomotives being used on the line were Garratts.

Unintended consequences

Indian settlement

The construction workers on the original Mombasa—Kisumu line were Indian labourers, mostly from Gujarat and the Punjab. Indian entrepreneurs also came over to provide services to the workforce. People from both these groups settled in East Africa, some in agriculture, in which they received intermittent encouragement, but mostly engaged in retail and wholesale trade. Until the expulsion of the so-called "Uganda Asians" from Uganda by Idi Amin, much of the trade of both Kenya and Uganda was in their hands.


Nairobi was a place of no significance until the railway moved its headquarters there, while the engineers addressed the problem of crossing the Rift Valley. It was not a good site for a major African city, having problems with both water and drainage, but once the railway headquarters was there, the Administration of what was to be Kenya followed.

White settlement

The original purposes in building the railway did not include facilitating European settlement; but the railway had not gone far when it was realised that parts of the East African plateau offered climatic conditions that were congenial to Europeans, and also the possibility of growing cash crops, notably coffee. The settlers who came, and the firms which serviced them were dependent on the railway. They were consequently frustrated by its inefficiencies, largely due to the lack of funds for upkeep and renewals. The 1914—18 war in East Africa, and the demands it made on the railway and the lake steamers, brought the organisation near to collapse, but shortly afterwards it began to enter a period of prosperity. There continued to be conflict between the interests of the Kenya settlers and the interests of agriculture in Uganda, where there was no white settlement.

Decline and renewal

Following independence, competition from air traffic and disputes between governments led to the railway not being operated over the Kenya—Uganda border. However, in 2013 the governments of Kenya and Uganda reached agreement with the government of China to rebuild the line at standard gauge. The section from Mombasa to Nairobi was opened on 31 May 2017, and funding was obtained for extending the line to Kisumu.


  1. At this time the term "Uganda" seems to have been used loosely, sometimes meaning just the kingdom of Buganda, sometimes including the neighbouring kingdoms making up the present country of Uganda