Lunatic Express: Story of Ksh 988.2M Railway Line That Ruled Kenya in 1900s

  • Before the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) was constructed to ease movement, the ‘Lunatic Express’ was the railway alternative for most Kenyans.

    The railway construction commenced in 1896 at the port of Mombasa and was completed at the port of Kisumu (formally Port Florence) in 1901. It was built by the British government for approximately Ksh988.2 million (£6.5 million).

    Reportedly, it was nicknamed the ‘Lunatic Express’ due to its mental effect on labourers. 

    During the construction, the workers had to lay rails over mountains, through valleys and swamps, surrounded by dangerous animals that lurked around, including the famous man-eating lions of the Tsavo.

    Undated photo of people onboard the 'Lunatic Express' in the 1900s

    Undated photo of people onboard the ‘Lunatic Express’ in the 1900s

    Thee Agora

    Adding to the ‘lunatic’ reference, tourists would be frustrated by the inconsistencies of the railway line. It was reported that it often left Nairobi behind schedule, leaving the travellers stranded.

    The late Henry Labouchère, a member of the parliament, thus crafted a poem to mock those supporting the project.

    What it will cost no words can express,

    What is its object no brain can suppose,

    Where it will start from no one can guess,

    Where it is going to nobody knows,

    What is the use of it none can conjecture,

    What it will carry there’s none can define,

    And in spite of George Curzon’s superior lecture,

    It clearly is naught but a lunatic line.

    Notably, during its construction, nearly, 2,500 people passed away from tropical diseases while lions and other wild animals mauled others.

    Compared to the SGR, the ‘Lunatic Express’ was four times slower, but regardless, the railway line was considered one of Kenya’s greatest architectural achievements of the 20th century.

    Passengers hanging on the 'Lunatic Express'

    Passengers hanging on the ‘Lunatic Express’


    Over the next one hundred years after its construction, the railway played a vital role in the region’s development, opening up the East African interior, and connecting it to the coast.

    Conclusively, the ‘Lunatic Express’ was the revelation of Kimnyole Arap Turkat, the Nandi Orkoiyot who predicted the arrival of Europeans and the railways.

    The late Nandi leader foresaw an ‘iron snake’ that would cross the country and cause havoc and bring a foreigner never seen with strange red hair.

    The front view of the 'Lunatic Express' built by the British government in 1896

    The front view of the ‘Lunatic Express’ built by the British government in 1896

    Thee Agora

    The Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) train at a railway station

    The Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) train at a railway station


Jay Ndungu

Jay is a computer scientist and journalist with a passion for the intersection of technology and society. He has a background in computer science, developing a deep understanding of the technical aspects of the industry, including programming languages and software development methodologies. Currently, He writes for Nairobi Times, covering a wide range of topics including technology, politics, sports, and entertainment. With his unique combination of technical knowledge and journalistic experience, Jay brings a unique perspective to the stories he covers, able to explain complex technical concepts in an easy-to-understand manner. His work is dedicated to bridge the gap between technology and society, and to make people more aware of the potential of technology to make the world a better place.

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