Connect to share and comment

Video: The fading glory of Kenya’s "Lunatic Express"

The Mombasa to Nairobi railway line helped to create modern Kenya but is now outdated.

Two giraffe watch Kenya's famed "Lunatic Express," the colonial-era railway line that links the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa to Nairobi. (Eamon Kircher-Allen/GlobalPost)

MOMBASA and NAIROBI, Kenya — In its prime, it carried luminaries including Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II across the African savannah in opulent comfort.

These days, however, the specters of yesteryear are more prominent than the passengers on the 310-mile railroad line from Mombasa to Nairobi. It was once the backbone of the British empire in East Africa, linking the Indian Ocean port to the hinterland. But now the train's compartments stand empty and the dated decor appears to be on a terminal drift toward shabbiness. Still, the old train rumbles on, taking 14 hours or more to clack and wheeze its way across Kenya's savannah.

The historic railway's days are numbered, though. There are plans afoot to build an entirely new track, which will cover the same distance in just three hours. According to Kenya Railways, the new rail — for which construction has not yet begun — will be completed in 2016.

In the meantime, a few passengers still gather on the platform in Mombasa three times a week, assembling for the night train. Most of them are young European tourists with glowing beach tans. Across the tracks, barefoot, shirtless laborers haul what look like 100-pound sacks of grain into a warehouse. Then, with much shouting, they push freight cars down the tracks by hand.

That, at least, is a scene that might have fit comfortably 100 or more years ago, when a skeptical British parliamentarian dubbed the track the “Lunatic Line” because of the enormous effort and expense its construction required. Fueled by colonial plans to make a profit from their East African territories, while proclaiming that they were bringing civilization and Christianity to the area, the British pushed the tracks from the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa all the way through to Kampala, on the shores of Lake Victoria — the heart of the empire’s African holdings.

In "The Lunatic Express," author Charles Miller chronicles the construction of the rail line. Construction lasted from 1896 until 1903 and the cost was 5 million pounds, the equivalent of $793 million dollars today.

The city of Nairobi, nonexistent beforehand, sprang up as a depot for the railway. Local Africans called the railway line that crossed their lands the "Iron Snake." The new tracks also brought European settlers to the new settlements, where they took the local peoples’ lands. The railway allowed the new British plantation owners to make fortunes exporting crops of coffee and tea. 

Subsidized by the British government, the settlers lived in astonishing privilege. "Imperial Reckoning," Caroline Elkin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of colonial British East Africa, describes a society where members of the British upper class seized vast swathes of prime land, making thousands of indigenous Africans homeless. The new colonialists lived lavish and hedonistic lifestyles, according to numerous accounts, including the bestseller "White Mischief."

The railway, built on the backs of indentured Indian laborers, made it all possible.