Completion of the Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway

The building of a railroad across Africa’s Rift Valley radically altered the lives of millions of people. It shifted the focus of British political and economic activity from the coast to the interior highlands and was a catalyst for bloody rebellions and a massive migration of people both within the region and from India to Africa.

Summary of Event

December 19, 1901, was a day of celebration for the British in present-day Uganda and Kenya: The last spike in the Uganda Railroad was hammered home by Florence Preston, the wife of one of the engineers. This event marked the completion of one of the most extraordinary railroad projects in the world, and soon afterward the little town of Kisumu on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria was renamed Port Florence. It had taken six years to build six hundred miles of track from the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa to the lake, and the railroad’s workers had been forced to contend with the dangers posed by lions and by the nearly vertical slopes on which parts of the railroad were constructed. Eventually, extensions to the original line were added, and the terminus recovered its name of Kisumu. Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway[Mombasa Lake Victoria Railway]
Rift Valley Railway
Uganda Railroad
[kw]Completion of the Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway (Dec. 19, 1901)
[kw]Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway, Completion of the (Dec. 19, 1901)[Mombasa Lake Victoria Railway, Completion of the (Dec. 19, 1901)]
[kw]Lake Victoria Railway, Completion of the Mombasa- (Dec. 19, 1901)
[kw]Railway, Completion of the Mombasa-Lake Victoria (Dec. 19, 1901)
Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway[Mombasa Lake Victoria Railway]
Rift Valley Railway
Uganda Railroad
[g]Africa;Dec. 19, 1901: Completion of the Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway[00240]
[g]Kenya;Dec. 19, 1901: Completion of the Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway[00240]
[g]Uganda;Dec. 19, 1901: Completion of the Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway[00240]
[c]Transportation;Dec. 19, 1901: Completion of the Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway[00240]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Dec. 19, 1901: Completion of the Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway[00240]
MacKinnon, William
Lugard, Lord (Frederick John Dealtry Lugard)
Gladstone, William Ewart
Rosebery, Archibald Philip Primrose
Salisbury, third marquis of (Robert Cecil)
Labouchere, Henry Du Pré
Patterson, J. H.

Political manipulation and unsettled domestic issues dominated the British parliament at the end of the nineteenth century, and this had a significant affect on the building of the railroad. Three different prime ministers—William E. Gladstone, Archibald Philip Primrose Rosebery (fifth earl of Rosebery), and Robert Cecil (third marquis of Salisbury)—alternated power during the last decade of the century in a topsy-turvy manner. The streak began and ended with the third marquis of Salisbury, a Conservative leader who pushed for expansion of the empire. Gladstone served his last term during the period between Salisbury’s final two terms; he ran a Liberal government that argued for better management of the empire and resisted expansionist policies. Rosebery served as Gladstone’s foreign secretary from 1892 to 1894, but he was an expansionist in the Liberal Party. His manipulation of the Uganda situation contributed to the fall of Gladstone’s government, and as a result Rosebery served as prime minister for just a year.

The story of the Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway began with a petition to Salisbury’s government in December of 1890 from William MacKinnon, the executive director of the Imperial British East Africa Company Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA). MacKinnon presided over an ailing company that had a mandate to maintain a British presence in the East African interior once Lord Lugard had defeated the kingdom of Buganda, near Lake Victoria in southeast Uganda. The cost of remaining in the region, however, was too much for the company to bear. To alleviate the situation, MacKinnon proposed building a railroad with government subsidy.

In his proposal to Salisbury’s government, MacKinnon outlined four benefits that a railroad would bring to the British government. First, a railroad would allow Britain to maintain a long-term hold on Uganda, which would facilitate its efforts to control the headwaters of the Nile River. According to MacKinnon, a position at the head of the Nile would assure protection of the Suez Canal, an important link between Britain and its wealthy colonial holdings in India and the East. Second, it would contribute to the demise of the region’s massive slave trade, since trains would replace humans as forms of transportation. Third, the railroad would create trade in a region that the Europeans had long considered a wasteland, and fourth, it would protect the newly arrived Christian missionaries and further their evangelism.

MacKinnon hoped that the many advantages he proposed would draw support from many quarters. Unfortunately, Salisbury’s government collapsed in 1892, and Gladstone became prime minister. The three million pounds initially projected for construction costs required an act of Parliament, but Gladstone was against further expansion of the empire and refused to bring the proposal to a vote. Meanwhile, Lord Lugard worried that his efforts in Buganda would come to nothing if the government did not intervene, and so he went on a lecture tour and wrote a popular book to rally support. The tour was successful: Lugard spoke to large crowds of people who lobbied the government on his behalf.

The railroad’s prospects were further improved by the fact that Rosebery, Gladstone’s foreign secretary, supported the project. Rosebery publicly demanded that the railroad be built; if it was not, he said, he would resign and take Parliament’s support with him. Gladstone called his bluff, a mistake that contributed to the collapse of Gladstone’s government in 1894. Rosebery was able to succeed him as prime minister for about a year, and his first act in that position was to approve the rail project (though its funds were limited). When Rosebery’s government collapsed in 1895, Salisbury returned. With his support, sufficient funds were finally approved, and the project began in December of 1895.

Throughout the years, there had been a tremendous amount of debate on the merits of MacKinnon’s proposal. One of the most vocal dissenters was Henry Du Pré Labouchere, a journalist and multiterm member of Parliament. His sharp wit captured the public’s imagination: He called the project the “Lunatic Line” and correctly predicted that it would cost twice as much and take twice as long as early plans projected. The train’s nickname evolved from the “Lunatic Line” to the “Lunatic Express,” and though this term was originally used as a pejorative, it gradually became a term of endearment.

Over thirty thousand laborers from India were brought in to work on the line, and only twenty-three miles of track were laid the first year. Building a bridge from the island of Mombasa proved a greater challenge than expected, and immediately after its construction workers were faced with continuing the railway through the harsh climate of the Taru Desert. Once they crossed the desert, progress improved dramatically despite several outbreaks of disease such as malaria and smallpox. Workers also faced constant attacks by local peoples who feared that the new “Iron Snake” would only bring them grief.

As the railroad rose into the highlands and then across the great Rift Valley—first down the Kikuyu Escarpment and then up the Mau Escarpment, the summit of which rose eight thousand feet—extreme conditions confronted them at every turn. Each escarpment had a nearly vertical slope of more than a thousand feet, so special inclines had to be designed to move the laborers, equipment, and supplies needed to build the trains’ viaducts. Fortunately, the cooler air and abundance of water made for more pleasant working conditions.

The construction of the bridge over the Tsavo River Valley proved to be the most difficult segment. Two lionesses began attacking the workers, and more than 140 people were killed; several laborers were snatched from their camp at night and dragged to the lionesses’ lair. An engineer for the bridge, J. H. Patterson, stopped construction to hunt down the lions and had several near-death experiences in the process. The bridge was not completed until he killed the lions more than a year later.


The railroad had a profound effect on East Africa. As a result of its construction, hundreds of thousands of native African people, such as the Masai and Kikuyu, were dispossessed by Europeans who wanted to establish coffee plantations and small towns. One of these towns, Nairobi, would grow so dramatically that it replaced Mombasa as a center of trade and became the capital of Kenya. Many of the settlers in these towns were Indian laborers who remained in the area after their work on the railroad was complete, and many more migrated to the region to take advantage of the growing economy. By the end of World War II, Indians were the largest foreign minority in the region, and they played a significant role in helping the African people fight for independence.

The railroad was critical to the acquisition of Britain’s last major colonial outposts. Unfortunately for the independent nations of Kenya and Uganda, the railroad could not be effectively used for further economic development because the tracks on the extensions were of different gauges, and all of the gauges were too narrow for modern locomotives. Trips were frequently run for tourists, but they could not support the cost of running the line, and it went deep into debt. In October of 2005, the line was sold to the highest bidder, the South African-led consortium Sheltam Trade Close Corporation, and it was renamed the Rift Valley Railway. Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway[Mombasa Lake Victoria Railway]
Rift Valley Railway
Uganda Railroad

Further Reading

  • “All Aboard the Lunatic Express.” Economist 377 (October 22, 2005). Reviews the privatization of the railroad by Kenya and Uganda since the line was sold to a South African company.
  • Jacobs, Francine. Fire Snake: The Railroad That Changed East Africa. London: William Morrow, 1980. Gives an overview of the construction of the railroad, that goes into detail concerning the social, political, and economic effects of the railroad in twentieth century East Africa.
  • Miller, Charles. The Lunatic Express. New York: Macmillan, 1971. An in-depth analysis of British colonial politics in East Africa leading to the building of the railroad. Miller emphasizes the railroad’s extraordinary political and economic payoff and compares it to endeavors by other European colonies on the African continent.
  • Patterson, J. H. The Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo. 1907. Reprint. New York: Kessinger, 2004. Nail-biting account of the famous hunt for the lions that terrorized the railroad workers for more than a year, by the hunter himself.

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