Last call for the Lunatic Express

Plans for a high-speed rail line may spell the end for East Africa's Victorian engineering folly. Daniel Howden climbs aboard

In a neglected corner beyond Nairobi's frantic bus terminal lies the entrance to the city's railway station. It barely warrants a second glance from the thousands of commuters making their way on to the hundreds of matatu minibuses that keep Kenya's capital moving. The station is more useful for time travelling than getting anywhere in a hurry. Most of the destinations have fallen off its battered departure boards, no one sits on the ripped upholstery in the first-class waiting room, and only a tiny Somali girl is brave enough to use the blocked bathrooms behind it. Platform One has the feel of a museum gone to seed, which is what it has taken a step closer to becoming this month with the unveiling of plans for a high-speed rail link between Mombasa and the capital.

It may not have passed the lips of Nairobi's station announcers but the plan for double-decker trains was also the last call for the legendary "Lunatic Express", a folly of Victorian engineering that changed East Africa and created the modern country now crowding on to buses outside. The new version is expected to cost more than £2.5bn and take five years to build and will cut journey times to three hours. Despite its price and ambition, the construction will not match the extraordinary cost both in human lives and to the British Exchequer of the line it replaces.

The railway line's original purpose was to shore up Britain's hold on Uganda, which was believed to hold the key to the security of the River Nile. In the convoluted logic of the late 19th-century "Scramble for Africa", stopping France, Germany or Belgium from tampering with Lake Victoria's waters flowing into the Nile would secure the Suez Canal and, in turn, the passage to India. A rail track would mean troops could be quickly transported from the coast to the Great Lakes region in defence of the empire. At least, this was the argument made in the 1890s by the British East Africa Company to persuade Parliament to finance the line that would eventually cost £5m (that, and assurances that it would hasten the end of slavery).

Not everyone was convinced and the radical MP Henry Labouchere denounced it memorably: "Where it is going, nobody knows, what is the use of it, none can conjecture ... It is clearly naught but a lunatic line."

What is left of the railway today is more curiosity than controversy. The sleeper to Mombasa offers faded grandeur and comforting adventure to the white tourists in first class, while giving the cheapest possible route to the coast to those sleeping on benches in third. Dinner is announced soon after departure by the tuneless chimes of a worn, metal xylophone. What remains of the romance of rail is on display in the dining car, where threadbare tablecloths and mismatched cutlery bear testament to doing your best with what's available. Engraved fish knives speak of better times but are now deployed to make up the numbers as a dinner of beef stew and fried chicken is served. The distinctive "RVR" logo of Rift Valley Railways breaks the frayed burgundy band around the chipped white dinner service.

The settlers, soldiers and missionaries that once convened here have been replaced by their modern counterparts and conversation drifts from NGO projects to charities and safaris. A young American called Jason is on his way to Zanzibar to recuperate after rebuilding churches in southern Sudan. A few wrinkled noses and forced smiles mark the train's passage through Nairobi's slum district as the smell of open sewers comes through patched-up mosquito screens on the open windows. There are no electric lights to illuminate the faces outside as they watch the express idle past.

Mutual incomprehension also marked the colonial engineers' push into Africa's fabled interior, which was seen as the domain of naked savages, deadly diseases and ferocious animals. It is hard now to imagine how the first locomotives must have appeared to the patchwork of peoples who found themselves in the way of British progress in what was then the East African Protectorate.

Many of the tribes, from the Kamba to the Maasai and Nandi, had ancient prophecies of an "iron snake" that would bring with it a "white tribe" that would steal their cattle and end their world as they had known it. It was the Nandi, whose lands stretched from the western side of the Mau escarpment, who put up the sternest resistance, terrorising the survey party and stripping the line of steel and copper for weapons and ornaments.

Sir Charles Eliot, commissioner of the protectorate, was rare among his peers in trying to understand why it was happening. "One can imagine what thefts would be recorded on a European railway if the telegraph wires were pearl necklaces and the rails first-rate sporting guns," he wrote in 1905. "It's not surprising the Nandi yielded to the temptation." Now, as then, the line is threatened by scrap metal opportunists who have responded to the economic crisis by stripping Kenya's railway bridges.

Sadly, it is still dark when the Mombasa-bound service passes over the bridge that would guarantee the lunatic line became a legend. Bridging the River Tsavo was meant to take less than two months. Instead, it took nearly a year as the hundreds of workers drafted in from India, known as "coolies", fell prey to lions.

The big cats first struck by dragging a British engineer from his tent, one crushing his head in its jaws. Immortality was achieved by Charles H Ryall, a police superintendent who fell asleep in his guard carriage and was dragged through the window by a lion. At Nairobi station, a glass box with tacky cartoons marks his fate. Within months there was a bounty of £100 on the "man-eaters of Tsavo" and the camp was swarming with soldiers, opportunists and wealthy sportsmen hunters.

All to no avail. The "deadly monsters" took on supernatural status to many at Tsavo as the pair, a male and female, evaded barricades and guard posts to kill at least 28 workers. Their exploits were commemorated in the 1996 film Ghosts And The Darkness. Eventually, after endless nights watching from a tree, Colonel John H Patterson shot the first of them dead in December 1898. It was so heavy it took eight men to carry the lion's carcass. Its mate was killed three weeks later and the bridge was completed.

Many more workers were killed by malaria, while the beasts of burden suffered from tsetse flies that killed 1,500 of the 1,800 animals deployed. The dead are not forgotten and the current driver, Jared Boaz Otieno, can reel off a list of their graves that are scattered from the Taru desert and the floor of the Great Rift Valley to the overgrown sidings in Mombasa. "You have to remember the lion is cunning like a human being," he muses from his cab. "You can see their graves. A lot of people died to make this line."

As the express train pulls gently in to the port city where the line was born, the clock reads 9.28am and journey has taken 14 and a half hours. The driver is quietly pleased that we are 32 minutes ahead of schedule. Yes, he admits, it does take six hours by bus but "who would want to drive on those reckless roads?", he asks.

As for the future, he is not too worried. The 21st-century train isn't going to arrive any quicker in Kenya than its late 19th-century counterpart, he believes. "It's a vision but for now that's all it is. We'll see," he says.

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