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train carriages going through the African bush

Kenya’s new railway … but will they write poems?

This week, the tender documents went out for Kenya’s new railway – a second standard gauge railway line between Mombasa and Nairobi. There will also be a link from the city centre to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi and future plans to extend the line to Kisumu and on to Uganda. Journey times to the coast will drop from a rickety 14 hours (if you are lucky) to around three hours.

They aren’t hanging around with the building either. The aim is to get the whole thing up and running within three years. The budget is around 340 billion Kenya shillings (about £2.5 billion/$4 billion). It’s being financed by a loan from the African Development Bank and a 1.5% tax on all imported goods. Needless to say, the Chinese are in control of development.

The grand plan

Look a bit further afield and this is just one cog in a far grander plan for the railways in East Africa. The vast new and improved web of lines being planned calls for development on a scale that has not been seen since the empire-builders first swept into town in the 1890s. Existing lines will be upgraded. New lines will fill in obvious gaps, such as a connection between Kenya and Tanzania. However the bigger projects will take new lines north to South Sudan and Ethiopia, inland to Rwanda and Burundi, with a projected new high speed line connecting Lamu’s new deep-water port with central Africa. There is even a mooted plan to cross Africa with a high-speed link and two deep-water ports, thereby cutting out the long Cape sea route.

A lot of buts…

It’s all incredibly exciting to watch and could transform the continent. But – and there are a lot of buts – at the moment, Africa’s rickety railways are slow and stop a lot. They are also incredibly cheap. Where passenger trains run, which sadly isn’t everywhere, they are crucial arteries for local communities and traders. High-speed lines are being built for freight. If passengers are considered at all, tickets will be expensive and stops will be infrequent. These new lines are railways for developed nations. The poorest people still need those lifelines. And while the trains themselves will undoubtedly be safer, they may not be safer for the wildlife and people who live along the tracks. Hitting an elephant at 180 kph is no laughing matter. There are serious ecological implications to a route that runs right through the Tsavo National Park.

The Lunatic Line

Personally, my biggest query hanging over Kenya’s new railway is – will it have a soul? Clanky it may be, but I’ve never forgotten my journeys on the Jambo Express Deluxe, carefully timing the soup between jolts so as not to pour it down my front, sitting on the steps of the open door taking photos and chatting to local women in the stations as we passed. This line, from Mombasa to Nairobi, down the sheer wall of the Rift Valley and on to Lake Victoria, is one of the great historical railways of the world. It was christened ‘the Lunatic Line’ in a satirical poem of 1896 when it set off across virgin bush towards the source of the Nile, absentmindedly founding Kenya along the way. Thousands died in its construction, including 142 Indian railway workers eaten by the notorious maneating lions of Tsavo. One is now on display, stuffed in Chicago’s Field Museum (lion, that is, not railway worker)! There’s a fabulous little Railway Museum next to Nairobi station filled with stories, photos and memorabilia.

Will they write poems?

So, Rift Valley Railways, when building your new and undoubtedly necessary fast track , please don’t forget the people, the animals and the history. I’m not for one moment suggesting you allow any of your workers to get eaten for the story. That wouldn’t be nice. But alongside the high speed services, please run stopping services for the villagers and on the front, use the old Uganda railway cars and let nostalgic tourists continue to wave to children, take pictures of zebras and spill Brown Windsor soup off crested spoons. Above all, make sure that Kenya’s new railway, like the old one, has a soul about which people wish to sing. In your planning, pause for a moment and ask yourselves – will they write poems?

man watching out of a train window

Looking for lions as the Jambo Express Deluxe crosses Tsavo – on board the Nairobi-Mombasa railway.


Life in the Slow Lane

Although the overall project is about trains, I am going to allow myself to veer off the rails every now and then blogwise or we could all get bored. In Kenya, there are effectively only two regular rail services now (each going three times a week). In contrast, if you are in the cities, you spend a considerable portion of your life in traffic jams, going nowhere very slowly indeed, surrounded by a belching haze of choking black smoke. The catalytic converter and the low emissions zone haven’t made it out here. Then there is the fact that the traffic on the single lane road is often three abreast, with matatus (colourfully decorated, severely overloaded share taxis with passengers clinging to the open doors) weaving between wheezing lorries that would have been retired to a museum for vintage vehicle geeks to drool over several decades ago in the UK.

On either side of the road wide verges are lined by shops and stalls – a brightly painted Coke kiosk, an even brighter one advertising Omo washing powder, the Moping Kiosk (never discovered what it sold), the Noah Ark Curio Shop and the Small Joint bar and club, a gravestone shop (some of the samples already alarmingly engraved), a row of hellfire and brimstone Pentecostal churches with corrugated iron roofs and lime green walls. In front of them, the verges are crammed with things to buy – a full-sized metal giraffe, double-bed, a herd of elderly lawn mowers, and miles of luscious plants that bring a festive air to the proceedings and turn the road into a tropical garden.

The shopping opportunities are by no means confined to the side of the road however. With the traffic stalled, the sellers come to you. This is a list of what I got offered in one 300m, 20 min Nairobi jam. It is by no means definitive of what was on sale – just what I had time to write down: A framed original oil painting of Jesus with a lamb; a blow-up plastic alien; a selection of pirate DVDs (including The Taking of Pelham 123), a giant PVC map of the world; a collection of the flags of all nations; three different newspapers; apples and oranges; a Spiderman kite; a warning triangle and puncture repair kit; and a collection of animal fridge magnets. The man with a bucket of elderly roses on London’s South Circular has a lot to learn about how to entertain a gridlocked crowd. Carbon monoxide poisoning apart, Kenya wins hands down.


Melissa Shales 2009 - 2018 Melissa Shales All rights reserved