The country was Kenya. The railway became known as the Lunatic Express.
Now 116 years later, another railway line has been built almost parallel to those same tracks in a bid to transform this part of Africa, but this time by a different world power: China.
Whether this railway will earn as colorful a moniker as that of the British endeavor remains to be seen.
At the close of the 19th century, Britain decided to build a railway line from the port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to its protectorate of Uganda, in a bid to lay claim to the land in between amid rumblings that the German and French empires were coming for it.
It was a herculean feat of engineering that bound a tapestry of disparate tribes into a nation. Kenya was born, but the human and financial toll was enormous.
An old train from the Lunatic Express on display at the Nairobi Railway Museum; a picture of a dead elephant on the old line; a lion tries to enter a carriage.
In total, about 2,500 men died from the back-breaking labor and hostile conditions.
It was a huge gamble. Like its predecessor, the new railway line has been plagued by controversy, as well as accusations that it has resulted in huge debt to China it will take Kenya years to climb out of. But now China appears to be unwilling to fund further sections of the line, leaving a question mark over its future.
The Madaraka Express
A voice over a speaker politely advises passengers to look out the window as the Chinese-built Madaraka Express slices through some of Kenya’s most dramatic landscapes at 120 kilometers per hour (75 miles per hour).
To the left, the Tsavo East National Park presents the sort of flat, yellow plains that giraffes are silhouetted against on postcards of Africa, while on the right the Tsavo West National Park yawns open, Mount Kilimanjaro visible in the distance. A dazzle of zebras idles by the tracks. Elephants are often spotted here, the guide says over the speaker.
It’s a curious experience. This train line was not meant to be a safari.
“The Madaraka Express has caught us unaware,” says Philip Jamuhuri Mainga, managing director of the state-owned Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC), referring to the name given to the passenger service. The train was an immediate sell-out, and a second daily service was provided, along with the tourist-friendly safari announcements. “Even that second train is fully booked,” he says.
Elevated on huge concrete pillars, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) can withstand Kenya’s fast rains and huge elephants and is lined by wire fencing to ward off attacks as much as the big game. Viaducts have been crafted so that families of large animals, such as giraffes, can pass under.
The Madaraka Express is spotless, with charging outlets in first class and toilets that are cleaned every 30 minutes. A Chinese flag is displayed in each carriage, reminding passengers of exactly who provided this efficient new service. Indeed, the giant, gleaming glass terminal in Nairobi looks identical to many in China, a country that has built an extensive high-speed rail network over the past decade.
Elizabeth Nduta, 34, a Nairobi resident who used the train for the first time in April, says it is cheaper than flying and safer than the bus. She had never taken the Lunatic Express. “My friends didn’t talk highly of it,” she says. “It was always late, slow and had bad toilets.”
City to port
When the first section of the service launched in May 2017, nearly 18 months ahead of schedule, the Standard Gauge Railway was primarily designed for cargo trains shifting freight from the port of Mombasa to Nairobi.
Its main selling point to the Kenyan public was that it would haul 22 million tons of freight a year, slashing cargo transport times from two days to eight hours (the cargo train is slower than the passenger line). Currently, one single-lane road snakes from the capital to Mombasa port. Prone to sudden sandstorms, heavy rains and lethal accidents, it remains an unreliable and unsafe way to cross the country.
A sandstorm emerges on the road from Voi to Mombasa; the landscape after the storm.
At the port in Mombasa, cargo crates with “CHINA SHIPPING” are stacked on the edge of the Indian Ocean, ready to load onto the train.
In the days of the Lunatic Express, which was retired in 2018, the railway handled 4% of the port’s traffic — that figure has risen to 40% on the new line, says Thomas Ojijo, operations expert at KRC. The new railway runs almost to the ships’ berthing stations, significantly reducing loading times, Ojijo adds — an efficiency boost officials hope will increase the port’s capacity.
The line could handle far more traffic. Currently running nine cargo trains a day, it’s capable of serving up to 26, according to KRC. In the coming years, the government plans to build industrial parks and “dry ports” along the line to handle regional cargo.
While all that sounds positive, in recent years the train has become controversial for the debt it has saddled the Kenyan government with.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Geng Shuang says: “If you want to get rich, you need to build roads first. The lack of infrastructure is a bottleneck that restrains Africa’s independent and sustainable development.
“The construction of SGR … is significant to the long-term social and economic development to Kenya and surrounding countries.”
It’s a sentiment that Mainga echoes.
“We need to depart from the past and start moving in a new direction,” says Mainga, addressing such concerns at the KRC’s headquarters in Nairobi. “Kenya is a developing country, and we will never move until we have a transformative infrastructure. That’s what will give us an edge. So yes, we are invested. But we are seeing a lot of returns.”
Not everyone, however, is counting their profits from the SGR network.
In 2015, Benjamin Mutuma got what he thought was going to be his big break.
The 35-year-old Kenyan’s new construction company had won contracts from CRBC to build drainage for three stations along the Madaraka Express, under a government plan to support young business people.
At first, he was excited. In Kenya, landing a government tender can change a person’s life. But Mutuma, whose name CNN has changed to protect him from government reprisals, soon ran into problems.
The Chinese managers overseeing the work would supply building materials for Mutuma’s team, but at the end of the month, he claims, they would say too much had been used and dock his wages. “Every time we were billing, we were fighting,” he says. Challenging the Chinese managers was impossible. “Every three months, you had a new person supervising your team. When these guys landed in Nairobi, they knew no English. Zero. So you would have to communicate via sign language.”
It was simpler, he says, to take the docked wages. But by the end of the project Mutuma claims his company had lost so much money it folded. “I had to start again from scratch,” he says. “So many young people went into this business and went bankrupt.”
CNN has reached out to CRBC in China for comment on this matter, but it has not replied.
The Chinese railway company currently operates the line, and Chinese migrants often fill top jobs. Indeed, Chinese managers can be seen at every station along the line, and KRC admits most of the train drivers are still from China. But the Kenyan government claims that is changing and that Chinese workers are transferring their skills to Kenyans. By year seven, the line will be staffed 100% by Kenyans, says KRC managing director Mainga.
But the idea that Chinese migrants have taken jobs from locals is powerful in Kenya, feeding bubbling racial tensions.
Part of the problem, says Mutuma, was the segregation of the Chinese from the locals. Multiple railway workers report that CRBC employees are not permitted to leave their company living quarters in the evenings or at weekends without manager approval.
Jasper Liu, a communications manager for CRBC in Kenya, says those precautions are for safety reasons. “Once a week there are four to five cases of robberies of the Chinese in Nairobi alone,” he says, “so we advise they don’t go out, but if they do, tell a manager where they’re going.”
A town called Voi
For centuries, Voi was a small station visited by Arab traders and explorers delving into Kenya’s interior from the coast. But it really grew when the Lunatic Express passed through its green Taita Hills in the late 19th century.
The Lunatic Express train tracks and signage still stand in Voi.
Today, the small picturesque tourist spot, popular as a base for safaris in the Tsavo parks, is transforming into a business hub, thanks to the Chinese-built railway.
On a hill on the town’s edge, sits a huge glass terminal — like a spaceship in the lush Kenyan wilderness.
The population of Taita-Taveta county, which Voi is in, has grown significantly over the past five years, according to Adnan Mwakulomba, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Architecture and Building Science, who grew up there. Many who came to build the railway have stayed, he says. Streams of tourists now pour in via the new tracks twice a day.
Before, Mwakulomba says those tourists would take vans from Nairobi straight to their foreign-owned luxury hotels, meaning their arrival would be of little benefit the local economy. Now, locals are ferrying them from the station to their resorts, and offering car services for their entire stay.
New roads, hotels and even 10-story buildings indicate the pace at which Voi is growing, and the money that has been injected into the town. Mwakulomba says the government paid villagers 4 million Kenyan shillings (nearly $40,000) for every acre of land they needed for the project. People with houses or businesses on their plots got more.
“These are guys who come from $1 a day and were being given $40,000,” says Mwakulomba. “It was mind-blowing — money they’d never seen before in their lives.”
Some blew their loot on drinking and gambling, Mwakulomba says. Some who had made their livelihood servicing the trucking business lost out, as cargo switched to the railway tracks. But others seized the opportunity.
Perhaps no one did this better than Mustafa Jamal. At 30 years old, he is already rich by Kenyan standards.
Before the SGR arrived in Kenya, Jamal made his livelihood from a single truck. Then in 2015, he won a contract to supply CRBC with river sand. He made 600,000 Kenyan shillings every month (about $6,000) in a country where the average monthly wage was 6,498 shillings (about $64) in 2013, the latest figures available. “So, I bought more trucks and that created jobs for other people,” he says.
Today, Jamal has 20 trucks, SUVs and lorries, employs about 60 staff and has become a landlord. Behind his trucking lot lies a housing complex that was built by the Chinese railway company for its workers.
When the job was done, the firm simply left the buildings to the town.
The old living quarters of the Chinese staff are now a school and private flats.
Jamal bought half of the block from the town, which he now rents out to locals. The other half has been turned into a village school.
“If you ask me, when the Chinese were here the local people benefited a lot,” says Jamal. “Before the SGR they had local mud houses. But now they have good cement homes. Voi town has grown.”
Just north of Nairobi, two Chinese train drivers are taking a one-carriage trolley along a pristine track heading for the big blue skies of Kenya’s Rift Valley. As it zooms through Maasai Mara heartland, more spaceship-like train stations dot the landscape.
But there is not a passenger in sight.
This test train is traveling the next stage of Kenya’s high-speed line, which will connect to the capital to Naivasha, the jumping off point for Hell’s Gate National Park, which inspired the animated landscape in the 1994 Disney animated movie “The Lion King.”
The Madaraka Express was initially envisaged as part of an East African Railway Master Plan that would connect Kenya to Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan and, eventually, go all the way through to the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Railway systems are most viable in long distances,” says Mainga, the KRC managing director.
But most of the lines remain a proposal. Domestic squabbling, growing concerns about rising African debt and bad regional political relations have seen the Kenyan line stall at Nairobi.
Liu, the communications manager for CRBC in Kenya, says the new section has been 90% complete now for months. But the government is still wrangling with a community on the outskirts of Nairobi who — despite the compensation being offered — don’t want to be relocated, meaning the completed section to Naivasha cannot be joined with the rest of the operational line.
Who knows how long it will take to resolve, Liu says.
“In China we don’t have this problem,” he adds. “A train is coming to your village? Everyone understands that will make them money.”
The open, arid landscape the new line passes through is beautiful, stretching otherwise untouched for miles.
The train should improve tourist access to the hot springs town of Mai Mahiu, as well as Mount Suswa, a popular hiking spot where land had been earmarked for Uganda to build a dry dock for the cargo hoped to be coming its way.
Whether the train will reach Uganda, however, remains to be seen.
He didn’t. Kenya subsequently denied the issue had even been on the agenda.
Instead, in what could be seen as a concession, Beijing granted Kenyatta a $400 million loan to revamp the nearly 120-year-old British-built meter gauge railway to the Ugandan border.
How trains on the modern standard-gauge tracks will connect with the old railway line — which operates on a different type of track — remains unclear.
What is clear is, however, is that no one wants to see a return to the madness of the Lunatic Express.
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