Kenya revives its colonial rail system to meet its modern needs
A private company sees the country's dilapidated railways as an opportunity to make a profit and meet Kenyans needs for faster transportation.
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Work started in 1896, and almost instantly hit disaster. At least 30 indentured Indian and African laborers had lost their lives to the infamous "Man-Eaters of Tsavo," a pair of male lions which attacked work camps. Hundreds died as engineers struggled to bridge ravines and negotiate the sharp gradients. Malaria cut down hundreds more.Skip to next paragraph
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What started as an expression of Britain’s imperial might ended in near fiasco. Having failed even to reach the Ugandan border, construction stopped in western Kenya as costs spiraled past $729 million.
Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, later put a typically brave face on his description of the railroad construction as ‘one of the finest expositions [of] the British art of ‘muddling through’.”
Opposition politicians at the time vehemently disagreed, labeling the project the "Lunatic Line."
But what was left behind, at least, was a link between the Indian Ocean and Kenya’s interior. And, near the railroad’s midpoint, Nairobi.
Kenya’s capital exists only because engineers were forced to pause here, in an empty swampland named Nyrobe by Masai herdsmen, as they prepared their assault across the Rift Valley.
What started as a railhead, with workers camping under canvas, gave birth to today’s still-growing city of four million people. From the city, Kenya itself grew, a country with borders, a currency, an administration.
Also born at the same time was a new concept. That an elite – initially the whites, later Kenya’s own post-independence big men – was entitled to take from the powerless poor whatever was their whim.
To earn back some of their outlay, the British needed businesses here in their new colony, producing materials and goods to be carried down to the coast for export.
To do this, the government in London offered an acre of prime farmland, land used for millennia by Kenya’s indigenous people, for a penny. Soon hundreds, then thousands, of British settlers arrived.
“If you really think about it, this railway is the source of all our problems,” said Charles Owino, 51, reading his Daily Nation at Nairobi station.
“That land was the Africans’. They were forced out, they moved to into other tribes’ lands and took over. That is the root cause of all election violence we see today, the fight over land. Even look where the clashes happen, they are in towns all along the railway line.”
Back on the 6:40 a.m. from Athi River, we’re starting to see evidence of the fallout from that entrenched, institutionalized, body politic of corruption.
We’re passing through the slums that ring the city center. Tin shacks crowd muddy lanes. Smoke from charcoal cooking fires hazes the morning air. Ungainly marabou storks circle above chaotic dumpsites.
Millions today live here in these unplanned settlements, ignored by successive governments more concerned with lining their pockets than socially serving the worst-off in this stratified society.
The fate of the railroads, once Kenya’s largest employer, once running scores of trains along 1,726 miles of track, mirrors the country’s near-collapse under the rule of Daniel Arap Moi, the former president.
Today, fewer than 600 miles are operational, and decades of poor maintenance mean that maximum speeds are down to around 30 m.p.h. Derailments, sometimes fatal, are common. Some 90 percent of Kenya’s freight, which should be the backbone of any rail system, is moved by road.