A facelift for the Lunatic Line

A facelift for the Lunatic Line

It goes by several names:  The Iron Snake, the Lunatic Line, the Jambo Kenya Deluxe. Winston Churchill shot zebras sitting next to its great engines and man-eating lions stalked its trains’ carriages, devouring men at night. Over the years, hundreds have perished in its iron body from faulty brakes, exploding gas tanks, and powerful floods that washed away bridges.

The mysteries and horror stories attached to the African railway are legendary. But, the system — stretching through Kenya and Uganda — is about to get a 21st century facelift thanks to a nearly $40 million loan from the African Development Bank.

A new transportation plan is in the works for East Africa. Kenya Railways will build 12 commuter train stations to connect the Nairobi metropolitan area. The rail between the coastal city of Mombasa in Kenya, and Kampala, Uganda is to be re-vamped by 2017. There is also talk of railway lines connecting Lamu, Kenya to Juba, South Sudan, as well as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The last rail stations in Kenya were built in 1935. The BBC’s Ruth Evans reports:

"Inside Nairobi station, it is like stepping into a time warp. The arrivals and departures board looks as though it hasn’t been updated since I first did the journey 28 years ago…As we pull slowly out of the station shortly after 7pm, the sun is setting behind the shacks that have sprung up all along the track…The ticket collector tells me to close the windows and lock the doors before going to sleep. But the window doesn’t shut properly, the fan doesn’t work, and the lights keep going on and off…The road to the coast runs parallel with the railway for much of the route, and heavily laden trucks churn up the pot-holed tarmac, taking goods to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Congo and beyond."

The trains, which can run at a sloth-like pace of 18 mph are to be replaced with high speed trains. A once 15 hour ride from Nairobi to Mombasa will only take two or three hours. The new rail system won’t just benefit commuters and tourists. It will also create a trade network for goods like coffee, cotton and gold. Kenya Railways is currently managed by Rift Valley Railways — a mix of Kenyan, Ugandan, Brazilian and Egyptian companies. But the railway is plagued by great debt and a region battling high levels of corruption, not to mention the worst famine in decades. East Africa’s perhaps grandiose rail endeavor will either be a boom or a bust.