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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 January 2006, 12:26 GMT
Chugging along Kenya's colonial past

By Karen Allen
BBC News, Kenya

The Lunatic Railway, as it is locally known, was built 100 years ago and links the Kenyan seaside city of Mombasa with the shores of Lake Victoria 600 miles (1,000 km) away. Although now on the verge of much-needed reinvestment, the journey is still a memorable experience.

1940s train
In their heyday, railways were the driving force behind E Africa's wealth

As a newcomer to East Africa something struck me as very strange.

I would pass railway tracks and level crossings, yet would find there were simply no trains.

It is disconcerting because, like India, Kenya's early economic development was directly linked to the railways back in the early 20th Century.

In fact a visit to the railway museum, tucked down a dirt track in a slightly seedy part of the Kenyan capital, reveals that not only was it common for a railway line to open up a country, but the Kenyan-Ugandan Railway, as it was first known, literally "created a country".

The discarded engines in the museum are arranged like tombstones in a graveyard.

Even the carriage from where a police superintendent was dragged by a lion during the early days of the railway (one of the grisly tales everyone here seems to know) is preserved.

So what happened to one of Kenya's national treasures?

New management

Local people walk along the railway line
A limited train service means workers can walk along the track

If you venture down to Kibera slum in the morning, you will see thousands of people walking to work each day along the muddy railway track.

The old rails map out a path for pedestrians to tread with confidence, and though a handful of cramped commuter trains do still run, the railway line is clear for most of the day.

Kenya's railways have been stripped of their assets over the past few decades.

Land owned by Kenya railways was sold off and the loss-making state industry has been propped up by government subsidies.

Now all that is about to change.

As a South African consortium prepares to take over the running of the railways, I decide to sample the ride along the line in which they are promising to invest millions. And in so doing, to revive Kenya's past economic fortunes.

The name of the service does not inspire confidence.

It is called the Lunatic Express.

Running late

It was given the name by the British colonialists because of the vast amount of investment it initially required.

An hour into our nocturnal journey and it is like stepping back in time

But it became an important artery for getting goods and people from the Kenyan coast in Mombasa to the source of the Nile in Uganda, and back again.

It is seven o'clock in the evening in Mombasa and our journey has been delayed.

A goods train up ahead has been derailed, so we are stuck in the station for a good three hours.

The station master - an affable man who has only been in the job a few weeks - cringes. He knows that a delay is not exactly good PR.

But it does happen a lot.

With only a single track line, if there is a problem with an engine in front, everything grinds to a halt.

All aboard

Local shared taxi
Taking the "matatus" cuts the train journey time in half

Most Kenyans prefer to travel by road despite the potholes.

The shared taxis called "matatus" may be a law unto themselves, but they are cheap and take half the time of the train journey.

Finally, though, our diesel-powered engine creaks into motion.

An hour into our nocturnal journey, and it is like stepping back in time.

A waiter in a white suit walks the length of the train ringing a gong. We are summoned to dinner.

The restaurant is a throwback to the 1930s - and it is packed - mainly with tourists eager to sample a bit of colonial-era class.

Every attempt is made to maintain standards but Emmanuel, the immaculately-starched chief steward, confesses that when a piece of china breaks nowadays, there simply is not the money to replace it.

The dining car aboard the 'Lunatic Express'
It is mainly tourists who come to sample a taste of the past

Sadly it is the same for the engine and track.

So as the diners tuck in to a four-course meal, behind the scenes a desperate juggling act is under way to try to ensure that every guest has the right combination of plate, knife, fork and spoon.

And as soon you put down that fork, the utensil quickly vanishes, is washed, and then dispatched to a neighbouring table.

It is not like it used to be 10 years ago, laments our host Emmanuel. But he hopes there will be better times ahead.

Safe and sound

Meal duly digested, I bump along the corridor with the ticket inspector to spend some time in economy class.

Most of the passengers I meet are railway employees.

Woman sleeping on a seat in the train carriage
Trains are considered a safe way to travel as many cars are hijacked

They get discount fares, a huge incentive for them to travel by rail.

The customers sitting or sleeping on the bench include a hairdresser and a couple of nursing mothers.

They tell me they choose the marathon trip by rail because it is safer for women than going by road.

Car-jackings of matatus are not uncommon and it is quite clear there is a huge potential demand for rail travel in this country.

This will never quite be the Orient Express but the decision to invest in the trains, to take pressure off the congested and potholed roads, could just be a success.

Then perhaps they will be able to buy some more forks.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 7 January, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Timeline: Kenya
09 Dec 05 |  Country profiles
Kenya-Uganda rail deal is sealed
14 Oct 05 |  Business


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