The Lunatic Express was the name given to a railroad built by the British colonial government in East Africa during Victorian times. Officially called the Uganda Railway, it was constructed over the period 1895-1901 from Mombasa on the Kenyan coast to Lake Victoria in the interior and later onward to Kampala in Uganda.
The term was first introduced in modern times as the title of a book by Charles Miller in 1971 (Macmillan) The Lunatic Express, sub-titled “An Entertainment in Imperialism,” it was also known as the “Lunatic Line” by the tabloids of the day, and The Iron Snake by the Africans. It was defended in the British Parliament by Sir Gerald Portal who felt all the right reasons were there, the need to ensure protection of the source of the Nile from Britain’s enemies, a great potential market for British goods, the huge traffic expected, and a revolutionary effect in settling the region.
Political resistance to this “gigantic folly” surfaced immediately, including the Liberals pronouncement that the Government had no right to drive a railway through country owned by the Maasai. And by what right did England have to assert mastery over thousands upon thousands of unlettered African tribesmen? Such arguments along with the claim that it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money were easily brushed aside by the Tories. After all if England were to step away from its manifest destiny, they would by default leave it to other nations to take up the work which England would be seen as “…too weak, too poor, and too cowardly to do ourselves.” Estimated at 3 million pounds in 1894 or $432 million in today’s currency, when the books were closed in 1902, the final cost was $793 million.
Did it deserve to be called the Lunatic Express? The wild nature of it – shaky looking wooden trestle bridges, enormous chasms, prohibitive cost, hostile tribes, men dropping by the hundreds from diseases, and man-eating lions pulling railway workers out of carriages at night – Lunatic Express seemed to fit. However, an early traveler, Winston Churchill, had the last say. “The British art of ‘muddling through,’” he said was “here seen in one of its finest expositions. Through everything – through the forests, through the ravines, through troops of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating Parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway.”