Video: The fading glory of Kenya’s "Lunatic Express"

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The World

MOMBASA and NAIROBI, Kenya — In its prime, it carried luminaries including Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II across the African savannah in opulent comfort.

These days, however, the specters of yesteryear are more prominent than the passengers on the 310-mile railroad line from Mombasa to Nairobi. It was once the backbone of the British empire in East Africa, linking the Indian Ocean port to the hinterland. But now the train's compartments stand empty and the dated decor appears to be on a terminal drift toward shabbiness. Still, the old train rumbles on, taking 14 hours or more to clack and wheeze its way across Kenya's savannah.

The historic railway's days are numbered, though. There are plans afoot to build an entirely new track, which will cover the same distance in just three hours. According to Kenya Railways, the new rail — for which construction has not yet begun — will be completed in 2016.

In the meantime, a few passengers still gather on the platform in Mombasa three times a week, assembling for the night train. Most of them are young European tourists with glowing beach tans. Across the tracks, barefoot, shirtless laborers haul what look like 100-pound sacks of grain into a warehouse. Then, with much shouting, they push freight cars down the tracks by hand.

That, at least, is a scene that might have fit comfortably 100 or more years ago, when a skeptical British parliamentarian dubbed the track the “Lunatic Line” because of the enormous effort and expense its construction required. Fueled by colonial plans to make a profit from their East African territories, while proclaiming that they were bringing civilization and Christianity to the area, the British pushed the tracks from the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa all the way through to Kampala, on the shores of Lake Victoria — the heart of the empire’s African holdings.

In "The Lunatic Express," author Charles Miller chronicles the construction of the rail line. Construction lasted from 1896 until 1903 and the cost was 5 million pounds, the equivalent of $793 million dollars today.

The city of Nairobi, nonexistent beforehand, sprang up as a depot for the railway. Local Africans called the railway line that crossed their lands the "Iron Snake." The new tracks also brought European settlers to the new settlements, where they took the local peoples’ lands. The railway allowed the new British plantation owners to make fortunes exporting crops of coffee and tea. 

Subsidized by the British government, the settlers lived in astonishing privilege. "Imperial Reckoning," Caroline Elkin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of colonial British East Africa, describes a society where members of the British upper class seized vast swathes of prime land, making thousands of indigenous Africans homeless. The new colonialists lived lavish and hedonistic lifestyles, according to numerous accounts, including the bestseller "White Mischief."

The railway, built on the backs of indentured Indian laborers, made it all possible.

Climbing into a passenger compartment, it’s clear that the days of limitless luxury are long gone. I’ve paid about $35 for a second-class ticket in an effort to be sociable, as the compartment should sleep four people. But I quickly find that I’m all alone. Many other compartments are completely vacant. A peeling poster advertising a safari company, which appears to be from the 1980s, adorns a wall. Tarnished metal and frayed mosquito netting frame a window. The 18-car locomotive begins chugging into the long night.

Around 2 a.m., the track passes through an exceptionally dark area that is probably somewhere near Tsavo, the spot where two lions with a taste for human flesh ate rail workers in 1898 — by some estimates, 135 of them. The area is now Kenya’s largest national park, and it’s not hard to imagine that the thorn bushes in the starlight might hide the cats’ descendants.

Dawn breaks on a breathtakingly beautiful high savannah. As morning light floods the dining car and a vista of vast, rust-colored plains and distant mountains unfolds, it’s easy to overlook the stains on the frayed tablecloths, the waiters’ threadbare uniforms and the rather gloppy breakfast of beans and eggs. Tourists, well rested if slightly scruffy, sip tea as they pass homesteads and waving children.

Back in third class — where there are no tourists at all — people are toughing out the 10th hour of a ride with no access to the dining car. A couple of hawkers sell refreshments. Even here, at least half the seats are empty.

For most people, there’s simply no reason to take the train these days. Buses are cheaper and make the same trip in just six hours. Regulations require the old narrow gauge train not to exceed 25 miles per hour.

In the meantime, what makes the train trip worthwhile — at least if you’re not on a tight schedule — are stretches of country like the one a couple of hours outside of Nairobi. An ostrich struts by and a herd of antelopes gallops away. Then several giraffes dart off the tracks and watch in lanky silence as the train rattles by.

Soon, it’s back to reality. The train careens into the slums of Nairobi, where corrugated metal shacks nearly touch the passing cars and the stench of garbage invades the train. There is the uncomfortable feeling of gawking at the destitute. Above the slums tower the city’s skyscrapers.

It’s a landscape the railway helped create — and one that has ultimately overshadowed it.