The railway museum is situated at the north-west end of Nairobi station and
can be seen from the Uhuru Highway where it crosses the main line. The
museum was established in 1971 by the then East African Railways and Harbours
Corporation to preserve and display relics and records of the railways of
East Africa from their inception to the present day. In addition to the collection of steam locomotives and rolling stock, there is a large display of smaller exhibits and models.
The Museum is still rail-connected, allowing restored locos access to the main line for working steam excursions.
With the privatisation of Kenya Railways, the Museum and exhibits have been transferred to the guardianship of the National Museum of Kenya. The curator
of the museum is now Maurice Barasa, an anthropologist by training and who
brings expertise in museum management. His father was a stationmaster on
Kenya Railways, so he has a family connection with his new duty. He is keen
to see more steam tourist trains and will have meetings with Rift Valley
Railways in due course, about making formal arrangements for steam operation
Opening Times: 0845-1645
Normally 7 days a week, including most Public Holidays
Class EB3 2409 has now been restored to operating condition by the steam team, coordinated by Graham Roberts. A long process as many parts needed to be fabricated or, like the tender oil tank, recovered from distant parts of the system. If you are visiting the museum, a donation to the restoration fund will be very welcome.
Graham's account of the progress of the restoration can be seen at the 2409 diary page.
The first operational railway in East Africa was a two foot gauge trolley
line in the port of Mombasa operated by hand propelled wagons, the original
route being supplemented with track recovered from the abortive Central
African Railway which had reached a mere 11 kms inland from Mombasa
By 1896 all was ready for a second attempt to build a railway from Mombasa to
Lake Victoria and the inaugural platelaying ceremony was performed on 30th
May, 1896. However the German East African railway had already commenced
construction of the line from Tanga in May 1893, but after taking two years
to build 40kms of line, the Usumbara Bahn was declared bankrupt and
construction had to be taken over by the German Government. The line
eventually reaching Moshi in 1912.
The Uganda Railway was constructed to metre gauge as this was already in
common use in India which meant there was a ready source of locomotives and
rolling stock. In addition, most of the labour, skilled and unskilled, was
imported from India, many of whom remained after their contracts ended to
become the nucleus of the Asian community in Kenya and Uganda.
Ryall`s Saloon No. 13
After leaving Mombasa, the line had to cross the waterless Taru Plain, a slow
job with every drop of fresh water having to be taken by train from Mombasa
to the construction camps. By 1898 the line had reached the Tsavo river. At
first the line was carried across the river by a temporary wooden trestle to
allow the railhead to move on while a permanent bridge was built under the
direction of Captain, later Lt. Colonel, J. H. Patterson. The construction
was held up for several months by two man-eating lions, who attacked the camp
and killed scores of African and Asian workers, before being eventually
hunted down and shot by Patterson. The stuffed and mounted carcases of the
two lions are now on display in the Field Museum in Chicago.
This was not the last time lions were to disrupt the line. In 1899, a road engineer by the name of O'Hara was dragged from his tent near Voi and killed. A year later, on 6th June 1900, at Kima station, Police
Superintendent C. H. Ryall was sleeping in his observation saloon, number 13,
when he was killed by a lion which entered the carriage and dragged the body
through a window and off into the bush. Two other men in the saloon, Heubner
a German trader who ran a store in Nairobi, and Parenti, an Italian merchant,
had narrow escapes. The lion was eventually captured in a baited trap and shot.
By 1899 nearly 500 kms of track had been laid and the line had crossed the
Athi plains and arrived at the foot of the Kenya Highlands. The railhead
reached an area of swampy ground known by the Masai name of Nyrobi. Here a
major depot was established to facilitate the construction of the line up
into the highlands. The administrative offices were also moved here from
Mombasa and homes built for the staff. This attracted an influx of Asian
merchants to supply goods and services to the railway workforce. In addition,
the Colonial Administration headquarters was moved from nearby Machakos, a
settlement by-passed by the railway. In 1900 the spelling was changed to
Nairobi and the future capital city was born.
East African Railways
Midway between Nairobi and Lake Victoria was the great natural obstacle of
the Rift Valley with its 450 m drop from the Highlands to the floor of the
valley. In order to speed up construction an inclined railway was
constructed down the steep sides of the rift. The steepest part of the
incline descended for 210 m at a gradient of 50°. The inclines were
cable operated with the main descent utilising two counterbalanced
transporter wagons running on broad gauge tracks, each carrying one metre
gauge wagon. Some of the brickwork for these inclines can still be seen. This enabled the railhead to be pushed on across the floor of the Rift Valley towards Lake Victoria while the permanent descent of the rift was still being constructed.
The railway was originally intended to link directly with the Ugandan capital of Kampala and the route had already been surveyed. However political and economic pressure from a British Government that was never more than lukewarm about the project meant a quicker and cheaper alternative had to be found. A new route was surveyed from Nakuru to the nearest point on Lake Victoria on the Winam Gulf and the line built to there as an interim solution.
Railhead finally reached Lake Victoria, 930 km from Mombasa, on 19th Dec 1901
at a point called Port Florence, named after Florence Preston, wife of the chief foreman platelayer, Ronald O. Preston, who had accompanied
her husband on his 5 year journey all the way from Mombasa. Mrs Preston was given the honour of driving home the last key at the waters edge¹. Port
Florence was later renamed Kisumu. After the First World War a new main line
was constructed from Nakuru on the original, more northerly, route around the
head of the lake which eventually reached Kampala in 1931. A branch to the
soda deposits at Lake Magadi was completed in 1915. The Nanyuki branch
reached Thika in 1913, Naro Moro in 1927, and finally arrived on the
foothills of Mount Kenya in 1931. The Solai and Kitale branches were
completed in 1926 and the Kisumu line was extended to Butere in 1932.
In Uganda, the main line was extended from Kampala to Kasese near Mount
Ruwenzori, the Mountains of the Moon, in 1956. The Northern Uganda branch
from Tororo had reached Soroti by 1929 and was later extended to Pakwatch on
the Nile above Lake Albert, arriving there in 1964. This line was has now
been extended across the White Nile to Arua near the border with Zaire.
¹ Another version of this story has it that the port was named after the wife of George Whitehouse, Chief Engineer of the line, also called Florence. Whitehouse was, alledgedly, later reprimanded for it. I can see a scenario where both men told their wives "It's named after you, Dear."
In Tanganyika, the Germans started construction of the Central Line from Dar
es Salaam in February 1904. This line eventually reached Kigoma on Lake
Tanganyika in 1914. A branch line was built from Tabora to Mwanza on the
southern shore of Lake Victoria, being completed in 1928. A line from Tanga
was commenced in 1899 reaching Mombo in 1904. The line then headed for Mount
Kilmanjaro, reaching Moshi in 1911. A link line was constructed in 1924
connecting it to the Uganda railway at Voi. In 1929 the line was continued
to Arusha. Another link line was constructed as late as 1963 to connect the
northern and central lines. The other Tanganyikan branches were from Manyoni
to Kinyangiri, built in 1934 but lifted in 1947, the Mpanda branch in 1949,
and the Kilosa-Kidatu branch completed in 1965.
The last main line to be built was the Chinese funded and equipped Tazara
line (TAnzania-ZAmbia RAilway) from Dar es Salaam to Tunduma on the border
with Zambia. This line, intended to give Zambia an alternative outlet to the
coast for its exports after Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of
Independence, was completed in 1976. Unlike the other East African lines the
Tazara was built to the 3'6" gauge of the Southern Africa railway
system. This allows through running to Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa if
required. There had, for many years, been a plan to convert the East African
network to "Cape Gauge" with some of the later steam engines and
the earlier diesel classes being designed for easy conversion.
The railheads on Lake Victoria are connected by a steamer service, the ships having been transported to the lake in pre-fabricated sections and assembled at Kisumu. As well as providing a vital transport link for various lakeside settlements, the service used to be a popular tourist cruise. Although there is no longer a passenger service, the following train ferries are currently in service on the Lake: Uhuru, Kahawa, Umoja, Pamba and Kabalega. The ex-railway steamer Nyanza is under conversion to diesel engines for use as an oil tanker.
The East African island of Zanzibar has a railway history predating that of the mainland. Sultan Bargash bin Said had a seven mile railway constructed from his palace at Stone Town to Chukwani in 1879. Initially the two Pullman cars were hauled by mules but in 1881 the Sultan ordered an 0-4-0 tank locomotive from Bagnall. The railway saw service until the Sultan died in 1888 when the track and locomotive were scrapped. In 1905 a second line was constructed from Zanzibar Town to Bububu, again about 7 miles long. This line survived until 1930, despite a reputation for repeatedly setting fire to the adjacent countryside.
A note on the EAR&H system of locomotive classification
Steam shunting locomotives
Main line diesels
Note: With the break up of EAR&H into the three national railway corporations and the withdrawal of steam locos, this system was abandoned.
The archive, such as it is, consists of a set of glass-fronted bookshelves in
the Curator's office. It is not open to casual wandering around by visitors
but Maurice Barasa, the curator, is usually pleased to welcome people with a specific subject to research. It is best to write first stating when you hope to visit, explaining you are travelling from abroad, to make sure he is not absent on some errand or away on leave - this would make sure someone with a key is available.
Write to The Curator,
Nairobi Railway Museum,
Kenya Railways Corporation,
PO Box 30121-00100,
The main items in the archive are:
Eight albums of original photographs from the 1896-1900 construction period of the original Uganda Railway
Over 100 specialist books and suppliers' catalogues on steam locomotive engineering, from the technical library of the CME's department
The original letter books from the UR from 1900 to around 1912
The General Manager's reports (printed and bound) from early 1900s to 1980 or so
Original letters and files from the two German forerunners of Tanganyika Railways, up to about 1915
Working Timetables, Appendices, Rule Books, Traffic Regulations, etc.
from mid-KUR period (around 1930) to late EAR period
Some files relating to line construction and projected branch lines
A partial run of Railway Magazine from 1930 to mid 1950s
A partial run of Model Railway News from 1940s to 1950s
A number of miscellaneous maps, plans, and drawings
Records relating to marine vessels
A run of Institution of Civil Engineers proceedings from about 1870 to 1915 or so
A run of Kenya Gazette from early 1900s to around the mid 1970s
Framed photographs of former CMEs, CCEs, and GMs of the UR/KUR/EAR
Other primary sources in Kenya include the EAR&H photo and film collection, held by Kenya Railways and visitable during office hours (Amos Okoti in the PR department is the KR photographer and always makes visitors very welcome); the drawings held by the CME's department (they will make you indifferent-quality copies for a charge of about £3 per sheet; you need to know what you are looking for, browsing is not possible due to storage conditions); and the Kenya National Archive in Moi Avenue which has a number of railway- related items.
The Tanzanian Railway Corporation intends to operate restored Tribal Class 2-8-2 2927 Suk on day excursions from Dar es Salaam through the Pugu Hills to Soga, about 85 kilometres inland. Currently the passenger stock is stored at Dodoma as no passenger trains work into Dar es Salaam. 2927 can usually be seen in steam at Dar es Salaam station or at the Ilala yard on shunting duties.
Apart from tourist excursions the museum steam locomotives in both Kenya and Tanzania are used fairly regularly on service trains, mainly goods, to maintain operational experience amongst the crews. This has maintenance benefits as well as machinery that is regularly used gives less problems than that which is only operated intermittently.
Kenya Railways Passenger Services
Nairobi Railway Station
Thika Eagle Mon-Fri. Journey time about 150 minutes.
Thika-Nairobi 0530; returns 1730
Kahawa Cheetah Mon-Fri. Journey time about 70 minutes.
Kahawa-Nairobi 0610, 0648, 0900; returns 0750, 1550, 1810.
Kikuyu Buffalo Mon-Fri. Journey time about 120 minutes.
Limuru-Nairobi 0530 returns 2030.
Kikuyu-Nairobi 0915, 1915 returns 0800, 1740
The Airport Peacock Mon-Fri. Journey time about 50 minutes.
Embakasi-Nairobi 0700,0900,1645,1840; returns 0810,1545,1750,1945
Jambo Kenya Deluxe Daily. About 14 hours.
Nairobi-Mombasa dep 1900 arr 0825
Mombasa-Nairobi dep 1900 arr 0900
Port Florence Express Nairobi-Kisumu Mon/Wed/Fri dep 0630 arr 1945
Kisumu-Nairobi Tue/Thu/Sun dep 0630 arr 2030
Butere Dove Kisumu-Butere Tue/Thu/Sat/Sun dep 0845 arr 1212
Butere-Kisumu Tue/Thu/Sat/Sun dep 1300 arr 1603
Mount Kilimanjaro Express Voi-Taveta Wed/Sat dep 0500 arr 1000
Taveta-Voi Wed/Sat dep 1430 arr 1912
Mount Kenya Express Nairobi-Nanyuki Sat only dep 0800 arr 1653
Nanyuki-Nairobi Sun only dep 0800 arr 1628
There are currently no passenger services in Uganda.
The Lunatic Express by Charles Miller A comprehensive and very readable history of East Africa giving the geopolitical background to the construction of the Uganda Railway and its influence on the emerging colony of Kenya. Republished by Penguin Classics 2001, ISBN 0-141-39136-7
The Iron Snake by Ronald Hardy. A history of the construction
of the Uganda Railway. The title is taken from an ancient Kikuyu prophecy.
Published by Collins 1965
Steam Locomotives of East African Railways by R. Ramaer. A
technical and historical outline of the motive power of both the British and
German built lines. Published by David & Charles 1974, ISBN 0-7153-6437-5.
Steam in East Africa and Steam Twilight by Kevin
Patience. Two books of photographs covering steam operation from
beginning to end. Published by Heinemann 1976 and by the Author 1996
Railway Across the Equator by Mohammed Amin, Duncan
Willetts, and Alastair Matheson. A coffee table book featuring
the late Mohammed Amin's superb photographs of the modern scene in East
Africa. Published by Bodley Head 1986. ISBN 0-370-30774-7.
Garratt Locomotives of the World by A. E. Durrant has a chapter
on the East African Garratts. Published by Bracken Books 1987. ISBN
East African Locomotives a booklet of postcard photographs of a number of locomotive classes with some basic information on each. Published by EAR&H about 1964.
The Man-Eaters of Tsavo by J.H. Patterson. The eyewitness account of the lion hunt. Republished by Fontana 1974. ISBN 0-00-613299-5.
Zanzibar and the Bububu Railway by Kevin Patience. The story of the island's steam railways and the mule-hauled trams in Zanzibar town.
Steam Safari With East African Railways by Charan Singh Kundi. An account of the November 2001 excursion to Mombasa by 5918 Mount Gelai, includes photos from the trip as well as during its service days. The author is an ex-driver with EAR&H. Published by Majestic Printing Works, P.O. Box 42466, 00100 Nairobi, Kenya. No ISBN.
Steam to Mombasa, DVD. 62 mins. by Nick Lera.
TV documentary style coverage of 5918 on the Mombasa run in 2002 and 2003.
Full footplate and scenic lineside coverage, historical section, and colour 16mm archive film incl. 60 class Garratt. Produced by Locomotion Pictures.
Distributor: Signal Box, 1 Albion Street, Anstey LE7 7DD, U.K.
Bulawayo Railway Museum
Opened in 1972, the Museum displays a wealth of small exhibits and models as well as steam and diesel electric locomotives. The Museum is owned by the National Railways of Zimbabwe and is managed by the NRZ Historical Committee, made up of railwaymen from various departments. The museum is situated behind the Bulawayo Railway Station, in the Raylton suburb of Bulawayo in western Zimbabwe. Access is possible via the pedestrian footbridge at the station. The museum is located in an area that was previously a workshop used in the maintenance of refrigeration wagons.