Thousands of railway workers died building Kenya’s so-called “lunatic line”, some by man-eating lions. The BBC’s Alastair Leithead considers if a new railway line through a national park could get the same nickname.
In the top drawer of a desk at Nairobi Railway Museum sits a little box containing three small lion claws that are more than 100 years old.
“The man-eating lions really caused havoc in the history of the railway construction,” says assistant curator Elias Randiga.
They belonged to the two lions that struck fear into the workers laying railway tracks from Mombasa through what was then the Kenyan wilderness.
“They managed to kill 100 people, but the total number who died from diseases and other causes was 4,000 – for each mile, four people died,” he says.
Kenya’s first cross-country railway line was dubbed “the lunatic line”, but not just for the cost in lives caused by man-eating lions, malarial swamps and hostile local tribesmen.
It was such an expensive engineering project that the British parliament suggested only lunatics would spend so much on a railway line to the middle of nowhere.
The construction, which began in 1896, led to the founding of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and the railway eventually reached Uganda.
‘It’s a white elephant’
These days building a new railway is a lot faster and easier using the latest Chinese track-laying technology – trains which lay the lines as they go along – but it is still ferociously expensive.
Kenya is borrowing billions that it will have to pay back and critics are asking the same questions British parliamentarians did back in the late 1800s – why is it costing so much and is it value for money?
“It’s a white elephant – we don’t need it,” says Kenyan economist David Ndii.
“It’s not necessary, it’s overpriced. It’s the most expensive single project we have done and it’s not economically viable now or in the future.”
He believes Kenya is taking on too much debt – for big infrastructure projects and for other developments which have not been accounted for.
Phase one from Mombasa to Nairobi is almost complete, and it aims to take container traffic off the roads and boost the economy.
But the voices of protest are now growing louder, as plans for phase two have it cutting through Nairobi National Park.
They include conservationists, Maasai community members and those afraid this will be the beginning of the end for the only national park in the world to still exist within a city boundary.
Rhinos, lions, giraffes, buffaloes and various antelope species graze with the iconic backdrop of Nairobi’s city skyscrapers.
Development is squeezing in on its boundaries, with roads, new housing estates and now the railway line redefining its borders.
“I think it will change the park forever – it’s not going to be a wild area any more,” says Anthony Childs, who runs a tourist lodge on the edge of Nairobi National Park.
He showed us an area where phase one of the railway had already cut into the protected area.
A long line of concrete pillars is waiting for a concrete bridge to be lowered into place, and heavy machinery is cutting an embankment.
“For this bit of incursion into the park we were not consulted at all – it was done without asking us,” he says.
“What is shocking is how much they have destroyed the land underneath, all of this being national park, and this is our worry for the track that goes across the middle.”
He would like to see the track go around the south of the park, and there are less-favoured alternative routes.
“This park was a pristine piece of land in the beginning,” says Mr Childs.
“First of all there was a pipeline across it, then there were pylons, now there’s a railway along the side which now will go across. When will it stop?”
Kitili Mbathi, the director general of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), tried to reassure protesters who recently delivered a petition against the 6km (3.7-mile) raised bridge.
“We will be working with the contractor to make sure the construction will be as least disruptive as possible and as environmentally friendly as possible,” he says.
“We believe that given the circumstance we have found ourselves in, this is the least obtrusive solution.”
The first phase included a station built north of the national park, so the only option for phase two is now crossing the middle or doubling back on itself, costing a great deal more and still taking a chunk out of the protected area.
“We were between a rock and a hard place – either give up 50 hectares [124 acres] and increase the cost by 50%, or have the least obtrusive bridge across the park,” says Mr Mbathi.
The KWS, along with veteran conservationist Richard Leakey, pushed for the extra expense of a bridge, so the animals can at least move freely once the construction is finished.
Although this is no longer Maasai land, their elders say the area was given to the colonial government for the specific use of wildlife, and building a bridge is breaking that deal.
The protests continue and, as the president was preparing to announce stage two, a court ruling suspended work until a more comprehensive study of its impact had been completed.
A broader worry, voiced by economist Mr Ndii, concerns the Kenyan government’s huge borrowing spree.
“You are already beginning to see the impact of this borrowing on government finances,” the economist says.
“Debt servicing is going to consume almost a half of revenue now and these projects are not yet delivering any return.
“We are working ourselves into some kind of fiscal crisis in a couple of years.”
The track laying gradually continues towards the Ugandan border and beyond.
It was designed to be a regional railway, but neighbouring countries are now considering cheaper alternative rail plans.
Its lunacy, or otherwise, will be decided by how much freight it hauls and whether in the years ahead all that debt is worth it.