The end of the road for the ‘Lunatic Express’


(Posted 08th May 2017)

The ‘Lunatic Express‘ aka ‘The Iron Snake‘ is no more as news are emerging from Nairobi that Rift Valley Railways has halted passenger operations with immediate effect.

In its heydays did two passenger trains operate every day in both directions, from Nairobi to Mombasa and vice versa, one train leaving the stations at 5 pm and the other at 7 pm, passing each other along the route at Mtito Andei or other stations with laybys.

Offering First Class Sleeper compartments, comfortable Second Class carriages and then Third Class too equipped with wooden benches and no comfort at all but the cheapest way to travel, was in particular the ‘Silver Service‘ dining experience much sought after by travelers in days when a road journey could take a day or more and air services were notoriously unreliable.

Train services in those days run not only between Nairobi and Mombasa but go as far as the Ugandan capital Kampala while in Kenya also reaching Kisumu via Naivasha and Nakuru.

Regular travelers would seek to book their dinner spot for the first of normally two sittings and were at the ready when one of the conductors walked through the train with his bell, indicating that ‘dinner is served‘. Originally did the old Uganda Railways, then the East African Railways and finally the Kenya Railways offer a great dining experience, fine china and silver cutlery included and the waiters would still sport white gloves as part of their uniform, reminiscent of days now long gone.

One would board at the station of origin in the evening and arrive, at least those in the sleeping compartments, fresh the next morning at the destination, ready for a day’s business after enjoying a hearty breakfast before the end of the journey.

The staff on board would make the beds in the first class compartments while their guests had their dinner before they returned to enjoy a good night sleep, or not given the many stops along the way and the rickety clickety condition of the tracks.

When the service went into decline in the 1980’s did for some time at least InterContinental Hotels offer a posh train ride excursions, renting the train carriages from KR but operating all the on board services themselves with fine dining part of the experience.

Excursions into the Rift Valley, along the line to Magadi and even to the Kenya coast were available, until the stock market crash in the US reduced the clientele keen to experience their own ‘Out of Africa‘ dreams to a trickle and the trips were stopped.

Under Rift Valley Railways did the passenger train services receive little if any attention as the company struggled from day one to meet their cargo targets and of late did the passenger train only operate three times a week until the last of the services then, without much fanfare or PR activity, ran from Nairobi to Mombasa on the 28th of April.

With the company’s concession facing the axe was that however probably the last thing on the mind of their managers, a sad state of affairs given that the train services ran almost uninterrupted since the railway was built at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century.

What is left now are memories, still alive in those of us who used the train and for others in history books or through Hollywood productions like ‘Out of Africa‘ or ‘The Ghost and the Darkness‘.

From the 01st of June this year will the new Standard Gauge Railway, in short known as SGR, begin to operate train services as reported here before but the days of the ‘Lunatic Express‘ are now finally over as old gives way to new.


  1. The Great Main Line Museum in Leicester, UK is working on a project to collect any information about the Uganda-Kenya railway and connections with Leicester, particularly families who have lived in Leicester/Uganda. If anyone has any relevant information please contact:
    Roger Shelley
    Head Curator
    Great Central Railway
    LE11 1RW

    01509 632323