Nairobi Railway Museum

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 and promotion.

Opening Times: 0845-1645
Normally 7 days a week, including most Public Holidays

Museum News

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.


5918 Mount Gelai
Pride of the Museum fleet
Picture ©2004 Trevor Heath

Brief History of the Railways in East Africa

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 Island.

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 map
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 Whitehouse, wife of George Whitehouse, Chief Engineer¹. Another Florence, wife of the chief foreman platelayer, Ronald O. Preston, who had accompanied her husband on his 5 year journey all the way from Mombasa, was given the honour of driving home the last key at the waters edge. 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.

¹Whitehouse was, alledgedly, later reprimanded for it.

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

ClassesLocomotive type
10-19Steam shunting locomotives
20-49Tender locomotives
50-79Articulated locomotives
80-89Diesel shunters
90-99Main 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.

Museum Exhibits

Kenya Uganda Railway

Tanganyika Railway

East African Railways

Magadi Soda Company

*** Photographic Gallery *** Locomotive Names *** Diesel Preservation Candidates ***

*** Some Early Photographs ***

Museum Archives

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.

The main items in the archive are:

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.

East African Steam Excursions

Picture ©2004 Graham Roberts


There are no steam excursions currently planned. However it is hoped that they will be run again in the near future.

For further information about visiting Kenya, see the Kenya Tourist Board website.

Pictures of recent Steam excursions.

Picture ©2004 Graham Roberts


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 occasionally be seen in steam at Dar es Salaam station or at the Ilala yard on shunting duties.

Kenya Railways Passenger Services

Nairobi Railway Station

Nairobi Railway Station

Uganda Railways


A Railway to Nowhere by Stephen Mills & Brian Yonge Combines a history of the building of the line with a pictorial survey of the various phases of construction. The authors were able to refer to documents not available to Mervyn Hill when he wrote his history, Permanent Way, in the 1940s. Published by Mills Publishing 2012, ISBN 99667094-3-6.

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 respectively.

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 1-85170-141-9.

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.
In Association with

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.

Museum Website

Links to photographic sites

58 Class

Picture courtesy Alan Wall ©1968

58 Class Beyer-Garrett and 13 Class shunter at Kisumu 1968
also a Cowan & Sheldon handcrane of 1896


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