Ghosts of Bukedea train crash ruin businesses for 28 years

A passenger train transports commuters from Kampala City to Namanve in Mukono District last year. Train services in eastern and northern Uganda were halted following a nasty accident in Bukedea District in 1994. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

Residents witnessed painful deaths following the grisly accident when a Uganda Railways cargo train derailed and gored the ground in January, 1994, killing more than 50 people

Ugly memories still linger in the minds of residents of Bukedea District following a bloody train accident that occurred in the area 28 years ago.

The residents witnessed painful deaths following a grisly accident when the Uganda Railways cargo train derailed and gored the ground in January, 1994, claiming lives of more than 50 people.

The accident also marked the last time farmers in Teso made use of the locomotive.

The then cheap and reliable railway transport had been established as a linkage to a booming agricultural trade in eastern and northern Uganda.

It connected rural farmers with a direct market in the Kenya-Uganda border towns of Busia and Malaba, as well as the capital Kampala.

Residents speak out

Mr Charles Isaal, a businessman at Kabarwa Trading Centre in Bukedea District, and a resident of Kachonga Village, Malera Sub-county in Bukedea District, says the train offered cheap means of transport, which contributed greatly to the success of his businesses.

He recounts that he established his business in 1989; where he bought smoked tobacco leaves from Gulu Town and sold it in areas of Teso; registering huge profits in the process.

“I could board a train from Bukedea Railway Station to Gulu for less than Shs14. By then, 12 smoked leaves of tobacco cost Shs4, but I could come and sell each at Shs12,” recounts Mr Isaal.

He says due to the cheap railway transport and the highly profitable tobacco business, he was able to expanded into buying and selling of other agricultural produce from Gulu, which he sold in Busia Town.

He notes that within one year, he was able to buy three cows from the profits he realised.

Mr Isaal says with the cheap cargo transportation, essential commodities such as soap, salt and paraffin were easily available.

“I can assure you that there was significant economic progress. You know people had plenty to spend… there were special wagons which sold all sorts of beer, so some people would get on board just to enjoy the train and get drunk,” he said.

Turn in events

However, for people in Bukedea, the swift business connection farmers in Teso enjoyed with the train came to a halt following the accident, which happened in January, 1994.

Mr David Livingstone Emokori, a resident of Kasoka Village in Bukedea Sub-county, recalls that the accident happened on a Sunday afternoon, “at around 4pm,”.

The accident happened at a time when Teso Sub-region was in the middle of an insurgency.

It marked the collapse of many businesses since it was the only safe means of travel.

Events of the day

There are no official records available in Bukedea about the train accident but eye witness accounts by residents and well-wishers who rushed to the scene that day describe the incident as horrific. 

Mr Alfred Orikodi, 76, then a road gang supervisor with Uganda Road Works in Bukedea, says the train, which was coming from the Gulu side, derailed and hit the ground at Kakere Village, Bukedea Sub-county near the present day Bukedea Health Centre IV.

In his estimation, Mr Orikodi believes between 50 and 80 people died on the spot, with scores injured.

“The train fell with a very loud thud, which horrified many residents. And since it happened during the turbulent times, it took residents some time to reach the scene,” he recalls.

He describes the scene as very terrifying with many victims disfigured with missing body parts.

“The wagons fell on the left-hand side, meaning it blocked the doors, which made it extremely difficult for the people to escape and rescuers to help. Many were also stuck amidst sacks of produce,” Mr Orikodi narrates.

He remembers that a total of 10 wagons had skidded off the rail and fell. It was heavily loaded with humans and agricultural cargo; so the accident claimed many lives, including people and animals.

In a January 5, 1994 report by an American newspaper; South Florida Sun-Sentinel, indicated: “A train derailed killing 30 passengers and injuring 44, some of whom were traveling in freight cars. The accident occurred on Sunday on a flat stretch near Mbale, 140 miles east of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. The train was traveling from northern Uganda to Kampala.”

Cause of the accident

It is believed that the speeding train was overloaded.

Mr Stanley Okwi Etole, the vice chairperson of Kakungur Village in Malera Sub-county, says news then spread that the train driver was allegedly drunk.

“Some of the survivors, who later camped at Bukedea Senior Secondary School, testified that the train was speeding. It first knocked dead an old woman in Mukura [now Ngora District], then it also hit a cow at Ochekereni [in Kumi District] before arriving at Bukedea Railway Station in Okunguro complex. The accident happened just two koilometres after the train left the station,” Mr Okwi says.

Other accounts

However, Mr Eminpasia Ekoroi, then a clerical officer at Bukedea Sub-county, told Daily Monitor that the train derailed due to poor maintenance of the railway sleepers.

“The railway maintenance workers had taken a long time without fixing the rails due to the insurgency in Teso. So on the fateful day, the train found that thieves had stolen some rail support metals and loosened the rail bolts at the spot of the accident,” Mr Ekoroi says.

Locals want railway transport revived

Amid all the misery with which they remember the accident, residents demand that the government should fast-track the revival of railway travel, especially in the eastern and northern parts of the country. This, they say, would help rekindle the once booming agricultural trade in the rural regions.

Mr Gabriel Iriso, a teacher at St Theresa Okunguro Secondary School in Bukedea, says when railway transport was active across  Teso, a number of train stations were buzzing centres for business and would have grown into large commercial towns had the train continued to operate.

Commodity prices

He says the prices of goods were also kept low by competition provided by businessmen as far as Kenya and Sudan.

“I am sure the soaring commodity prices would have been checked with the railway transport active because businessmen are crying about the cost of fuel, “Mr Iriso, whose father once managed Bukedea Railway station, says.

He says the railway infrastructure such as housing at railway stations remain dilapidated.

Mr Moses Otim, the Bukedea District commercial officer, notes that much as productivity in Teso has increased, the lack of market for their produce keeps them in poverty.

“The idea to revive railway transport is long overdue because it would help farmers to address the high cost of production brought about by high fuel prices,” he explains.

He says the collapse of farmers cooperatives in Teso Sub-region could also be blamed on the collapse of railway transport.

Good old days

Mr Elias Emokori, a retired civil servant, praises the railway transport for setting up the foundation of the economy of Uganda.

He says the train was key in getting supplies, equipment and other things to run the country smoothly. The train got copper from Kasese, cotton from West Nile and Lira, and coffee from Bugisu and the central region.

“Transport from Bukedea to Kampala by train was just Shs10,” Mr Emokori says.

Mr Alfred Orikodi, a resident of Apopong Village in Malera Sub-county, Bukedea District, says sometimes he used to board the train to work in Soroti free of charge.

Background to Railway transport

The Uganda Railway, also known as the Lunatic Express, was built by the British colonialists under the foreign office.

Works on the line started at Mombasa port in the Kenya colony in 1896, and reached Kisumu on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria, in 1901.

In 1931, the line reached Kampala. Although most of the line was in present day Kenya, the original purpose of the project was to provide a modern link to transport raw materials out of, and manufactured British goods into the Uganda Protectorate.

The project cost was estimated at $793m (Shs3 trillion) in 1902. Its first services started in 1903.

On the Uganda side, the railway line covers 190km, from Kampala to the Kenyan border, and 8km between Kampala and Port Bell. From Kampala, it continues to Kasese in western Uganda, making it approximately 1,600kms from Mombasa in Kenya.

At Tororo, the northern leg of the railway system branches north-westwards, through Mbale, Soroti and Lira to end in Gulu Town.

From Gulu, the line continues west to Pakwach, about 1,500kms northwest of Mombasa.

Current status

The management of the railway has since changed from the Uganda Railways Corporation to the Rift Valley Railways (RVR) in 2006.

The Rift Valley Railways consortium took over the operations of the Uganda and Kenya railways after acquiring a 25-year concession in November 2006.

The takeover of the century-old line eyed more investment to upgrade the line, reduce inefficiencies and improve revenue generation.

Presently, RVR is operating the Kampala-Mombasa route, but only for freight services.

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.