In life and death, Uganda’s railway remains a lunatic express

Raymond Mujuni

What you need to know:

  • The unintended outcome of the railway was the creation of what are Uganda’s current urban areas.

The Ugandan railway is the most political transport project in the country’s history – and in fact, the most political development project in Uganda’s near 130-year history. 

It was first pitched to the natives as a disruptor of slave trade when in fact, the role it would serve best was the extraction of crude raw material and produce from the colony to the colonizers. The railway introduced Indian populations and businesses to East Africa bringing with it coolies for construction and some more for police administration. Like a popular columnist says; once they got a corner, they set up shop and never left.

The unintended outcome of the railway, and this I have both studied, researched and written a thesis on, was the creation of what are Uganda’s current urban areas.

Each of Uganda’s existing urban areas benefitted from having either a railway stop in it – or a railway trade shop. It’s truly incredible when you study it.

After a century of that steel work being in Ugandan soils, the railway has all but dried up and malfunctioned, it’s previous stop shops have been replaced with repulsive buildings, some of its track now leads to plunderer’s mansions and for equal measure, some shacks for their poorly-paid employees have also been erected.

It’s because of this persistent breakdown that few motorists know that a locomotive laboriously pulls wagons through the city of Kampala. Even fewer know that this locomotive has a right of way. The resultant effect has been near crashes, crashes and fatal deaths like the three young people who were killed early in the week.

There is a legal argument that’s been made insistently which is that the train has a right of way and therefore, anyone found on its tracks when it’s approaching has committed an offence – in life and in death. It isn’t a very helpful argument to make. Mostly because many of the likely offenders will be long dead – or irreparably injured - before the conviction comes.

There is however, a common sense argument which is that, every railroad crossing has an accompanying barrier meant to stop cars – it’s archaic but it’s still a measure. In more developed countries, there are traffic lights. These barriers are meant to be lowered by wardens when the train is approaching to eliminate any guess work from drivers on which side of the road – or how many metres away from the track they should be. Those wardens are typically meant to be equipped with walkie-talkies to prepare them early for track-clearing. As the train approaches, we understand it hoots really loudly too to warn any other traffic that might be on the tracks.

This is one of those cases where the legal argument isn’t rooted in common sense and the common sense and practical thing to do is rooted in such deep politics.

The people that prevailed over the progressive breakdown of the railway and its institutions – and those that constructed it – did not intend for it to be a human centered development, the kind that transforms communities. It was rather an extractive project that left bitter poverty, unbalanced growth and divisive politics in its wake.

In birth as it is in its death, the Uganda railway remains a lunatic express!