Lunatic Express. The Uganda Railway faced a great deal of criticism in Parliament, with many parliamentarians decrying it as exorbitantly expensive. Whilst the concept of cost-benefit analysis did not exist in public spending in the Victorian Era, the huge capital sums of the project nevertheless made many sceptical of the value of the investment. This, coupled with the fatalities and wastage of the personnel constructing it through disease, tribal activity, and hostile wildlife led the Uganda Railway to be dubbed a Lunatic Line:
What it will cost no words can express,
What is its object no brain can suppose,
Where it will start from no one can guess,
Where it is going to nobody knows,
What is the use of it, none can conjecture,
What it will carry, there is none can define,
And in spite of George Curzon’s superior lecture,
It is clearly naught but a lunatic line.
— Henry Labouchère, MP,
Political resistance to this “gigantic folly”, as Henry Labouchère called it, surfaced immediately. Such arguments along with the claim that it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money were easily dismissed by the Conservatives. Years before, Joseph Chamberlain had proclaimed that, if Britain were to step away from its “manifest destiny”, it would by default leave it to other nations to take up the work that it would have been seen as “too weak, too poor, and too cowardly” to have done itself. Its cost has been estimated by one source at £3 million in 1894 money, which is more than £170 million in 2005 money, and £5.5 million or £650 million in 2016 money by another source.
Because of the wooden trestle bridges, enormous chasms, prohibitive cost, hostile tribes, men infected by the hundreds by diseases, and man-eating lions pulling railway workers out of carriages at night, the name “Lunatic Line” certainly seemed to fit. Winston Churchill, who regarded it “a brilliant conception”, said of the project: “The British art of ‘muddling through’ is here seen in one of its finest expositions. Through everything—through the forests, through the ravines, through troops of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating Parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway.”
The modern term Lunatic Express was coined by Charles Miller in his 1971 The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. The term The Iron Snake comes from an old Kikuyu prophecy: “An iron snake will cross from the lake of salt to the lands of the Great Lake…
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