Kenya is doubtlessly the only country in history to have been built around a railway line.
When construction on the “Lunatic Express” (its official name being the Uganda Railway) began in 1896, the project was considered a “gigantic folly” and a terrible drain on tax money. Not so different from the initial reactions to the Madaraka Express Railway project when it was launched. That is a different story, though.
The official “Uganda Railway” name turned out to be something of a misnomer, as the railway actually ended in Kisumu. When completed, the Lunatic Express defined what was to become known as Kenya, though. Even Nairobi itself came into existence as a railway depot along this railway. The history of modern Kenya is, by all accounts, inseparable from that of the railway.
Following the grand launch of the Madaraka Express last month, Kenya is at the verge of this sending the historic piece of infrastructure which defined it as a country, into oblivion once and for all. Letting this unique piece of modern African history decay and perish, would deprive Kenya and Africa of a key piece of its legacy.
Abandoning the old railway, would be a loss, not only of a centerpiece of Kenya’s history, but also of a great potential tourist attraction. With its legendary history, and spectacular sceneries, the Lunatic Express has everything it takes to become one of the flagship tourist attractions of Eastern Africa, and of the continent as a whole.
The idea of revamping old transport routes into tourist attractions is neither new, nor unique. The Orient Express, one of Europe’s most famous train journeys, is long obsolete as a means of transport between Paris and Istanbul. It is however alive and kicking as a tourist attraction, offering an epic luxury train journey through European capital cities. Norway’s Hurtigruten, a ferry service along Northern Europe’s longest coastline, was originally one of the country’s main north-south transport lines. Long obsolete as a means of freight and transportation, it has successfully been turned into one of Norway’s most famous tourist attractions.
So can the Lunatic Express be turned into a commercial success along the same lines? Probably yes, and quite easily so.
First of all, speed is not an issue here, as the train journey in itself is the experience. Customers would not choose the journey for the sake of getting to Mombasa fast, but on the contrary, to enjoy Kenya’s epic scenery as the train moves slowly down towards the Coast. The slow pace would actually be a selling point in itself.
Borrowing from the example of the revived Orient Express, high quality train-sets, with exquisite old-world grandeur would be key element in the process of building a flagship luxury experience. Images of classic, fine-dining train restaurants, spacious first-class seats and luxurious sleeper suites would not only be strong selling points for the train journey experience itself, but for Kenya as a tourist destination. Obviously, the journey wouldn’t be for the low-cost segment, but Kenya as a tourism destination isn’t cheap in the first place. Most travelers making the journey here, are in most cases already in the upmarket segment, and ready to spend considerable amounts on unforgettable experiences.
The infrastructure is already there, and in an operational state. Since the regular passenger and cargo traffic have already moved to Madaraka Express, the main investment required, is the train-sets, and probably some (significantly) more presentable arrival and departure points in Nairobi and Mombasa.
With Sub-saharan Africa emerging as one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world, Kenya needs new and innovative attractions to compete against its regional rivals. In the Lunatic Express, there is an already-famous piece of history, with potential to offer a luxury experience to the most demanding travelers. It should become both a source of national pride, and of significant tourism revenue.