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You can hear the whistle blow, across the Nile
December 22, 2011 6:07 AM   Subscribe

When it comes to railways, the British are famous for their colonial legacy of one of the world's most extensive railway networks built across then British India but their lesser known and far grander vision was the Cape to Cairo railway network intended to stretch across the sea of colonial pink on the African continent. Left incomplete due to politics and geography, most of it is still almost as it was built in its day.

Egypt, historically and internationally, was the second country after the UK to have a working railway, from Alexandra to Cairo built by Robert Stephenson himself. This was the first railway on the African continent, and the first section begun in 1852, was opened to Kafr-el-Zayat in 1854 ; a further section throughout to Cairo was opened two years latter. From Cairo the railway was carried on to Suez, thus completing the overland route by rail. Until the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 it was a source of considerable revenue to the Egyptian State Exchequer. Yet its continued development eventually put the country into debt and the history of the railroad in Egypt is inextricably bound to that of the country's economic development.

With more than 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles) of track, Sudan has one of the longest railways in Africa, extending from Port Sudan on the Red Sea to Nyala in the war-torn west, and from Wadi Halfa on the Egyptian border to Wau in the far south. But it now carries less than six percent of Sudanese traffic, and the last passenger train to depart from north Khartoum station left in 2010, according to a policeman guarding the empty building. Ironically, it was conflict that initially prompted the development of Sudan's railway. The first section of the present-day network was built by the British in the late nineteenth century to support their military operations against Sudanese leader Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi, who had defeated the colonial forces some ten years earlier. It was later expanded, and used profitably to export animals, sugar and cotton primarily from Gezira state, Sudan's agricultural heartland south of Khartoum, between the Blue and White Nile.

The best known section in its time (traveled on by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt while on safari) laid tracks through what is now Kenya and Uganda initially as a means to attract British settlers to the colonies of British East Africa as well provide freight transport links from the interior of the Uganda Protectorate out to the coastal city of Mombasa's port and harbour. Established as the Uganda railway and then the East Africa Railway Corporation as sections extended further into the region, it came to be popularly known as the Lunatic Express. The story of why it was built, how and by whom is a fascinating glimpse of history, geography and Hollywood style adventure.

South Africa's railway network has given it its own place in history, including the story of Jack the Signalman - a baboon who helped his crippled master retain his railway job. Not only did he get his monthly rations from the government but he also received an employment number. Cape Town was where Cecil Rhodes dreamed of linking the African continent from top to bottom - a lost dream of an era of colonial and military history closely intertwined with massive engineering works and the evolution of modern transportation. Some of it carefully preserved even today as this newly BRICS nation pours investment into high speed transportation linking its capital city and the surrounding economic region.
posted by infini (27 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
Lordy mercy! This lover of trains thanks you for the epic post, infini!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:11 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, and let me add this, if you'll allow!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:13 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


This post just makes me SO HAPPY, and I've only clicked one link so far!
posted by vanar sena at 6:13 AM on December 22, 2011


Meanwhile, back in Blighty, that railway heritage has sunk so deep they're now operating ghost trains: deliberately bad connections only kept alive in order to avoid a cancellation of a line.

Excellent post; plus one, would favourite again.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:28 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


they're now operating ghost trains

i want to leave on the midnight train
i want to ride til the wheels wear down
i want to look out the window as the ghosts fly by
as the world beneath the track spins round
as the world beneath the track spins round
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:48 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Many structures and some of the tracks are now more than 100 years old. Long sections of track on most rail systems need repair or replacement. In some systems, major sections are not in operation and require rehabilitation before operations can resume. Even where there is service, poor track conditions force speed restrictions, cutting the productivity and competitiveness of rail freight. Manual signaling is still used on many networks.

They're talking about modern Africa, but this description could well describe many parts of modern Britain.
posted by three blind mice at 6:49 AM on December 22, 2011


Dayum. It'll take me all day to get through these links - but I promise, I WILL get through them because I LOVE trains. Good thing I have some time off coming up. :)
posted by Elly Vortex at 6:54 AM on December 22, 2011


I probably should have known that Cecil Rhodes would have a part in this, but his involvement raises the question of whether the realization of this project would have actually been a boon for the continent, or simply a more effective way for Britain to exploit Africa.

Great post, regardless.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:55 AM on December 22, 2011


MartinWisse: "Meanwhile, back in Blighty, that railway heritage has sunk so deep they're now operating ghost trains: deliberately bad connections only kept alive in order to avoid a cancellation of a line. "

I had a bit of a chuckle when I saw the article complaining that there were certain stations that only had service 3 or 4 times a day, as an example of deliberate mismanagement and atrophy.

In the US, a station with 3 or 4 trains a day would be a busy Amtrak station.
posted by schmod at 7:34 AM on December 22, 2011 [11 favorites]


I don't know if any of the links mention this book, but Dark Star Safari is a great read and covers Paul Theroux's trip from Cairo to Cape Town mostly via train. He mixes a lot of history in with his travel memoirs.
posted by desjardins at 7:48 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


raises the question of whether the realization of this project would have actually been a boon for the continent, or simply a more effective way for Britain to exploit Africa.

As citizen of one these former colonies, this to me is one of the greyest areas of our world's complicated heritage and history. On one hand, the legacy of modern technology and infrastructure has indeed made a difference where it was left behind yet on the other, its obvious by a simple glance on the maps just how focused these works were towards economic and resource exploitation.

Putting aside the railways themselves for a moment, when I consider the infrastructural inadequacies and challenges across Sub Sahara and compare against the inadequate yet far more extensive systems across the Subcontinent, I cannot help but wish that more had been done for Africa (even if the price back then would have been exploitation) because once the opportunity was gone, it has taken decades and generations to reach the outside world as things are today.

For example, India has posts and telegraph - home addresses and postmen - most of the former African colonies still do not. Ditto many other such extensive decentralized infrastructural systems. The primary reason, from what I've heard in East Africa, is that the British had established "India" as second only to "Home" in their Imperial dominions but most of these parts of Africa (barring Egypt and South Africa, who still demonstrate the economic difference between themselves and the chunks in the middle of the continent) were established much later and only as resource assets, supplying Britain and India and being supplied by them.

Thus they were never really developed to the degree that South Asia was, in the context of the history of the era, and even today the impact can still be felt and seen, imho only. I'm rambling here perhaps or circumlocuting without a pithy point to make but its not something that can really be assessed in black and white terms.

I'd like to hear other points of view.
posted by infini at 8:10 AM on December 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


schmod: "In the US, a station with 3 or 4 trains a day would be a busy Amtrak station."

Speaking of Amtrak - last year almost to the day, my wife and I travelled by Amtrak from Oakland to New York with a number of stops along the way. Despite eye rolling, "Amtrak sucks"es and "you're going to be so bored"s from various Americans, it turned out to be a fantastic (and surprisingly affordable) trip. Particularly the Zephyr - stunning views and lots of friendly people going home for Christmas, with non-stop games of Uno in the observation car. Highly recommended to all.
posted by vanar sena at 8:32 AM on December 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Meanwhile, back in Blighty, that railway heritage has sunk so deep they're now operating ghost trains: deliberately bad connections only kept alive in order to avoid a cancellation of a line.

You have that slightly wrong. They run ghost trains to avoid the hassle of having to formally cancel a line which involves a legally required process to ensure the line closure is fair . The ghost trains are a trick to defacto cancel lines without following the proper process. Basically, it is a government run/private industry fraud perpetrated on rate payers and public transit users. Busness as usual...
posted by srboisvert at 8:36 AM on December 22, 2011


Zimbabwe, of course, never got a train system. They prefer rhodes.
posted by miyabo at 8:49 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Have a remonstrative favourite.
posted by vanar sena at 8:54 AM on December 22, 2011


Thank you for this post. it has certainly given me a lot to think about and tonnes to explore. What an incredible time in history.
posted by saucysault at 9:00 AM on December 22, 2011


What makes the Egyptians think they had the world's second railroad? By 1850 there were over 9000 miles of railroad in the US alone.
posted by leaper at 9:49 AM on December 22, 2011


That is indeed odd and I didn't think to question their framing

Wiki has a whole lot of railroads built before 1850
posted by infini at 10:02 AM on December 22, 2011


I probably should have known that Cecil Rhodes would have a part in this, but his involvement raises the question of whether the realization of this project would have actually been a boon for the continent, or simply a more effective way for Britain to exploit Africa.

I think it would have been a boon. Those inter-connecting railways would have made intra-African trade a much better proposition than the mercantilistic sea-borne network that actually existed. In practice, the British dominated shipping meant that gains concentrated in London, and that post-independence, the newly independent countries had much less infrastructure available to trade amongst each other.
posted by atrazine at 10:04 AM on December 22, 2011


I think their claim is for passenger railroads, as opposed to the granite, coal, cotton, etc shipping that was happening in the US and the rest of the world at the time. (The claim still seems a little thin based on those history links)

However, Egypt did potentially have some pretty old freight lines depending on how picky you are about whether the various tracked means of transporting 60 ton obelisk stones count as railways or not.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:13 AM on December 22, 2011


Now the british are famous for one of the most dysfunctional, over-priced and generally toilet-worthy domestic national railway systems in the western hemisphere.
posted by Hickeystudio at 11:28 AM on December 22, 2011


Now the british are famous for one of the most dysfunctional, over-priced and generally toilet-worthy domestic national railway systems in the western hemisphere.

Except it isn't.

This is the scary thing. Despite the fact that we did it first, despite the fact that the Tories gutted the heart out of the network and then labour kicked it was on the ground. Despite the fact that it is now an unbelievably complex beast run by companies that care more about money than passenger experience, all overseen by a Ministry that makes Sir Humphrey look like an amateur.

Despite all of that, it's actually rather good.

We put it down, but for the traffic it deals with, and the historical baggage it carries in infrastructure terms, Britain's railway network is rather good - and we really should credit that more often.

I'm not saying it's perfect - far from it - and it needs some serious care and attention. But we do need to accept that many other countries would kill to have what we have, and we should be proud of that. Even if only a little bit.

Next year year will mark 150 years of the Metropolitan Line, for example, and the same lines today - with far more trains on them and with far more years behind them than their Victorian builders ever planned for - are STILL getting Londoners to work each day.

Personally I think that's pretty badass.
posted by garius at 11:57 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I take the trains quite often from Kings Cross up north whenever I'm in the UK and have time to visit my best friend. I've even taken a complicated connection from Bristol to Wakefield. It is indeed a good system as rail travel goes so I do agree iwth garius.

Finland's rail experience has been nicer but its shorter, a much smaller country and doesn't connect as many towns. The US is quite sad in terms of its connections and availability, given that the Acela exists, you'd imagine they could do a lot more. India's infrastructure is what it is but its still affordable *mass* transportation across a subcontinent. I'm still waiting to be allowed to travel the Nairobi - Mombasa sector however since no one takes it quite seriously over there.
posted by infini at 12:44 PM on December 22, 2011


India already had big cities, population density and advanced social structures and economics when the British arrived - perhaps more advanced than the British themselves. That was why it was so profitable. And the Indian ruling classes benefited from British rule - no more wars, foreign invasions and so on. When they wanted rid of us we had to leave very quickly - we could not hold so big a country with so few Britons. We (I'm British) were there to run the country and loot it, but not take the land away from the locals. There were too many of them to try.

By contrast, what we were doing in Africa was more like what we did successfully in America or Australia or New Zealand: seize the land, move in British colonists and create more white British countries. We failed because Africans don't die so easily from disease as Americans, because we had fewer people to colonize (birth rates had fallen, emigration had fallen), and because we did not have enough time to displace/kill enough Africans before Soviet AK-47s supplied to African movements and our own economic collapse from two World Wars defeated us.

So yes, more infrastructure would have been good today, but I fear that would have benefited white settlers. The United States is a good example: yes, it's rich, and there is lots of infrastructure. But if you're one of the original inhabitants it doesn't do you any good!
posted by alasdair at 3:04 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


A British explorer named Ewart Grogan surveyed the Cape-to-Cairo route from 1898-1900, on foot and by boat. His book From the Cape to Cairo: The First Traverse of Africa from South to North is available online.

Also, he was trying to impress his girlfriend's stepfather. (It worked.)

I know because I retraced most of his route in 2007.
posted by gottabefunky at 4:31 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


gottabefunky - you are being shy....and what a great post.
posted by adamvasco at 1:23 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Construction of the $4.7 billion railway line linking Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania will begin in 2014, after the three governments finalise fund-raising activities.
posted by infini at 2:11 AM on January 8, 2012


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