Railways and Motive Power

Courtesy of OSPA

by Don Owens
Railways and Motive Power
Mikado Type Locomotive
Had it not been for my RAF training as a Flight Engineer, East African Railways might not have selected me for special training in diesel electric traction, first at English Electric in Preston, then Napiers in Liverpool, Brown Boveri in Switzerland, British Railways Staff College in Derby, and Nairobi Polytechnic. This augmented ten years experience in various steam locomotive depots in East Africa, and with my name listed on 27 March 1959 in the register of the Institute of Locomotive Engineers in London as No.4398 D J Owens, A.M.I.Loco.E., my transition from the steam to the diesel locomotive age was clinched in the mid 1960's with my promotion from Shedmaster to Diesel Motive Power Superintendent.

In 1961/63, Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya gained independence and each country took over their portion of the railway system and named their railways TR, UR and KR respectively. Motive power and rolling stock in Uganda once again bore the UR letters of the original 1896 railway. Expatriates were induced to stay and it suited me to remain with the new KR for a further ten years. During this time new diesel locomotives of various types gradually supplanted a steam fleet on a railway which had an interesting growth.

Kenya Colony was created in the 1920's out of undeveloped country through which the UR tracks led to Uganda and the railway was renamed the KUR & H. Then in 1948 when the railway, road and marine services in Tanganyika were taken into the fold, the whole new system was named the EAR & H. This resulted in the need to reclassify and renumber the locomotives in each of the three territories, which presented some difficulties for many non-English speaking African drivers. For example, KUR & H locomotive No 162, stabled by its crew for overnight maintenance, was stripped of its former identity and fitted with the new railroad letters and number plates, making EAR & H No 2401. Imagine the crew's consternation when they signed on for duty next morning to find they were rostered to work 2401, and exclaimed "Bwana, wapi gari yetu namba mia moja sitini na mbili?" Swahili for "Sir, where is our loco number 1627'. As locomotive letter and renumbering progressed over the next few months, many African crews resorted to wrapping coloured rags around the boiler handrails to enable them to recognise their locomotive on renumbering.

Locomotive maintenance and boiler washouts, entailing a 16 to 20 hour period on shed, matched crew rest periods. This enabled us to allocate crews to locomotives on a permanent basis. Crews took great pride in their locomotives. The driver's cab would be scrubbed clean, copper pipes, brass control valves, and gauges would be highly burnished. The mechanical condition and external cleanliness of locomotives reflected the pride of the Shedmaster and his staff. A friendly inter-shed competitive spirit existed between the sheds at Nairobi, Nakuru, Mombasa, Eldoret, Kampala, Kisumu, Tororo and Voi (Kenya and Uganda sheds listed in order of fleet size).

Railways and Motive Power
Governor Class Locomotive
The long distance 'Top Link' trains carried two crews, one drove while the other rested in a specially fitted 'Caboose', which had bunk beds, showers and kitchen facilities. Crews were usually European or Asian drivers with African firemen but gradually a few of the best African drivers got on the 'Top Link' work. After some six hours driving, the crews changed over, but to ensure all was well both crews would remain on the locomotive for some 15 to 20 miles to the next station stop. On the 40 hour Uganda Mail round trip between Eldoret and Kampala there were two drivers who fell out with every driver they partnered, but I settled matters by rostering them to work together permanently as a team. I think they were scared of each other for they caused no further trouble.

Throughout the world there are many different gauge railway systems. America, Britain, Canada, most of Europe, Mexico and many other countries operate on standard gauge 1435mm track. In the north and south of Africa they have a narrower 1065mm gauge system which cannot be linked up with the even narrower 1000mm gauge systems of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika - a major snag for Cecil Rhodes' dream of a Cape to Cairo Railway.

The terrain and rail gauges dictated the type of steam, diesel electric or electric locomotives best suited to the railway operators' requirements. On railways where there were no significant gradients, high speeds were achieved by conventional steam locomotives fitted with large diameter driving wheels. The UK railway races of the 1890's were won by locomotives with single 7 foot driving wheels, but for heavy loads maximum tractive effort required locomotives with four, six or eight driving wheels. Trains needed assistance on the famous Lickey Incline in the English Midlands, provided by a Banking (Pusher) locomotive with ten driving wheels of small diameter. The record for steam traction was 126.25mph by the L.N.E.R.'s 4-6-2 locomotive '"MALLARD" in 1937. This locomotive had six driving wheels of 6'8" diameter.

In the UK high-speed trains had difficulty climbing up to the British rail summits of Shap (1015 feet), Slochd (1315 feet), and Druimuachter (1484 feet), where their trailing loads of eight to ten coaches would pull their speeds down to 25 to 30mph on the gradients. These UK summits are mere mole hills when compared with the Kenya line's 8322 feet Mau Summit and 9136 feet Timboroa Summit (highest altitude reached by any railway in Britain's former Colonial Empire), the former 495 miles and the latter 524 miles from sea level at Mombasa. Nairobi itself at 5453 feet is 330 miles from Mombasa. To master the gradients on East Africa's metre gauge railway system articulated Beyer Garratt locomotives with a tractive effort of 40252 Ibs and a weight of 138 tons were introduced in 1926. In subsequent years as traffic built up and the need for greater power arose, more powerful Garratt locomotives were introduced between 1939 and 1957, by which latter date the railway was operating 252-ton locomotives with a tractive effort of 73500 lbs. Designated the 59 class, they were the largest in the world to operate on track gauges up to 1065mm, and all 34 in the class were named after mountains in East Africa. They had a water capacity of 8600 gallons and a furnace oil capacity of 2700 gallons.

Railways and Motive Power
Royal Pilot
A magnificent train was turned out for the use of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother for her railway tour of Kenya in 1959. The special "Governor's Train" coaches had been refurbished in the railway's Nairobi Workshops, and as the train would be operating in the Nakuru and Eldoret Districts Nakuru Shed had the honour of providing the motive power for the train.

Two 170-ton 60 class 4-8-2 + 2-8-4 Beyer Garratt locomotives provided the doubleheaded motive power for the Royal Train. They were locomotives 6020 and 6019 driven by 'Top Link' drivers, Ken MacNaughton and Peter Harrison. Line safety was assured by running a special train designated "Royal Pilot" twenty minutes ahead of the Royal Train. This special was powered by 2-8-4 locomotive number 3132 driven by driver Jimmy Sloan.

There were lots of Big Game incidents on the East African Railways. Two of many which occurred in my time as Shedmaster at Nakuru may be of interest. The first was circa 1955 and involved a lumbering old 52 class Garratt on the climb from Rongai to Visoi (rhino country). With a maximum trailing load the locomotive was struggling up the gradient at a steady 12 to 15mph, impaired in its efforts by a leaking piston gland on the right hand lead engine which was emitting a periodic snorting squirt of steam with every revolution of the wheels. This noise attracted the attention of a rhino which charged out of the bush and followed the locomotive for almost a quarter of a mile, desperately lunging at the offending piston gland, until eventually tired and bleeding from the base of its horn, it gave up the fight.

The second incident circa 1956 took place on the down Uganda Mail en route Nakuru to Nairobi along the floor of the Great Rift Valley (giraffe country). I was on the footplate of the locomotive driven by the late Pete Harrison who invited me to take over for the next 20 mile section of line. We were doing about 45mph when two groups of giraffe emerged from the acacia trees where they had been browsing on either side of the line. Inevitably one group decides to amble across the rails to join the others, completely disregarding the speed of the approaching train. If Pete had been driving he would have made a gradual brake application, mowing through them as he brought the train to a gradual stop. (Game Department laws required locomotive crews to report all giraffe deaths on the line and produce evidence by cutting the tails off all dead giraffes). But Pete was not driving, and yours truly slammed the steam regulator shut and threw on a full emergency application of the brakes. I stopped the train without killing any of the animals, but I cannot commit Pete's language to print as he mentioned something about it being lunch time and my sudden stop would have the soup course sliding off the tables in the dining car and on to the laps of an irate bunch of passengers.

In the early 1960's the massive 252-ton 59 class locomotives ceased to work Mombasa/Nalrobi/Nakuru trains, which were taken over by the newly arrived 1800 HP Diesel Electric locomotives built by English Electric in the Dick Kerr and Vulcan works in Lancashire.

These new D/E locomotives, designated the 90 class, were vulnerable to head-on contact with big game - giraffe, elephant and eland - and impact at speed with any of those would dent the front nose compartment, breaking internal air pipes, electric conduits and severing control circuit wires. This resulted in a total failure of the locomotive, and the all important passenger train having to be rescued by commandeering a locomotive from the nearest freight train. This problem was overcome when the locos were fitted with the Owens designed giraffe guards, formed from .5 inch steel plate. Kenya trains killed big game at the average rate of a giraffe every six weeks, an elephant every six months, and the rarer eland once a year. Smaller game kills were not reported. These were the statistics prior to poachers decimating herds, but still current in 1973 when after 25 years service, I opted for premature retirement on offer to all designated officers of HMOCS, and took up an appointment with Bombardier/MLW in Montreal (leading to other assignments in the railways of Jamaica, Greece, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Canada).

Colonial Map
1960 Map of Africa
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 83: May 2002


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