The lessons of the Lunatic Express

March 20, 2006

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Bring in the workers and bring up the rails
We’re going to lay down the tracks and tear up the trails
Open ‘er heart, let the life blood flow
Gotta get on our way, ’cause we’re moving too slow

— Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy

KAMPALA, UGANDA – It’s not the Glacier Express climbing through the Swiss Alps. It’s not Vietnam’s Reunification Express winding into the more exotic jungles of the world. And it’s certainly not the Orient Express, that legendary locomotive of opulence and intrigue immortalized by Agatha Christie.

It’s the Lunatic Express and it’s Africa’s own. When the British East Africa Co. announced in the late 19th century that it would cut through more than 1,000 kilometres of wilderness to lay track inland over the Great Rift Valley, across equatorial highlands and down Lake Victoria’s shores into today’s Uganda, people called it a lunatic line.

Its train became the Lunatic Express and the moniker stuck, even as the insane brilliance of the project came to light. A six-week trip was shortened to 24 hours and East Africa opened to the world.

Today, for 14 hours and $54 US, you can still ride the Lunatic Express between Kenya’s port city Mombassa and its capital, Nairobi. That’s longer than the two-hour flight but about 50 times cheaper than the Orient Express, London to Venice — the type of transport I’ve only had the means to once walk past.

Now, if concessionaires get their way, today’s Lunatic Express — a cracked-china, apron-stained ride for which you’ll want all your immunizations — will get new life.

The South African firm Rift Valley Railway Consortium has won a bid to run all of Uganda’s and Kenya’s state-owned, debt-burdened railways for 25 years. It will spend $320 million to improve lines and rolling stock.

First, the final hurdles. One is, like Kenya, Uganda needs to compensate its national rail workers or Kenya will close the deal alone.

And being shut out would be a blow to Uganda.

One obstacle to long-term development here and in Africa generally is the high cost of moving freight to and from ocean ports. Improving rail transport would get sluggish trucks off the roads and help Africa to market its untapped resources.

If fairer global trade policies ever evolve, that’s the type of infrastructure that would give Africans real hope instead of just Western handouts.

But this is about more than chasing progress. It’s about helping a fragmented continent discover its spirit. If you’ve ever travelled significant distances by train, you know what I mean.

Without the early construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, for example, Canada’s story would be different.

For at least some time, it would have stayed, like Africa, a vast, disjointed collection of regions with different languages and cultures.

Instead, we sense that, as Robertson Davies said, “Canada has a soul and we should get to know it better.”

A dozen summers ago, I discovered this myself when taking the train from Ontario to the Pacific and back. There was nothing to do but sit. Sit and see the many postcard scenes. Sit and understand that there’s a certain art to living.

On this level, taking the train is about forgetting those trappings that make us huff and puff down the fast track to nowhere in particular.

It’s about forgoing television and reaching for a book. It’s about walking past the car to take your bike. It’s about leaving work early to see your kids. Taking the train is understanding that we’re each on a journey, unable to see where any one track may lead, but believing through faith that there’s a station at the end and it’s a destination as worthwhile as the journey.

Taking the train is about a kind of fabled youthfulness, about leaving space for one’s imagination, for the unexpected and for change.

It’s about getting to know your soul.

Whether we live in Africa or Canada or on the moon for that matter, this all points to living in the moment.

And towards what we, with some divine help, might someday, somewhere become.

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March 20, 2006 • Posted in ,
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