The trains no longer run

Jamaican railway has had a long and troubled history. Launched in 1845, it was the “first railroad outside of Europe and North America,” making it one of the oldest in the world.

Neither government nor private operators have found the formula to make the Jamaica rail system economically viable. Throughout its roughly 150-year history, railway operations in Jamaica changed hands several times and underwent other changes until, finally, everybody just gave up. Except for bauxite companies that began running their own private rail service to transport ore, trains in Jamaica ceased operating in 1992.

There are those who claim that politics is at the heart of Jamaica’s railway problems. That some of those placed in charge of Jamaica’s transportation sector have no incentive to see a vibrant and healthy rail system in the country. It is alleged that some at the highest levels owned haulage contracting companies and viewed trains, which move cargo as well as passengers, as unwelcome competition.

Comparisons are made with the argument used to disband the Jamaica Omnibus Service (JOS), the main transportation system in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, and nearby towns. Both JOS and the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC), it is claimed, were a strain and a drain on government resources. Thus, JOS buses were removed from off the roads in 1983. It is alleged that those who presided over the death of the JOS were owners of private passenger buses eager to replace the JOS, resulting in a chaotic transportation sector.

It is stated that the same people, some of whom owned fleets of tractor trailers, wanted the demise of the railway, and so they killed the railroad system. The JRC essentially became a holder of the assets of the defunct system, overseeing the upkeep and maintenance (of sorts) of lands and the lines and the buildings and stations, all mostly disused, that still belonged to the corporation.

Several attempts have been made to revive the Jamaica railway. Someone who was in a position to know told me that the deal struck with an Indian company in the early years of the 21st century to resume rail operations was a good one. Too good in fact, and so those who feared the competition killed the deal after they regained charge of the system.

It is heartening to see that another attempt is being made to restart rail operations in Jamaica, this time with American investors. The government-run Jamaica Information Service announced in December 2016 that “a sum of US$250 million will be invested in the resuscitation of the country’s cargo and passenger rail service by the Government and several investors, including United States (US) company Herzog International.”

We wait to see if those who have much to lose will allow it to see the light of day.

While some of its history is checkered, railroads were a vital part of the Jamaican landscape, especially to the interior of the island. It was the most efficient means of moving cargo and people over longer distances and it had relatively limited impact on the environment. After the rails closed, increasing numbers of giant 18-wheelers started traversing Jamaica’s narrow, hilly roads. Who has not encountered an 18-wheel monster jackknifing on Mount Rosser, blocking traffic going both ways? Or causing chaos on the Junction Road?

When the railroads were closed in 1992, inland (as against coastal) towns such as Balaclava in St. Elizabeth, Porus in Manchester and Bog Walk in St. Catherine, were never the same again. The railway brought life and vitality to these and other towns in terms of trade and commerce but they experienced marked decline after rail operations ceased.

Railway launch
Jamaica was among the first places to get a railroad when, in 1843, “The Assembly of Jamaica approves a 12-mile track between Kingston and Spanish Town and a 2½ mile branch line to a sugar estate in Angels.”

Construction on the track, stations and other facilities ended in November 1845. “The completion of a line of Railway from Kingston to Spanish Town, in Jamaica, is a most gratifying instance of colonial enterprise,” The Illustrated London News reported on January 31, 1846.

The opening took place on Friday, the 21st of November last. The event had been long and anxiously anticipated; and, in order to invest it with the just degree of importance, his Excellency the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the several heads of departments civil and military, the hon. Members of the Council and Assembly, and a large number of the more wealthy and influential members of the community, were invited to attend the ceremony; and a most propitious day rendered this attendance very general and numerous. An enormous crowd of spectators was collected all around the stations, and several very extensive booths were filled with well-dressed females.

Led by the governor, a large retinue took their first ride in a celebratory atmosphere. According to The Illustrated London News, “the train, consisting of some eight or ten well filled carriages, started on the first railway excursion in the British West Indies; the excellent band of the 1st West India Regiment taking its stand in the last, third class, carriage, and playing lively airs.”

It drew curious onlookers who “were densely thronged on both sides with crowds of wondering citizens, who loudly cheered the novel exhibition as it passed before them. These crowds were more or less to be seen along the whole line of railway.”

Economic importance
Economic factors drove railway expansion on the island. Sugar, mainstay of the Jamaican economy, was no longer king. At least two developments led to increase in the cost of and hence decline in sugar exports. The British government raised duties on imports of sugar from its colonies, including Jamaica, in 1846, and the end of enslavement in 1838 raised labor costs. With costs rising and income decreasing, the railway became the least expensive form of transporting goods and produce on the island.

Recognizing the importance of rail to the Jamaican economy, the colonial government nationalized the company in 1879, buying out the interests of its private investors and owners. Almost 200,000 British pound sterling were spent on both purchase (just under £94,000) and upgrade (about £100,000). This amounts to approximately £18 million or just about US$24 million in today’s money.

jamaica railway - Porus opening -1896
Launch of the railway station and line in Porus, Manchester, in 1896

In the first half of the 1880s, increased investments in and improved markets for sugar and banana led to the expansion of the railway from Old Harbour in St. Catherine to Porus in Manchester, and from Spanish Town, the capital of St. Catherine, to Ewarton and Bog Walk in the same parish. By the end of the 1880s, work began on the lines to Montego Bay, St. James, in the west, completed in 1894, and Port Antonio in the parish of Portland in the east, finished in 1896.

By this time, banana had overtaken sugar as Jamaica’s major export crop. Railway expansion benefited entities such as the American corporation, United Fruit Company, which had its biggest footprint in the parish of Portland, the hub of Jamaica’s banana production and export.

In the 1950s, another boost to Jamaican rail occurred with the mining of bauxite ore in the interior of the island. Transporting bauxite ore became the railway’s biggest cargo business up until the time of its demise.

There have been many setbacks along the way. The West India Improvement Company, which bought the government’s stake in 1890, went bankrupt by the end of the decade and the government had to step back in to retake control 10 years later, in 1900. Hurricanes in 1951 (Hurricane Charlie) and 1988 (Hurricane Gilbert) caused extensive damage.

In some sense, Jamaican independence in 1962 was a mixed blessing for the railway corporation. As several entities with failing economic health came under the control of the young nation, funds earmarked for rail maintenance were diverted to help keep these other entities alive. By 1974 the May Pen to Frankfield line, and in 1975 the Bog Walk to Port Antonio line, were closed due to lack of maintenance.

Scene at the railway crash on September 1, 1957, in Kendal, Manchester. One of the deadliest rail crashes in the world up to that time, it claimed the lives of almost 200 and injured upwards of 700 more.

By far the biggest tragedy to affect the railway was the crash at Kendal in the parish of Manchester on September 1, 1957. The Jamaica National Heritage Trust said:

The worst railway disaster in Jamaica’s history, happened close to this spot on September 1, 1957. At around 11:30 p.m. a train carrying some 1,600 passengers derailed its tracks. Close to 200 persons lost their lives. Varying accounts indicate that between 400 and 700 persons sustained injuries in what was described as the worst transportation system tragedy in Jamaica’s history, and the second worst rail disaster in the world at the time.

Eight of the 12 wooden cars were wrecked. There were:

Dead and injured inside, underneath and on top, and bodies and body parts strewn over a wide area. Some persons died on impact, many died from being spiked by splinters from the wooden coaches, and various other injuries. Many of the dead were buried in a mass grave behind the crash site.

The tragedy led to the replacement of “all wooden coaches with metal coaches, and the Jamaica Government Railways, was reconstituted and renamed the Jamaica Railway Corporation.”

The long-term troubles of attaining economic viability in the face of tragedy, competition and political ineptitude and interference, led to what some regard as its inevitable demise. However, some argue not only the importance of Jamaica having a rail service, but that Jamaica’s success may depend on having a well-run railway transportation system for passengers and cargo. In a study conducted on the Jamaica railway and published in 1985, John Due, professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in the United States, wrote:

The railroad has consistently operated at a deficit. But it makes substantial contribution to the bauxite industry, and its passenger service is much cheaper and satisfactory than the mini-bus type otherwise available. Externalities in terms of road congestion and costs of road improvement and encouragement to economic development warrant continuation of and improvement to the railway.

While more than 30 years have passed, the conclusions of that study may still be valid.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

One Reply to “The trains no longer run”

  1. Very interesting article.

    I have always believed that a well-run railway system is extremely vital to the success, economic and otherwise, of any country.

    For one, it might ease the congestion on our roadways, to some extent caused by buses and mini buses. For another, it might very well lead to the decrease of accidents, injuries and even deaths on our roadways.

    Though not a transportation expert by any means, I would like to think that the conclusion of the study on the railway system done in 1985 is valid and may well be worthy of being revisited.

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