The International Steam Pages
A Garland of Islands, Part 2, Common Carrier Railways in British and US True Islands in the Caribbean
Robert Hall writes about island railways of the world in a series of
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For the first parts of my “Garland of Islands” that feature the New World, am covering the most “island-y” section of the Americas, namely the West Indies – plus a couple of places seen to merit inclusion therewith, in defiance of strict geography. I am indebted for information, to various sources – above all, to David Rollinson’s comprehensive work, “Railways of the Caribbean” (ISBN 0-333-73042-9) and to Thomas Kautzor.
Very many Caribbean islands, including a goodly number of the smaller ones, had industrial / agricultural railways, most often narrow-gauge. Those, however, are outside my remit for these articles. And I’ll basically pass over Cuba, as being in the “too big and metropolitan” ballpark. An interesting railway country, though, in its own right (and the only Caribbean island nowadays with any kind of comprehensive public passenger rail service) – 1435mm gauge predominating throughout, kilometrage of public railways at peak, above the 3000 mark; plus enormous amounts of trackage dedicated solely to the cane sugar industry. The former went totally diesel (except for a few long-electric interurban-type lines !) well before Castro’s revolution of 1959; the latter remained a wonderful bastion of intensive steam use (in the few months of the year when the cane harvest was going on) into the early 1990s – killed, basically, by the mostly-demise of Cuba’s sugar business, consequent on the end of the Soviet Union. At all events, the Cuban rail scene has been well covered by the railway press in recent decades.
It was mostly the larger Caribbean islands which boasted public common-carrier railways. These featured a modest spread of gauges, 762mm – 1435mm. The British colonies of Jamaica and Trinidad both had extensive systems on the standard 1435mm gauge, spanning the islands from their respective capitals. Purely personal prejudice: of these “twins”, railway-wise Jamaica has always struck me as dull, and Trinidad fascinating. (This despite Jamaica’s very early start – 1845 – in this field.) The feeling arising largely from photographs from the 1950s / 60s era, which seem to portray Jamaica’s steam locomotives then, as big, ungainly, aesthetically unpleasing modern U.S.- and Canadian-built jobs; whereas contemporary pictures from Trinidad give an image of dainty and visually attractive steam power, both the older and the newer. The Trinidad Government Railway began its career in 1876 with a fleet of very charming Kitson 4-4-0Ts, some of which remained in service at final closure 92 years later; the ‘next generation’ was represented by a batch of handsome Montreal Locomotive Works 4-6-0s, circa 1920. The objective unreality and unfairness of my pro-Trinidad / anti-Jamaica prejudice in rail matters, is acknowledged; but I relish the freedom afforded by hobbies, to indulge in harmless foolishness of this sort.
Jamaica is overall more scenically attractive than Trinidad; the former being mountainous more or less throughout, the latter having just one modest mountain range at its northern extremity -- served by one route of the island’s essentially three-pronged rail system, which radiated from the capital, Port of Spain. Rail travel in Jamaica must have involved delectable journeys. In his book “Far Wheels”, C.S. Small – a passionate narrow-gauge lover, who knew Jamaica in the 1950s -- gives the Jamaica Government Railway “honorary narrow-gauge” status – calling it “a standard-gauge system with a narrow-gauge outlook on life, and a penchant for serious wrecks”. Regrettably the pictures with which he illustrates his chapter on Jamaica in the book, cause me to feel the railway to have been as dreary, as his words portray it as captivating.
Were I to suffer from terminal delusions of grandeur, I might imagine that it was especially to thwart and spite me, that railway decline and final demise came to interesting Trinidad, much earlier than to dull Jamaica. The extent and services of the Trinidad Government Railway’s system began to dwindle in the mid-1950s. 1963 saw abandonment of much of what had survived till then. By one account, the southern route from Port of Spain to San Fernando lasted until 1965. There is agreement that the last line – part of the scenic northernmost branch – was abandoned in 1968. Despite some introduction from the 1940s on, of diesel locos; and a little dabbling in railmotor-use; some TGR steam remained in service to the very end. A couple of the older steam locomotives survive on the island, preserved in “static” mode.
By the mid-1960s, Jamaica’s rail system was all-diesel for regular services (locomotives, and railmotors – the first railcars introduced in the early 1940s). A couple of modern Canadian-built 4-8-0s were initially kept, in working order, for tourist and enthusiast specials. For some years, there ran a regular steam tourist working on the system’s easternmost branch, which followed the coast for much of its length – this venture called the “Banana Boat Steam Train”.
Though popular with tourists, the attraction ceased to run for all time, in I believe the early / mid- 1970s. This event was likely intermixed with the decline of the branch on which it ran: closed, then briefly reopened, and finally totally put paid to by hurricane damage. All a long-drawn-out, complicated and sorry saga, involving the scrapping of the retained 4-8-0s. A good many accusations were made, concerning vested interests and corruption being in play. This author must confess to being less than enthralled by tourist / gricer-oriented steam specials over basically all-modern rail systems, especially when said workings bear corny and grotesque names – find it hard to feel very sad about the end of anything afflicted with a “handle” such as that borne by the lamented tourist train.
“Banana Boat Steam” or not, the Jamaica Government Railway outlasted its Trinidad counterpart by about a quarter-century. Increasingly hard times however -- with intense road competition and infrastructure in bad shape – fell to its lot, and the system’s last common-carrier operational sections were closed in 1992. Industrial workings, run by the undertakings involved, continued on small sections of JGR trackage.
There have been floated in recent times, ideas and plans for renewed public rail transport in both Jamaica and Trinidad – in Jamaica, possibly more than just plans. An enterprise featuring heavy involvement by the People’s Republic of China has sought to re-establish rail passenger services, with new motive power and stock, on JGR lines in the area west of the capital, Kingston. Some trial workings have certainly taken place, and following commencement of regular services in 2011 it seems to have ended in 2012. Meanwhile, Trinidad has plans for a rail “Rapid Transit System”, involving new lines corresponding to two of the old TGR’s basic three routes. While there is some satisfaction to be had from the prospect of public railways reborn on these Caribbean islands; your author is unable to feel greatly delighted at the ultra-modern character to be displayed, for certain, by any of such as may actually see the light of day.
Carrying on with the roster of British Caribbean islands: little Barbados had a public railway, over a 56-year period from 1881 to 1937. This was a single route, some 40km long, starting from the capital Bridgetown at the island’s south-western corner, running first east, then north-west along Barbados’s east coast. The line – which carried both passengers and freight -- had a chequered and not financially prosperous career, including assorted changes of ownership, with final taking-over by the island’s government in 1915. One ownership change, in the late 1890s, involved a period out of service during which the 1067mm (3ft 6in) gauge with which the railway had begun its life, was altered to 762mm (2ft 6in), with the purchase of a new loco fleet (the original four-wheel coaches were altered to bogie stock, on the new narrower gauge, by the railway’s workshops). One wonders whimsically whether this move might have been influenced by the final abolition a few years previously in the mother country, of Brunel’s 7ft (2135mm) gauge – a notion at some level of consciousness, of invoking “sympathetic magic” by carrying out a similar, smaller-scale change in this colony affectionately called “little England”.
The 1067mm gauge locos had been British-built, from a variety of makers. Two Bagnall six-coupled tank locos of 1891, reputedly distressingly hard on the Barbados track, are thought to have been passed on to the 1067mm part of the rail system of British Guiana (Guyana). The new machines acquired at the change to 762mm, were by Baldwin of Philadelphia; two 2-8-2Ts, a 2-6-0T and an 0-6-0T. A much-reproduced photograph from 762mm days shows a train headed by one of these Baldwins, halted at an attractive cliffside spot with vigorously-breaking waves in the background.
The Barbados railway, never a financial success, found itself in deep trouble as regards viability when road motor transport truly “took off” post-World War I. After a decade-and-some of continually worsening fortunes, involving the end of passenger services some time in the 1930s, the by then freight-only railway was at last abandoned in 1937. With no interest on the part of any rail undertaking in purchasing the locomotives second-hand, they were cut up for scrap.
Bermuda, the last British true island written of, is not physically in the Caribbean; but historical links involved, prompt its being included – furthermore, Rollinson features the place in his book. Even setting aside Bermuda’s attributed spooky “Triangle”, this tiny island is rather an oddity. It is set far out in the Atlantic, some 1000km east of the nearest point on the US coast; has been a British possession since 1609. The island is a flat coral outcrop, “long and thin”, and looking on the map, rather like a letter j reclining far to the right; about 25km from western, to eastern, extremity. Bermuda has long been a favourite holiday spot for people from the USA: quite close at hand, and interestingly “different” – its Britishness no doubt adding to that appeal.
The island’s ever having had a public railway, does appear altogether unlikely and against the odds: this having happened at all, even in the brief time-window in which it did, can be attributed largely to an early incidence of a “green” agenda on the part of those in authority. For a long while, “old-time slow-paced calmness and charm” was a big tourism-selling-point for Bermuda. Come the invention of the internal combustion engine, the island’s government forbade road motor vehicles, except in a few official capacities. At about the same time, proposals for a railway on the island equally received the official “thumbs-down” – right then, such an undertaking would have meant dirty and noisy steam traction... essentially in the early twentieth century in Bermuda, the horse, the boat and the bicycle reigned supreme.
With the advent of the 1920s, governmental authority was won over to the idea of a railway to serve the island – there being known by then both the practical possibility, and the perceived lesser degree of insult to the environment, of internal-combustion railway power as opposed to steam. After various studies / projects / tenders, the Bermuda Parliament passed an act authorising the construction of a 35km (taking into account “twists and turns”) railway from St. George at the eastern end of the island, to Somerset at its western end, via the capital, Hamilton. A number of years went by, between authorisation and realisation. The railway was at last opened in 1931. It was built to standard 1435mm gauge; and was from the first, 100% petrol / diesel powered.
The undertaking proved more costly and problematic, than had been at first anticipated. Difficulties with land acquisition for the right-of-way, led to much of the route closely following the coast, requiring extensive trestles and bridgework – rot-and-corrosion issues with which, meant trouble not far ahead. Scenically fun, but economically “not good”.
The Bermuda Railway was primarily a passenger carrier, but was equipped to handle a certain amount of light freight. Was operated in the main, by internal-combustion railmotors: initially, six petrol-engined bogie railcars built by English Electric, plus two “freight-carrying railcar” equivalents. A little later, two similar but more powerful versions of the just-mentioned, joined the fleet; these usually hauled a rake of coaches, of which both the “enclosed and comfortable” and the “semi-open” types were supplied, to suit varying tourist tastes.
The Second World War, with its big focus on doings in the Atlantic, occasioned much activity in Bermuda – to pile on the clichés, both the Bermuda Railway’s finest hour, and its swan-song. Heavy usage both by the armed forces on the island, and by locals; and freight happenings – a few diesel and petrol locos were brought in, to supplement the island’s motive power. In many different ways and different parts of the world, WW II – overall a hideous tragedy – proved to be a brief blessing for odd little railways. Come peace, the Bermuda Railway’s end was near. The trestles and bridges were in bad condition, bordering on the dangerous. From 1946, private cars were allowed for the first time in Bermuda – which led to a rapid lessening of passenger use of the railway.
The island’s government did a survey of the railway’s condition and the whole situation: verdict, unsurprisingly, was that it made great sense to abandon the railway and substitute it, for those who needed public transport, with bus services. The railway was accordingly closed down totally w.e.f. May 1st 1948. Its entire rolling stock was sent to British Guiana (now Guyana) – where, perhaps a bit surprisingly, acquisition of Bermuda’s rail material was for some time very helpful for the 1435mm gauge part of the then struggling British Guiana rail system.
However great one’s Bryan-Morgan-esque love of crazily “marginal” railways – at more hard-headed moments, one feels concerning them, in Mr. Spock style – “inauguration of this project: not logical, not rational”. However -- it can be pleasant to reflect that briefly, however senselessly, they actually existed and functioned; and one may wish to have had had the chance to experience them, within their often brief lifetime. In the case of the Bermuda Railway, that was sixteen and a half years. Photographs of the line in action show its railcars running through the streets of Hamilton, with horse-drawn carriages alongside. An operation which it would have been agreeable to witness – but, for sure, one “born to die”.
Returning to the Caribbean proper, we reach Puerto Rico – very much an American scene: a US “territory”, not a state. An island about the same size as Jamaica, with a one-time wide-ranging public rail network, but one very different in character from Jamaica’s. Puerto Rico’s rail system long defunct, but one which I would greatly like to have had the chance to know. The PR lines ran basically (plus various branches) coastwise around the island – failing to make the complete circuit, only by the order of one gap of 35km or so.
Likely resulting from PR’s having been a Spanish colony when its rail development began in 1891 (the island was ceded to the United States, consequent on the Spanish-American War of 1898), the island’s railways were metre-gauge. At the time of transfer to US administration, a scattered 270km of lines were in operation. After transfer of sovereignty, the rail almost-circling of the island was quite speedily accomplished – date 1907. The majority of the island’s at-peak total of roughly 500km of common-carrier railways, belonged to the American Railroad Company of Puerto Rico, which included the “main trunk line” between the capital San Juan, and Ponce – “beeline” about 75km; rail route along the north, then west, then south coasts, some 220km. There was also a handful of privately-owned common-carrier lines, biggest of which was the Ponce & Guayama Railroad, continuing some 50km eastward from Ponce along the south coast.
The usual story: the island’s railways, efficient if not outstandingly speedy (their schedules included overnight trains between San Juan and Ponce), prospered until the post-First World War upsurge of road motor transport. Come the late 1920s / early 1930s – with lorries also competing for freight traffic – Puerto Rico’s railways were facing trouble, which worsened as time went on. The American Railroad Co. filed for bankruptcy in 1947. It was saved at that juncture, and reconstituted under a new name; but not for very long. Passenger services finished in 1953; freight (chiefly in the service of the island’s cane sugar industry) in 1957 – a small amount of trackage continued to be worked by industrial / agricultural users. The private Ponce & Guayama is believed to have survived, in isolation, a little longer than the main network.
Puerto Rico’s rail system had a considerable variety of steam locomotives – US-built, unsurprisingly – numbering about fifty as at the 1920s. The 4-6-0 and 2-8-0 wheel arrangements were well represented; also 0-6-0Ts, and three 0-6-6-0 compound Mallets by Baldwin. In later times, some small diesel locos were acquired; but – in contrast with how things developed in Cuba not far away – PR’s railways remained mostly steam to the last. It can be surmised that as from the late 1940s, the system was seen as not having much of a future; whereby its administrators were not susceptible to blandishments from salesmen of diesel motive power.
For some time around the recent turn of the century, a preservation operation (diesel-worked) ran on a shortish route, on former sugar-plantation trackage (metre-gauge, as universal on the island) near Guayama. It is gathered that this scene has been dormant for some years; but that hopes are entertained, and representations being made, for it to be revived and expanded.
An electric Metro system was inaugurated in 2005, over a 17km route in greater San Juan – with possible extension plans, depending on the success of the existing line. Gauge not known to the author, but strongly suspected to be 1435mm. As with the British Commonwealth islands already covered: for me “in principle good to hear, in practice unexciting”.
In general, as always entering the name of the railway under Google Images https://www.google.co.uk/imghp?hl=en&tab=wi will produce some gems and a lot of dross.
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