The International Steam Pages

The Public Railways of Jamaica, 2014 

Thomas Kautzor has been to several Caribbean islands to check out what is left of their railways and industrial heritage.

For the full general index, see Railway Relics (and more) in the Caribbean,

Thomas Kautzor reports on his visit with Torsten Schneider to an island where public railways are probably history, with only one steam locomotive left on the island, necessarily there's not much good news in it.

The visit to Kingston station was done in agreement with The Jamaica Railway Cooperation (JRC). Prospective visitors to Kingston Station should contact the JRC ( link dead by 25th October 2016) at +1-876-922-6443 to arrange a visit.

By early 1964, only two steam locomotives remained on the books of the Jamaican Railway Corporation (JRC), 4-8-0 No. 54 and 55 (Canadian Loco. Co. 2123-4/1944). They were among the last of a series of 15 M Class locomotives built by the CLC for Jamaica in 1920 (7), 1929 (2) and 1944 (6). Their design was closely monitored by Mr Dewhurst to avoid problems encountered by earlier 4-8-0 designs. Initially they were coal fired, but converted to oil firing between 1946 and 1950. They lasted up to the end of steam on the island.

Up to 09/1964 the two still saw occasional service on the scenic branch line from May Pen to Frankfield in place of the planned diesel, after which they were used as stationary boilers at a factory in Kingston until that factory purchased its own boiler and they were set aside.

In 1966, Jeremy Browne, a young English resident of Jamaica and railway enthusiast, approached the railway to ask if it would be possible to run a photo charter with either locomotive. Together with Carl Strattmann, another railway enthusiast who worked for the University of the West Indies (UWI), they formed the Jamaican Railway Society, to help restore the locomotive.

It turned out that the boiler of No. 55 was beyond repair, but that No. 54 was in better condition and would only need replacement of the burst main steam pipe. JRC was favourable to the project, but that some financial means should be found to pay for the repairs, so it was agreed that the JRS would organise an excursion and use the funds towards the repair of the locomotive. It turned out that there was quite unexpected support in Jamaica from both the JRC workers and the general public.

On July 17, 1966 "The Banana Boat Steam Train", an excursion with photostops and runpasts between Kingston and Port Antonio, was a complete sellout. The excursion featured in the press and on radio and television, and publicity was worldwide, including an article in the UK's 'Railway Magazine' and another in the US's 'Railroad Magazine', prompting the JRC to fully repaint No. 54 and keep it in operating order. After the initial excursion, a number of others very popular ones followed, including a private charter in which two U.S. railfans flew in specially from California. The JRC was pleasantly surprised and initially cooperated in running the steam excursions.

As a result of all the publicity, the JRC was approached by Metro Goldwyn Mayer for the filming of the 1968 movie “Dark of the Sun” (released in the U.K. as “The Mercenaries”, ( ). The film’s plot involves a train travelling into the interior of the Congo to rescue a group of Europeans and collect some diamonds from advancing rebels. On its return journey the train comes under attack and the locomotive is wrecked after being hit by mortar fire. Locomotive No. 54 was adapted to look like a wood burner for the film. Carl Stratmann of the JRS, who was appointed Technical Consultant to the film crew, had to organize the wreck, which was faked by using No. 55 disguised as No. 54. As No. 55 could not run under its own power anymore, a diesel attached to the rear of the train pushed it onto a piece of undermined track in a siding at Grange Lane, just outside of Spanish Town, where it fell on its side with much special effects of smoke and flames. The film company, which had paid JRC for the privilege of destroying No. 55, later accepted a nominal amount from a scrap merchant who took the locomotive away to scrap it. The film offers the opportunity to see a JRC steam locomotive operate over some of Jamaica’s most picturesque line, as it was filmed on the line to Port Antonio. It also offers the opportunity to see No. 54 being turned on the turntable in front of Kingston’s roundhouse, which has since been demolished.

Following the filming of “Dark of the Sun”, the Jamaica Tourist Board approached JRC with the intention of running a steam-hauled tourist special along the North Coast line, but gave up after it received a very cold response from JRC. The JRS itself operated a few more excursions, but the final one was a disaster as JRC had organized a diesel-hauled excursion on the same day. Many passengers joined the JRC train by mistake, leaving the JRS almost bankrupt as a result. Shortly thereafter, the JRC decided to use No. 54 as a stationary boiler to run a bank of old Westinghouse air pumps at Kingston workshops. A request by another Hollywood film company to use No. 54 for a major feature movie at around that time was turned down (together with the potential revenue) on the basis that the locomotive could not be spared. After a few weeks as a stationary boiler, 54’s firebox was irreparably damaged, while at the same time a number of brand-new spare class M3 boilers which had been in store were scrapped. This was the end of steam in Jamaica and No. 54 was pushed into a corner of the Kingston yard, to be moved around from time to time.

In recent years, No. 54 has stored under cover in the passenger station hall. Luckily, when we visited we found that it had been moved half way out of the hall and could therefore be photographed in good light late in the afternoon. The Kingston station building is a National Historic Site, and a few weeks before our visit it had been rented out to Heineken for a promotional event and the stock stored in the hall moved aside to make space (“Heineken” has been painted on one side of the tender).

Also below are a few photos of the line from Spanish Town (km 18.9 from Kingston on the main line to Montego Bay) via Bog Walk (km 33.4) to Port Antonio (km 120.7), as this scenic line is where the late 1960s steam excursions used to operate over. It featured 1 in 30 gradients between Bog Walk and Albany and had 28 tunnels, as well as Jamaica’s highest railway viaduct. On August 6, 1980, Jamaica was struck by Hurricane Allen, which destroyed sections of the Montego Bay and Port Antonio line, with the section along the North Coast between Annotto Bay and Port Antonio especially affected. The hurricane also severely damaged banana plantation in the area, therefore badly affecting one of the major traffic sources of the line. Only the section from Spanish Town to Bog Walk through the Bog Walk gorge (which includes 4 tunnels, including Jamaica’s longest at 2194 feet) is still in use with WINDALCO. Elsewhere much of the track is still in place, except along the coast where the road has been extended over the right-of way, and most stations are still in place as well.

This is No. 54 in detail:

Jamaica’s highest viaduct near Darling Spring Halt:

This footbridge over the railway in Annotto Bay gave access to St. James Anglican Church:

Orange Bay station:

Most of the bridges along the coast are still in place. At Snow Hill, the old railway bridge (right) was converted for road use after the old road bridge (left) was condemned. A new road bridge has since been built further to the right.

At Port Antonio, the turntable is still in place, next to two water tanks, one concrete and the other steel. Next to it are a tank car and a box car, while a stock car is used as to lock away gas containers nearby. The 1896 station building now houses the Portland Youth Information Centre, the Claudia Williams Life Centre, the Portland Art Gallery, the Port Antonio Marching Band and Pauline’s Country Garden Flower Shop.

Sources: Jim Horsford, “The Railways of Jamaica – Through the Blue Mountains to the blue Caribbean seas – a History of the Jamaica Government Railway”, St. Teath, Cornwall: Locomotives International, 2010 (168 p.).

Rob Dickinson