Jamaica and Its Railroad History

When Port Antonio Mayor Floyd Patterson correctly halted the reckless dismantling of the abandoned railroad equipment in his city, he inadvertently exposed some continuing deficiencies in the social, political and economic culture of Jamaica, writes historian Franklin Knight in this column for the Jamaica Observer.

A number of writers deplored what they deemed unwarranted attention given to the carting away of rusting metal from the Portland rail yards. A few saw the action for what it was: government-sanctioned alienation of valuable national patrimony. It was more than that. It was the wanton and malicious destruction of important historical artefacts. Like the sale of Air Jamaica, the government misunderstood and undervalued the functionality of Jamaican railroads and the vital role they played in our history.

Jamaicans tend to demonstrate an inexcusable ignorance of their extremely rich history. This is quite surprising. Many of the most outstanding historians of Jamaica and of the wider Caribbean are in the departments of history of the University of the West Indies. The University of the West Indies Press is one of the finest academic publishing houses anywhere in the world. This excellent press, along with Ian Randle Publishers in Kingston, has for years published internationally prize-winning studies on various aspects of Caribbean history and society. In March 2003, Professor Veront Satchell and Professor Cezley Sampson of UWI, Mona, published an impressively researched article on The rise and fall of railways in Jamaica, 1845-1975.

The United States of America inaugurated the railroad age in the Western Hemisphere with a line between Baltimore and Ellicott City that opened in 1830. The following year it was extended to Frederick near Harper’s Ferry on the Potomac River, and a steam-powered engine replaced horses. About the same time operational railroads appeared in Great Britain. Seven years later, in 1831, Cuba opened its first railroad running from Havana to the southern sugar belt of Güines. Jamaica became the third place in the Americas to build a modern railroad with a line between Kingston and Spanish Town in 1845.

The up-and-down history of the Jamaican railroads, like that of railroads elsewhere, mirrors that of the island. Between 1845 and 1992, railroads facilitated and reflected changes in society and economy across the island. Great things were expected of railroad expansion in Jamaica by the sugar producers who, like their Cuban counterparts, faced an increasingly competitive world market. Railroads were expected to lower production costs sharply. Railroads also brought manifestly cheaper and more reliable transportation for freight and passengers, but in the long run failed to become some deus ex machina for sugar exporters.

Not surprisingly, the first railroad company was a private affair funded by Liverpool merchants and London bankers. They failed to make any profit. Between 1877 and 1890, the government of Jamaica took over the railway and expanded the lines to Porus and Bog Walk. With the deteriorating general economy of the 1890s, the government surrendered the operation to an American company that promised to complete the lines to Montego Bay and Port Antonio in return for one square mile of Crown lands for each mile of completed track. Altogether the company received more than 76,000 acres of prime agricultural land before it went into receivership in 1898.

For a second time the government came to the rescue, maintaining railroad service until its drastic abandonment in 1992. Although profits remained elusive, the railroads made an enormous impact on the Jamaican economy. The network stimulated the expansion of agriculture in the interior, facilitating the transport of bulk commodities like sugar, coconuts, citrus and bananas as well as consumer items to and from the ports. In 1938 bananas from newly producing areas in St Catherine, Clarendon, St Mary and Portland provided more than 80 per cent of railroad revenues. Between 1891 and 1924, as Satchell and Sampson show in their article, farm acreage increased from 640,249 acres to more than a million acres. Railroads also made possible the development of the bauxite and alumina operations in St Catherine, Clarendon, Manchester, St Elizabeth and St Ann. By the time of its demise Jamaica had more than 216 miles of railroads linking Kingston with Port Antonio and Montego Bay.

Like Air Jamaica, the Jamaican railroad system was never a consistently profitable enterprise and only in a few years did it – either under private or public ownership – realise a profit. It worked better under public ownership, however, and revenues and profits were more noticeable then. Nevertheless, the government failed to understand the essential importance of the railroads, always looking too closely at the crude operational costs and profit figures. No one tried to estimate the true value to the island’s economy or civic culture.

Passenger rail service was convenient and cheap. The Kingston to Montego Bay line curving through spectacularly beautiful countryside had 22 stations and 17 additional halts where trains stopped on demand. The Port Antonio line had 13 stations and 15 halts. Between 1940 and 1975, despite increased completion from motorised road transportation, the number of passengers using trains increased from 420,000 to almost 1,200,000. Passenger trains had two spectacular accidents. Near Balaclava on July 30, 1938, a train derailed killing 32 and injuring 70 passengers. Then on September 1, 1957, one of the worst railroad accidents in the world occurred near Kendal when a holiday train derailed killing 175 and injuring more than 800 passengers.

If the neglect of rail transport in Jamaica was almost tantamount to a criminal offence, then its abrupt termination in 1992 was almost a capital offence. Just as in the Air Jamaica case, the abrupt discontinuation of the railways demonstrated a chronic inability to assess public services in Jamaica properly. That an enterprise is not profitable does not necessarily indicate that it is valueless. Most essential services fail to make a profit – the government bureaucracy, the army, the police, education, health, and postal services.Yet these services cost a lot of money. We support them because their social and cultural value far exceeds their calculated economic value. Public transportation deserves the same consideration.

For the original report go to http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/Jamaica-and-its-railroad-history_8865003#ixzz1NMXX4ryI

One thought on “Jamaica and Its Railroad History

  1. I too share your sentiments for several reasons or what you have already stated. The service offered and the routes mapped out were widely used by a lot of people. The tourism industry could have also fed this sector as well and help to keep it maintained and going. You made a valid point that the lack of profit should not have been the deciding factor, they should have considered what it means to the Jamaican people to have such a service. There is definitely an indifference in Jamaica when it comes to values like these and need to be reinstituted in order to avoid counterintuitive moves like these-seriously lacking. I hope one day along with further development, they will reopen the lines. In the mean time I applaud your article and thank you for the reminisense.

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