JO - Bring back the trains
Bring back the trains
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Transport Minister Mike Henry is reported to be meeting with the Chinese to discuss privatising and renewing Jamaica's railways. If he is successful in this project, he will deserve the thanks of a grateful nation.
Jamaica has long been heavily influenced culturally by America. Perhaps this is why ordinary Jamaicans rather look down on railway travel. Their dream is the American dream. Each man in his massive air-conditioned 4 x 4 speeding down a six-lane highway.
But railway travel is the travel of the 21st century. It minimises carbon emissions and so contributes to the fight against global warming. But it is also the nicest way to see Jamaica.
I remember, as an intrepid teenager visiting Jamaica from Britain, taking the train from Kingston to Montego Bay. Because I had no money for expensive hotels, when I got to Montego Bay, I simply wandered around the town for a few hours and then took the train all the way back to Kingston. It was years ago, but it remains my favourite ever Jamaican journey.
As the train chugged through little towns like Wait-A-Bit, you got a superb view of the Jamaican countryside. You went through one pretty village after another which you would never have seen taking the same journey by road. And the catering was delicious. Of course, the train itself did not serve food, but at many stops, ladies would step on board carrying baskets regally on their heads, which were full of fried fish and bammies for sale.
Despite criminal neglect in recent years, Jamaica's railways have a proud history. Jamaica was the first British colony to build a railway in 1845, as befits what was then Britain 's wealthiest colony.
The railway went on to play a crucial role in Jamaica's economy. By providing a safe and speedy way to transport agricultural produce around the country, the railway contributed to the growth of sugar, banana, and citrus. Small farmers in deep rural Jamaica could also use the railway to get their produce to market. And as the century wore on, by 1896 the railway stretched all the way from Kingston to Montego Bay, with a branch going northeast to Port Antonio.
In the 20th century, railway transportation was vital for the bauxite industry. And the railway was the scene of Jamaica's greatest tragedy - the 1957 Kendal rail crash in which 254 died. (The subject of a brilliant book by Beverley East, Reaper of Souls. But by the 1990s passenger transportation by railway in Jamaica ceased.
Some people argue that the railways in Jamaica could only be reopened at the cost of massive public subsidy, and this is a luxury Jamaica cannot afford. But I believe a properly managed and imaginatively marketed railway could be an important addition to Jamaica's transport mix.
It could help to regenerate the countryside (and contribute to the fight against global warming). And it would be a big tourist attraction for the type of tourist who wants to do something other than sit in all-inclusive all day.
I wish Mr Henry every success in his attempt to reopen the Jamaican railway. Maybe one day soon, I will be able to eat fried fish and bammy on the train from Kingston to Montego Bay once more.