Jamaica’s Transport Minister, Robert Montague, recently announced in parliament plans for the restart of the local rail passenger service on a restrictive access basis.
In a very brief statement on the subject of passenger railways Montague said:
“As for the Jamaica Railway Corporation, Madam Speaker, its workshop in Kingston has been restored and a solar light project there has been completed in order to restart the school train service from Old Harbour and Linstead via Spanish Town. We are working with the Jamaica Hertitage Trust to restore our station houses especially the Old Harbour Station.
In partnership with the JUTC and the Ministry of Education, we are hoping to move our children from Old Harbour and Linstead into Spanish Town by train. Then the JUTC will pick up and drop them off at the various schools in Spanish Town. In the afternoon the reverse will take effect. Along with the students, teachers, parents, health care and other essential workers will be prioritized for this service at first. Last Thursday, the train went to Linstead on a test run. This is not talk, this is a clear demonstration of the will of this government to build back stronger”
Montague went on to state this new plan for the railways was not all talk. Yet I have to quickly question the wisdom of trying to bring in a public passenger rail service and initially restrict who will be allowed on the trains. Red tape nonsense.
The vision from government looks short sighted, piece mealed and chaka-chaka.
One of the most shameful actions by both PNP and JLP governments since Jamaica achieved independence in 1962 was the lack of passion and vision to develop the then passenger rail service which sadly led to its complete closure by the 1980s.
During the previous JLP administration, Mike Henry, then Minister of Transport, in 2011 initiated test runs for passenger rail services to restart in the parishes of St Catherine and Clarendon. But when the PNP took power a year later, Omar Davies (Henry’s successor in the portfolio) quickly abandoned the pilot service. Silly decision.
Just think, even though there is no passenger rail services in Jamaica yet the bauxite companies still use the said railway lines to transport their material.
Jamaica is flooded with numerous investments from China. Yet, if there is one area of expertise that Jamaica governments should have sought from their Chinese investors was in the development of a modern passenger railway network of railways and rolling stock.
We just need to look at how China has transformed the railways across Africa. Jamaica can look closer to home at their neighbours Cuba, where in 2019 that nation introduced modern passenger railway stock from China.
Speaking of railway expertise, Jamaica was one of the first countries in the world to have railway services in the mid 19th century. In fact that said Spanish Town to Old Harbour route that Montague mentions began operating in 1869!
One of the spin-offs of that period was that many Jamaicans were skilled in the area of railway construction and development and thus their skills were in constant demand across the Americas in the 19th and early 20th century in countries including Panama and Ecuador.
In Ecuador during the early 1900s up to 4000 Jamaicans worked on some of the most treacherous areas of the railway line including the famous The Devil’s Nose. Sadly many lost their lives during its construction and today there is a large cross in a local cemetery to commemorate the deaths of those Jamaicans.
Britain’s railway was saved post World War 2 by the significant input from people from the Caribbean including thousands of Jamaicans. Today, many Jamaicans can still be found at all levels of various organisations that oversee the UK’s railway and tube services from front offices through to senior management.
It is embarrassing that such a high level of railway expertise by Jamaicans living the UK has never been uitilised to its full potential back in their home country.
A modern passenger railway network is needed in Jamaica for so many reasons including getting people out of their cars which could reduce road fatalities and air pollution. Passengers train services will improve the overall efficiency of the economy in getting people from A to B in a swifter and less stressful fashion.
[Those who remember the passenger railways service in Jamaica will know that one thing about trains then – punctual.]
Imagine railway service that links the airport in Montego Bay to its Kingston equivalent and what that would do for the economy?
I will remain optimistic that one day, one sweet day that Jamaica will have the kind of modern passenger railway service it has missed for generations.
Let’s hope an innovative and modern nationwide rail passenger service becomes a centrepiece of the government integrated transport service. As certain parishes continue to get more densely populated a nationwide passenger railway service is needed more than ever.
Given the warm temperatures of Jamaica the government could look into bringing in expertise to develop a railway infrastructure run on renewable energy e.g. solar powered?
Back in the 1970s/1980s rail travel was my favourite mode of transport. In doing so I began to really appreciate how beautiful and scenic the island is from Port Antonio to Montego Bay/Kingston via Old Harbour.
Let’s all hope those folks mandated to deliver a modern integrated transport programme will understand that trains has to be a vital cog in any such system going forward.
More highways for vehicles is not the answer
Early Jamaican migration to Ecuador and influence
London Underground’s Windrush generation