“It’s all broken,” the child said to his mother. And right he was, as there is very little that remains intact and functional at the once bustling Kingston railway terminus on Pechon Street in downtown Kingston. The occasion was a recent guided tour, facilitated by Kingston Creative, and guided by the Jamaican architect Patrick Stanigar. It was my second visit to the station (the first one was many years ago) and my most comprehensive to date, as I was able to visit the freight section, which I had not seen before. There is still a functional, air-conditioned office in the main building and a fair amount of staff, including a resident caretaker. Like most of the visitors present, I was however shocked at the deterioration, which is taking parts of the complex to the point where rehabilitation may become very costly and even impossible.
While I do no share his extraordinary photographic eye and technical skills, and can only contribute amateur photos taken with my phone camera, I was inevitably taken back to the Guyanese artist Errol Ross Brewster’s haunting photo-essay Beware the Promise Today, which was published on this blog in October of last year. In this photo-essay, Brewster used the demise of Guyana’s train system in the early 1980s as a metaphor for the failings of that country’s political culture and the detrimental effect this had not only on the abstracted, depersonalized national economic plane, but also on a human level, deeply affecting the most vulnerable and disenfranchised, while benefiting undeserving and corrupt interests. I had to ask what the neglect of Jamaica’s railway system says about Jamaica, and its own political culture, which may be different from Guyana’s but nonetheless has much in common, and what this says on a more general level about the postcolonial Caribbean.
The history of Jamaica’s railway system starts in 1845, with the inauguration of the Kingston terminus and the first part of the Western Jamaica Connecting Railway, from Kingston to Angels in St Catherine, a 14.5 mile track. It was among the earliest such ventures in the Western Hemisphere, along with the railway system in Guyana, which opened a year later. The very first was actually the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the USA, which transported freight and passengers, and which was inaugurated in 1827 with a 13 mile long track. Initially, the main impetus to introduce trains to Jamaica was the modernization of the sugar cane industry, in the wake of Emancipation, and it was driven by the economic interests of the plantocracy rather than the transport needs of the common person. The railway system was however steadily expanded during the 19th century, and gradually became focused on passenger transport as well as freight. By 1895, it was possible to travel from Kingston to Montego Bay by train. This opened up previously inaccessible parts of the island and allowed for efficient and affordable travel between the country’s cities, towns, and other centres of economic activity. Trains also played a major role in the inland postal service and in getting produce from the country to the urban markets.
Below is an archival video from 1913, part of which was filmed from a train leaving Montego Bay (scene starts at 1.20″).
With the start of bauxite mining in the 1940s, the train system was further expanded and acquired an additional role, the transport of bauxite and alumina to the ports, and of the chemicals used to process the bauxite to the plants. What is left of Jamaica’s railway system still fulfills that function today. Lack of maintenance and investment, and the impact of several major hurricanes, however caused Jamaica’s railway infrastructure to deteriorate and the Jamaica Railway Corporation, which had been established as a government corporation in 1960, began to accrue major losses. Several trajectories stopped operating and public railway transport ceased in 1992, save for a brief revival of the May Pen to Linstead line in 2011-2012.
The vision and mission statement of the Jamaica Railway Corporation board (there must, of course, be a politically appointed board for what is largely a defunct organization) reads as follows:
Restore………….. Modernize………… Expand…………
To recommence a safe, reliable and affordable freight and passenger rail service throughout Jamaica, to synchronize with other modes of transportation, with emphasis on the cost effective movement, while meeting the needs of the JRC, its customers and stakeholders in an environmentally friendly atmosphere, always striving to develop the communities served.
At least there is hope, it appears, but it is hard not to be cynical. While we toured the train station, a fellow visitor spotted a water-damaged file folder which had been casually left among the debris in the freight terminal. Its header was “Rehab Plan” and the folder appeared to date from 1989, when the passenger train system was on its last legs. The folder says it all in a way, as there have been many such plans since then, and even more political announcements, none of which have thus far come to fruition