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Neil Howard of the Jamaica Eastern Railway in the United Kingdom. - Contributed
Old railway carriage in Boundbrook, Portland. - File

UK Caribbean infrastructure fund approves steam engine railway for Portland, St Mary

Janet Silvera, Hospitality Jamaica Coordinator

The United Kingdom-based Jamaica Eastern Railway (JER) has made a proposal to the Jamaican Government to bring back steam trains to the parishes of Portland and St Mary in what it says would be a game changer in community and heritage tourism.

Tagged 'Changing trains ... changing lives', the development, which would amount to being the largest of its kind in the island, would be funded from the UK Caribbean Infrastructure Fund, which has committed US$60 million to the project.

The UK Caribbean Infrastructure Fund was announced by British Prime Minister David Cameron during a visit to Jamaica in 2015. Cameron announced funding of US$300 million to eight Commonwealth countries in the region.

Capitalising on the prospects, JER, a consortium of American and British Railway men, boasting over 370 years of service to the industry, said what the railway still has is the ability to be an immensely powerful engine of social change, bringing an economic value of some US$12 million a year for Jamaica.

"Our main motivation is not money. Our passion is the fact that we want to be part of reviving a magnificent railway that the British built 175 years ago. It is the only railway in the Commonwealth that was built by men who had experienced slavery first hand," Neil Howard, one of the JER directors, told Hospitality Jamaica.

The last steam train on the Port Antonio Railway was in 1964, and the last diesel train ran in 1982. After the tracks fell silent, thousands of jobs were lost.

"The trains can make a comeback on this beautiful forgotten railway, bringing tourists with money to communities that don't have any," stated Howard, pointing out that over the years, the emphasis, investment, and infrastructure have moved east from the playground of Errol Flynn and descended to Negril, Montego Bay, and the inclusive resorts of the northeast coast.

ECONOMIC VACUUM

"This has left an economic vacuum," he argued.

The railway veteran, who has had 40 years of experience in the business, said heritage tourism attracts very high-yield stopover visitors. "Our job will be to move 250,000 tourists with money to communities that have none and keep doing it year after year," said Howard.

Walking the talk, Howard and his team have put together a group of Jamaicans who will represent them in the various areas, they will need assistance with which. Architect Marvin Goodman of Goodman and Associates and world-class railway artist Michael Elliott, have been named non-executive members.

The consortium said it would be bringing three 'Iron Lions' steam engine trains to Port Antonio. "They have a Jamaican pedigree. They ran in Jamaica from 1944 to 1960 and can deploy enough muscle to pull the heaviest trains up the hill to Highgate," explained Howard.

When restored, the railway will have the capability to compete with attraction railways in Switzerland, the European Union, and the United States. It will facilitate the development of multiple microenterprises in the rail corridor and increase the number of jobs in the hospitality business, said the JER proposal.

WHAT IT WILL LOOK LIKE

Under Phase One, the railway will be rebuilt from Port Antonio to Highgate by December 2019. There will then be a pause. There will be a new interchange with rafters at the Rio Grande Bridge, the historic stations restored to the condition they were in on Independence Day 1962 (the last time Hope Bay was painted) and opened up as tourism portals. The old tradition of vendors selling to passengers will be revived.

The Port Antonio station will be the operational headquarters of the new railway, beautified in depth and offering a hugely improved first impression of Port Antonio along West Palm Street between Bound Brook and the Annotto River.

One hundred and fifty people will be employed here in permanent high-value railway operating and engineering careers, said the proposal that Hospitality Jamaica accessed.

The first phase of the railway will be 39 miles long, with extensions via themed bus, covering an additional 60 miles, giving a heritage and tourism corridor very nearly 100 miles in length.

"It is a mass mover of people - up to 400 passengers in one train, and up to eight trains a day each way in peak season. On a busy day, up to 2,000 people will be circulating on the stations and trains," said the proposal.

Excited about the prospects, Marvin Goodman, whose reputation spans the restoration of the residence of the British High Commissioner and the design of the popular Goblin Hotel, said many years ago, he was invited to tour the railway, from Port Antonio to Buff Bay, by the then manager of the Jamaica Railway Corporation and a representative of the World Bank and was "bowled over by the extensive infrastructure, including tunnels and very high retaining walls. The views along the route were spectacular".

The idea, even then, he said was how to bring back the railway as a tourism attraction.

"I have no doubt the project being put forward would be a wonderful addition to the tourism product in the area. It would be the right scale for Portland and would employ a wide variety of the people and skills in the area."

Railway painter Elliott said his memories of riding the JRC trains remained vivid.

"Although I was very young at the time, my experience was perhaps the last gasp of a glorious era of Jamaica's locomotive history, a history coveted by many countries and taken for granted or forgotten by many on the island."

He added that the very sounds of the diesel engine and its monolith movement resonated in his subconscious, spawning something that he would manifest later on in life.

janet.silvera@gleanerjm.com 

 

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