KINGSTON — Great anticipation resonated among persons who turned out last Saturday April 16 to see the first passenger train to grace Jamaica’s landscape in nearly 20 years.
Despite the occasion being a test run, between May Pen and Linstead, for the reconditioned five-coach train, it was a sentimental journey for those who witnessed it.
Those old enough to remember, recalled the days when the passenger train was the most important mode of travelling across Jamaica. For the younger ones, it was a defining moment in their lives, as it would be their first experience of a train up close, outside of television and cinema screens.
From as early as 8 a.m., one could feel the excitement and expectation growing, as persons converged at the train’s departure point, a few metres from the eastern end of the May Pen Bridge which spawns a section of the Rio Minho River.
Simultaneously, there was the departure from the Jamaica Railway Corporation’s (JRC) station at Barry Street, downtown Kingston of four Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) Premium Express buses, with public and private sector stakeholders, well wishers and journalists, destined for the May Pen meeting point.
Leading the delegation, of nearly 200 persons, were Transport and Works Minister, Hon Mike Henry, and JRC Chairman, Barry Bonitto. The group also included Mr. Henry’s cabinet colleagues; Youth, Sports and Culture Minister, Hon Olivia Grange, and Education Minister, Hon Andrew Holness.
At approximately 9.20 a.m., the buses arrived at the May Pen Bridge, passengers disembarked. The train’s horns could be heard, signaling its impending arrival, spurring action, as persons jostled for vantage points for their first view of the powerful locomotive.
Within seconds, anxieties were allayed, as the five-coach unit, majestically adorned in the national colours – black, green and gold – emerged from around a bend, just beyond vegetation that ran parallel to the track, grinding to a halt where the crowd stood. Marshals directed passengers into the coaches and, at 10. 15 a.m., the train departed May Pen for what would be a two-and-a-half hour journey of over 30 miles.
Prior to the departure, Mr. Henry stated that the move to resuscitate the train service formed part of his ministry’s efforts to develop an “integrated” plan of travel for commuters. Additionally, he said, a study done by United Kingdom-based engineering consultancy firm, Halcrow Group Limited, showed that passenger train service could contribute to the gross domestic product (GDP).
“Anything that makes people move in a free movement of time, and save money, means that you can be more productive. So, in that context, I think that along this route, (in fact) any route, there will be economic development,” Mr. Henry argued.
“There will be more jobs on the train, there will be economic development that will flow along the routes, as people know that they can benefit from it,” he added.
Noting that the task of revitalizing the service was a difficult one, Mr. Henry assured that, “I am trying”. He said that revitalization efforts would include fortifying the May Pen Bridge, to accommodate the added weight, and rebuilding the train station.
“I have already designed a new station, with containers to begin with. We have prepared two stations already, at Linstead and Bog Walk, (and) Williamsfield is ready for a station and for cargo. It’s a combination of issues. So it’s trying to show the country, overall, the importance of the railway,” he outlined.
Mr. Henry also pointed out that the train was reconditioned from the remains of one used in the old service, adding that it was “repainted, re-invigorated, and improved”.
Executives of the JRC advised that rehabilitation of the train, and other activities, cost over $30 million. They indicated that passenger service, between May Pen and Linstead, could commence within a month. Rehabilitation work on the remainder of the rail network will be undertaken on a phased basis, consequent on the extent of deterioration and vandalism.
The test run from May Pen to Linstead proved to be as festive as it was scenic, with passengers in “high spirits”, after being “called to the bar” filled with all sorts of refreshments.
Mr. Henry, clearly in his element, revelled in the glowing accolades from his colleagues and well-wishers, commending the efforts to resuscitate the train service.
The anticipation for the train was only equalled by the reception it got, as it slowly snaked along its route: Passengers sampling the long awaited transportation fare were treated to scenic views of the lush Jamaican countryside.
Shrills, shrieks, screams and other expressions of approval from persons of varying ages and genders, mostly adorned in the national colours and waving flags, greeted the train and its passengers. The numbers swelled with each stop, with Spanish Town seeming to have what everybody thought was the largest turnout.
The passengers were in for a surprise as, after a 15-minute stop in Bog Walk, St. Catherine, the train rolled into Linstead at approximately 1.50 to a tumultuous welcome from the largest of the gatherings along the route. The throng converged just outside the Bread of Life Ministry church. It included students and pupils from the Dinthill Technical and Charlemont High Schools, and Ewarton Primary School, who performed during the rededication ceremony.
Some persons were heard remarking that the reception for the train in Linstead was akin to Jesus Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Custos Rotulorum of St. Catherine, the Hon Rev Sophia Azan, in welcoming the train service, urged passengers and other stakeholders to show their appreciation, when it formally resumes, by protecting it and allowing “good sense” to prevail.
By DOUGLAS McINTOSH, JIS Reporter