Three weeks ago David Jessop in his Sunday column wrote about the resuscitation of railways in some parts of the Caribbean. Among the examples he gave were Jamaica and St Kitts, although the last mentioned was on a very small scale. He said that following the extinction of that island’s cane sugar industry in 2005, its narrow-gauge cane railway was acquired by the St Kitts Scenic Railway. It is now employed in the tourist industry, transporting visitors on track that passes though cane fields, rainforest and alongside the ocean.

Jamaica’s plans are a little more ambitious, involving the rehabilitation of the country’s rail network, through a US$250M investment in its freight and passenger service. Jessop said that this would take place in three stages, the first of which was indeed likely to proceed because of the possibility of connecting it to tourism. He reported Chief Executive Officer of Sandals Resorts as telling the Jamaica Gleaner that it could be used by visitors from cruise ships, hotels and tour companies, and could bring economic benefits to rural areas which tourists do not visit at the moment. The plan is to accomplish the rehabilitation in partnership with US railroad contractor Herzog International.

This is all very modest in comparison with what is planned in the Hispanophone Caribbean, more especially in Cuba. That island, however, has a fairly extensive rail network which is still functioning, albeit in a somewhat degraded state. It is the Russians who are slated in this instance to be the contractors for the upgrade.

Guyana, of course, was short-sighted enough to close down her main railway along the East Coast corridor nearly half a century ago, the stretch between Burma and Rosignol being terminated in 1970, with the remainder of the line to Georgetown following suit in 1972. The rails and sleepers were then torn up and sold, along with the other hardware necessary for operating a railway.

The fact that this was South America’s first railway, having opened in 1848 to cater for passengers and freight between Georgetown and Plaisance in the first instance, did not spare it. All that can be said is that popular folklore has it that this was the one governmental error Forbes Burnham publicly admitted to making – and his regret had nothing to do with sentiment or history. He had more practical considerations in mind, more particularly the stress on the East Coast road, and the difficulty at the time of finding the foreign exchange to pay for car parts, and by extension, cars. Above all else, however, there was the issue of paying for the increased consumption of gasoline caused by the road after Trinidad’s Eric Williams died in 1981. (Guyana ran up a huge oil debt to T&T in Williams’s time, and it was George Chambers his successor who started exerting pressure for payment.) The West Coast railway survived a bit longer, as did one or two small localized lines.

Quite clearly, the East Coast railway has been finally laid to rest, and cannot be revived; east-west transport will continue to be provided by cars, buses and the like. However, one cannot help but feel that perhaps an opportunity was missed at an earlier stage to look in a different direction altogether and cast around for more imaginative solutions to connecting the urbanized coastland with the south of the country, in particular.

It was Governor Gordon Lethem who on a visit to the Rupununi in the 1940s (the town of Lethem is named after him) suggested a railway linking the coast with what is now Region Nine. Unfortunately, the colonial authorities did not take him up on it, and by 1947, he had left the country and nothing more was heard on the subject.

For the last forty-odd years the obsession has been with a road to Brazil, beginning with Burnham’s abortive volunteer effort in the 1970s. In more recent times, the Brazilians have shown considerable interest in the road and have already built a bridge across the Takutu River. Their vision of having an outlet to the Caribbean on the one hand, and being able to supply their north-east through Guyana more cheaply than they can through Brazil itself on the other, is tied to a plan for a deep-water harbour on Guyana’s coast.

What one is talking about in essence, is large-scale container traffic which will go trundling endlessly through Guyana’s forest, and providing the road follows the trajectory of the current one, perversely will bisect the area of the Iwokrama Rainforest Conservation Programme. Apart from all the other problems such a road will bring in its wake, it will certainly not be environmentally friendly, and will challenge President David Granger’s hopes for conservation and a green economy.  However, there is no point denying there are too many vested interests involved in this road and port to indulge any expectation that it can be rethought.

One can only repeat that it would have been so much more palatable if those pushing the road had been thinking in terms of a railway instead.  It would be infinitely more environmentally friendly than a road, inflicting far less damage on our fragile forest ecosystem; it could move large amounts of container traffic in a single journey, and at the same time provide access to the coast at a reasonable cost for Rupununi residents.  It could also have a number of tourist carriages for visitors who wanted to see the rainforest close up, but at the same time at a safe distance; and even transport the private vehicles of people from Georgetown who wanted to drive on to Brazil or around Lethem in their own cars.

Since the terminus would be at Lethem, that would become a container hub, which would create far more growth than if it were simply a transit point for road traffic. Brazil has good roads to our border, and the Takutu Bridge is a road bridge, so a railway terminus would inevitably have to be on our side. In addition, of course, it would be rather easier to control any influx of illegal Brazilians from the north-east into our forest interior if there was a railway, than if there was a road.

There are, of course, downsides to building railways. As Jessop says, the size of the capital investment needed puts them beyond the capability of governments to finance, in addition to which they require a long period to achieve a commercial return – although in the case of Brazilian container traffic that might possibly come faster than would be expected otherwise. There are too, special problems building a railway through a rainforest and Guyana’s hinterland terrain, although whether this would be more challenging than in the case of a road, only an engineer would know. In addition, there are the difficulties associated with the regular flooding of the Rupununi savannahs, something which also confronts roadbuilders but which in this case may be amenable to cheaper solutions.

Burnham might have regretted the abandonment of the East Coast railway, but nowadays a greater regret, perhaps, is that no one took Lethem up on his notion to build a railway to the south.

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