Thu | Feb 22, 2018

Editorial | If the trains are to roll, Mr Henry ...

Published:Thursday | December 21, 2017 | 12:02 AM

While we confess to a bit of nostalgia over Jamaica's dormant passenger rail, we warn the transport minister, Mike Henry, against the temptation of reviving the service without certainty that taxpayers won't be saddled with big bills. In other words, the Government should be wary of rushing in where the private sector has been fearful to tread.

We raise this concern against the backdrop of the collapse of the Government's latest effort to divest the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC), or parts thereof, Mr Henry's known passion for this mode of transportation, and the minister's oft-stated position that rail should be a critical part of the infrastructure in transforming Jamaica into a global logistics centre.

Built in 1845, Jamaica's railway was the first outside Europe and North America, and the first in a British colony after Canada. So, there is history. A long time ago, though, the railway became not a profitable business in Jamaica. The diesel-powered locomotive, pulling rail cars on narrow gauge lines, fell victim to a new, faster mode of transportation motor cars and trucks.

After nearly a century of state ownership and decades of losses, the passenger service stopped running in Jamaica in 1992, reviving only briefly, between 2011 and 2012, initially under Mr Henry's ministerial leadership, before being closed again by the People's National Party government that had originally shut it down. The complaint then was that the limited service, between Kingston and the parish of St Catherine, which Mr Henry had restarted, was losing J$2 million a month.

For most of the past quarter century, however, successive administrations have been on the search for private operators of the railway.

The Government appeared to have pinned substantial hope on US-based Herzog International Inc, which was its preferred bidder for a phased revitalisation of the service, starting with the link between Montego Bay, on Jamaica's northwest shore, and Appleton Sugar and Rum Estate, near Siloah in the parish of St Elizabeth, in the southwest.

 

Missed deadlines

 

It was disclosed last week that despite having previously looked at the venture and many months into this bid, Herzog had missed deadlines to produce a business plan and other deliverables as required by a memorandum of understanding it signed with the Government. The administration has said that it will move on to other potential bidders, and JRC's chairman, Ferris Ziadie, claims confidence that a deal will be struck.

We hope he is right and wish him the best of luck, but not to the extent, without compelling reason of dipping into taxpayers' pockets to satisfy nostalgic urges, or a sense of mission in what is not a proven essential or critically strategic sector. Our worry in this regard is deepened by the Government's hankering, without demonstrably good reason, to return to the retail petrol business, merely a year after it divested its loss-making Petcom service stations.

If Mr Henry has any such idea for the railway upon which he is inclined to act, he must first publicly disclose what segment he believes to be viable, the potential passenger loads on them, and the expected income. These numbers can't be pulled from thin air. There must be a clear a basis for his computation, which should be open to independent analysis. And he might explain why, thus far, no private entity has been convinced that the railway is good business, beyond novelty.