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No to any Government loan to restart railway service in Jamaica
published: Friday | May 26, 2006

This train at the old railway station in downtown Kingston, shows the state of some of the Jamaica' Railway Corporation's roilling stock. - NORMAN GRINDLEY/DEPUTY CHIEF PHOTOGRAPHER

THE JAMAICAN Cabinet will soon be looking at a proposal to re-start a passenger railway service in Jamaica. This should be an easy decision to make, given the current financial circumstances and with regard to the transportation strategies that have been pursued since the 1990s.

If the Cabinet was to give the go-ahead to any such proposal (that involves substantial backing by way of government funded or guaranteed loan funds) then the railway link should be extended into Bellevue in East Kingston, as it would need to deposit discernible committed patients to that institution's care.

Jamaica's railway service has a long and proud history in this country, nay in this hemisphere. Only Cuba today still has a viable existing railway service in the Caribbean while rail services in Jamaica have been reduced to only offering bauxite cargo services. However, in the past there was a widely used passenger service that extended throughout the island and went from Kingston into Port Antonio, or from Kingston into Montego Bay. Tourist visitors were especially thrilled by the Appleton rail link, where they could take a train ride from Montego Bay into St. Elizabeth and observe how rum was made and other agro-industry related services. It is just not the same thing when one goes by bus coach. I remember how delighted my friends from other countries in the Caribbean were (mainly U.W.I. students) whenever we took a day trip from Kingston to Montego Bay by way of train, a service that most found quite exhilarating. They were fascinated by the number of vendors selling all kind of fruit and delicacies at various major stops, the religious preachers of all kinds, the impromptu musical services rendered by some passengers. Today replicating the same trip by car or minibus does not duplicate that experience. Elements still occur but it's just not the same.

Reminiscing is one thing, viability is another. To re-start a passenger service, no matter how limited, will require considerable funds. To do it with private money is a big risk. To do it with government-backed money is to be delusional. Had this project been decided on even ten years ago, when the rolling stock was not so dilapidated and the existing tracks were still maintained may even have seemed feasible, but to re-start it today is throwing good money after bad. The Jamaica Railway service closed down because it could not make money. The various routes were condensed until even the short Gregory Park to Kingston link proved unprofitable. In the meantime Jamaica's transportation policy has focused on spreading individual private car ownership (courtesy of changes to facilitate cheap car imports prior to a general election); expensive resuscitation of a passenger bus service in the Kingston and Metropolitan Area (JUTC), and an extensive highway project (B.O.O.T.-build, own, operate and transfer, after a long lease period). We would be foolhardy to expect a massive return to passenger rail travel given that Jamaicans now love personal transportation, fast speeds and are reluctant to walk even one hundred yards to the destination that they are going. On top of that we have borrowed heavily to build a modern transportation centre, smack dab in the middle of Half-Way-Tree.

To make the kind of financial outlay to re-start this service is a non-starter, given the huge debt burden that we are battling with, even if there were clear future benefits. Such future benefits are however doubtful based on the above circumstances. It is significant that the rail partner has now shifted. At one time it was the expertise of the Indians which would restart it. Now it's the Chinese. But significantly they are only willing to lend us money to do it, not have Chinese entrepreneurs start it themselves, as a private venture.

I am certain that when the cost-benefit studies are done that it will not prove viable at this time, so stop indulging in fantasy talks as it just doesn't make sense. Just say NO.

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