Sun | May 16, 2021

Editorial | Policy vandalism on railway buildings

Published:Monday | April 12, 2021 | 12:07 AM

With last week’s fire that destroyed the old railway building at Balaclava, St Elizabeth, Jamaica lost an irreplaceable piece of history, whose protection and preservation is being woefully neglected. At best, the effort is wholly inadequate. We must, therefore, act now to lessen the likelihood of other Balaclavas.

That should mean the Government, the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC) and the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) designing a robust programme to halt and reverse the decay of the island’s iconic railway structures, and, as best as possible, prevent their ruination or destruction by the wanton acts of individuals or other catastrophes, natural or man-made.

We expect to hear about lack of resources as the explanation for past failures. That, however, is not a good excuse. What has been missing mostly is an absence of creative thinking, exacerbated by an increasingly dominant conception of what is of value in the society: new, shiny objects. In other words, the ideal of bling, which, too often, is given succour by official pronouncements, if not formal policy.

Jamaica has among the oldest railroad systems in the world. It is 176 years old. The first railway line, between Kingston and Angels, St Catherine, was opened in 1845. Ours was the first railroad constructed in a British colony, after Canada.

DID NOT KEEP PACE

Over the decades, deep into the 20th century, the technology of Jamaica’s railroad did not keep pace with the industry’s advance. That, in part, was because the Government, in whose hands it eventually fell, did not have the capital to invest in it, and could not entice private firms to do so. Except for two short-lived attempts at a revival, the railway shut down its passenger service nearly three decades ago, in 1992.

Some trains, however, still run, hauling alumina from a refinery in Ewarton , St Catherine, for shipment at Port Esquivel on the southwest coast, across tracks leased from the JRC by a subsidiary of Rusal, the Russian aluminium company. That, and the JRC’s lease of bits of its substantial holding of land, enabled the company, in the last fiscal year, to record a profit of J$68.7 million. The JRC expects a profit of J$143.5 million in 2021-22. Meantime, the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ) is continuing its efforts to divest the JRC, including via public-private partnerships. The Government has been at this for more than a decade.

Whatever may be the reasons for the JRC’s inability to attract partners, or outright buyers, its most obvious failure in the 29 years since the last passenger diesel pulled into the rail yard, is what it has allowed to happen to its stations across the island, like the one at Balaclava, which was built in 1892. They are mostly in rack and ruin.

Yet, these buildings are of significant historic, architectural and, we dare say, sociocultural value – that is, if what we value extends beyond bling. Indeed, the JNHT, on its website, describes the Balaclava station – which, apparently, was rented to a pair of joiners as their workshop – as a two-storey, Jamaican-Georgian structure. Unhappily, the building, with a “gable-end roof”, with an “adjoining hip roof” that sported “a downward fishtail firework on its eaves”, won’t be seen in real life again. Fortunately, pictures exist, although the one posted by the JNHT is not any good, lacking in perspective and detail.

VARIOUS STAGES OF DERELICTION

The 18 main stations, including the now-lost Balaclava, listed by the JNHT on its site, are of the Jamaican-Georgian style. The several smaller ones across the island, in various stages of dereliction, are of similar architectural influence. Unlike Balaclava, fire might not be the cause of their ultimate demise, but without urgent intervention, crumble they will. At least most of them.

It cannot be beyond the creative imagination of Jamaicans to devise ways to preserve these architectural landmarks and other important pieces of our history, including the trains. Indeed, there is a movement across North America and Europe to preserve historic railways, or segments thereof. Much of this work is led by not-for-profit and volunteer organisations, some of which were seeded by the former owners of the facilities and the rolling stock. Similar models can work in Jamaica, if supported by the Government and the JRC. It is an idea that we would recommend to the transport minister, Robert Montague. Such arrangements should not prevent the JRC and DBJ to follow through on other commercial leisure rides and/or cargo transportation agreements with potential operators.

It might be possible to transform the main train station in downtown Kingston into a living Jamaica railroad museum, before that 176-year-old brick structure, with, as noted by the JNHT, its prominent arcades, sash windows and its overhanging trackside roof, supported by “Victorian cast iron brackets” begins to go the way of the others.

After all, high-rise apartments and other buildings in Portmore, or the sacrilege of a proposed new city at Bernard Lodge, home to, according the Government’s National Environment and Planning Agency), Jamaica’s “most fertile, A1” soil, are not the only signatures of development.