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The History behind Barbados' Forgotten Railway System

The History behind Barbados' Forgotten Railway System

Posted by Shanelle Weir on February 20, 2015

A railway system ran periodically across Barbados from 1881 to 1937. 

It connected Bridgetown with the East Coast and, according to research, was designed to effectively transport sugar between factories, around its lines, and the Bridgetown dock, and to allow for more effective commuting by Barbadians and visitors across the island.   

Conceived In the heat of Britain‘s ‘railway mania’, it was thought that a railway system would be a fine asset to Barbados. Unfortunately, it was not.

Now, many Barbadians romanticise over the fact that this small island supported a railway system and the young generation who came afterwards, imagine how awesome it must have been. In reality, however, while the railway had some years of success, it was plagued with many troubles, resulting in it being a ‘sonic’ failure.

The Government had first thought of introducing a railway system in 1845. After years of unresolved plans and issues, the ball finally got ‘rolling’ in 1877. Four years after that, the line from Bridgetown to Carrington Village was finally completed. The Barbados Railway Company Ltd. was the first of four owners and by 1883 they had extended the line to Belleplaine, St Andrew. 

The Railway System had at its disposal two Vulcan Foundry trains from Lancashire, two Bristol trains from the Avonside Engine Company of Bristol and a Black Hawthorne locomotive train. Two more trains were later ordered from Namgnell’s of Stafford England.

The original locomotives were thus named after the parishes through which the lines ran. There were stop stations in Carrington, Rowen, Buckley, Windsor, Sunbury, Bushy Park, Three Houses, Bath and Bathsheba; and there was the abrupt stop in Belleplaine. The line had 98 bridges and culverts and in its entirety was said to be rather unique.

According to Mr Ernest Biffin, General Manager of the railway in the 1920’s, he said that the train line, “had the most severe curves and one of the steepest gradients of any railway in the world.” 

If Biffin’s observations were accurate, then one could argue that there were ironic similarities between the railway structure and its history - both were filled with sharp curves and steep inclines and drops, which finally saw the end of both structures.

The railway promised to help develop the islands infrastructure (The Bajan Magazine November 1975) and transportation of sugar to Bridgetown for export. It was also to afford Barbadians and visitors a luxurious trip to the east coast. For visitors, welcoming parties awaited them at hotels.

However, not everyone could afford to ride the train. (The Bajan Magazine November 1975) 

A single first-class return trip cost 48 cents at that time. Passengers could ride first, second or third class and the lowest fare was 12 cents, at a time when labourers worked for $1.00 a week. However, considering some of the railway’s problems – outlined below – the possible local passengers probably thought it made more sense to keep their cents.

There were complications to the railway line. First off, the train moved slowly, with an average speed of six miles an hour, hence the trip from Bridgetown to Carrington alone took 40 minutes. 

There is a quote that ‘Old timers used to say that The Barbados Railway was mentioned in The Bible, among the creeping things of the earth’. (The Bajan Magazine November 1975).  It is possible that the construction of the rails were not at its optimal. The steep turns made were the result of the English builders refusing to build a line less than 21 miles.

The train also had no washrooms and so it did not offer the most accommodating of rides. Agile men were said to jump off the front of the train, moon passing carriages (maybe not deliberately) as they relieved themselves, and raced back to the caboose to jump back on. The carriages also deteriorated quickly and doors were said to drop off during trips. The carriages were also infested with cockroaches.

Besides these complications, there was the matter of trouble at Consett Bay through Consett Cutting, where the train was known to slip and stop when ascending the bank. Carriages would even break loose and speed back down the gradient.  

‘Gremlins’ (for those who believe in such) must have had a field day on these occasions, as the service provided more worries when the train approached the East Coast.

People were said to break into the singing of hymns during that part of the ride, hoping they did not have to pay a death toll, which the train sometimes wanted to charge. 

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