So we called it Churchill instead
We arrived at Basseterre, capital of St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla in the West Indies just before sunset and apart from passing over some tracks with appealingly closely spaced rail, I saw nothing of the sugar cane railway until the following morning. Still accustomed to Ontario time I woke up early next morning and went for a stroll in the hotel grounds. From the hillside overlooking the azure blue Caribbean there was a clear view towards the island of Nevis with its now extinct volcanic cone. The garden was full of strange and beautiful shrubs in a riot of reds and yellows as well as coconut palms and papaya trees. Surveying the green fields and watching the cattle egrets, crested hummingbirds and bananaquits a strange yet familiar sound fell upon my ears. Similar to a car horn yet air operated and obviously emanating from a steel wheeled vehicle.
In response to this warning a gateman closed the crossing gate across the road in the village below and then the sugar cane train came around a bend in the hillside. Slowly onward came the little orange locomotive with its green brake tender, scattering the chickens, dogs, donkeys and goats to either side. The train carried an official crew on the diesel locomotive and the brake tender but the forty or so empty sugar cane trucks contained a large number of unofficial "crew" as well as several bicycles and packages.
There was no brakevan or caboose although the meaning of the English term "guard" was brought home forcibly to me by the sight of a man hanging on the last truck with an enormous machete stuck in his belt. A wave brought a quick response from a trainload of sugar cane chewing passengers and the lady crossing keeper was also grinning widely. Absorbed in watching the proceedings it wasn't until I heard a second horn that I realized that there was a second train, again hauled by another Hunslet, following some hundred yards behind so I was treated to a repeat of this cheerful spectacle.
Later on in the day we watched a well staged meet between a train of empties and a loaded train which held the main and passed through without stopping. The delay to the empty train was very small. This is the sort of operation that is set up by well trained enginemen using radio and it was my first indication of an efficient operation. I didn't know at that time that the meet had indeed been set up by radio and that each of the trucks in each train was achieving a complete loading and unloading cycle in some 12 hours.
St. Kitts has produced sugar for several hundred years. The juice is extracted from the bamboo-like cane by crushing. The process was originally carried out by wind mills and later by steam power and the island is dotted with the ruins of these earlier operations. In 1910 the processing on the island was centralized into one mill at Basseterre, the capital. The first section of the 2’6” gauge system to be built was from the jetty to the mill. The first locomotive on the system was gasoline powered and arrived in 1910. It worked until 1961 although it was still on the property when I visited the system in 1975. It was latterly numbered 8 and it had hauled all of the equipment for the mill which was imported largely from England. The first part of the system, (again opened in 1910) extended from Basseterre to Palmetto Point on the west side of the island and from Basseterre to Christchurch in the north. The system remained like this until 1925 when the line was extended between Palmetto Point and Christchurch to resemble a "Q" configuration. Until 1970 there had been a branch line through Douglas and Stapleton Estates to the Fountain Estate. This branch was closed as a result of the extension of the. airport runway which also required a relocation of the main line around the airport perimeter. The system now comprises 13 1/2 route miles with approximately -- track miles.
The sugar cane railway performs a relatively simple task. The cane is cut in the fields and is hauled by tractor to the nearest siding where it is loaded by crane into the small four wheel trucks which hold an average of 3 tons of cane. The cane is hauled to the mill yard from where it is moved in cuts through a weigh house to the mill where it is unloaded from the side. The empty trucks are then returned to the loading siding either directly or through the yard.
The line is open only during the cane season, some five or six months commencing in mid March, and it is possible to carry out much of the track work and routine maintenance in the off season using the regular operating crews. But the real trick of the operation is that the railway must deliver 950 loaded trucks to the mill each working day and it must accomplish this with a fleet of 650 trucks. Except in the mill, the line works a two shift day whereas the mill works a full three shifts. The goal is achieved only by a very tight control of operations through the use of radio and good training. The dispatcher keeps check of the locomotives. Each locomotive is equipped with radio which enables the engineer to talk to the other trains, stations and the dispatcher. Cane loading stations are spaced at roughly 2 mile intervals and .these double as passing sidings. Each station is manned by a clerk who supervises train movements as well as cane loading.
Loading cane is itself a skilled job. It is loaded into the railway trucks by a mobile crane. Each truck takes two wagon loads with a maximum capacity of 4 tons although the average is 3 tons. The railway trucks are so light it is easy to tip one over and almost as easy to tip over an entire train through a cascade effect.
Train movements are controlled through each station by the use of flags as follows:
All switches are hand thrown by one of the two switchmen who with the engineer make up the three man crew. The only form of braking is on the locomotive (air operated) and on the brake tender (hand screw down type). The latter are all converted steam locomotive tenders filled with water for ballast. Additional adhesion for braking is obtained by the use of sand, the railway using about -- tons per day, and this is dispensed from a sand tower at Basseterre. Braking can be a problem at times, particularly on the 2% grades, although it used to be much more of a problem on the now abandoned branch which had 6% grades. Additional brake power is available from the occasional truck which is fitted with hand brakes. These trucks are identified by three horizontal red stripes painted on the end bars. These would only be used in the event of a runaway, an occurrence that does happen on the infrequent occasion when the locomotive sanding system fails. The railway prefers to run trains closely spaced so that any breakaways can be quickly detected and stopped before they become dangerous. The standard train length is about 25 loaded trucks or about 40 empties. All sidings on the system, including the reception siding at Basseterre, will hold a locomotive, a brake tender and 40 trucks (with an appropriate allowance for braking).
I visited Hermitage station with Mr. Trotman, the Railway Superintendent to look at the loading. The clerk told us that a light engine was on its way to pick up a load for the mill. The locomotive arrived hauling its tender and stopped just clear of the main switch where the brake tender was uncoupled. The locomotive ran past the switch and the four wheeled tender was pushed by hand into the siding. The locomotive, one of the Hunslets, picked up its tender, then assembled its 25 loaded trucks and having picked up its waybills the train was ready to depart within about 10 minutes of its arrival.
From a distance the locomotives emit a juddering sound not unlike that of a modern north American 3000 h.p. diesel. I rode the cab of this train as far as the crossing at Canada,, Sound levels in the cab are close to those of a large locomotive - in one word excessive. The locomotive has four gears with a gear selector lever as well as a foot operated clutch pedal. Changing gears is similar to that on a standard automobile although more time is needed to allow synchronizing motor and gear speeds.
As we prepared to leave many unofficial passengers appeared. Train riding is a practice which is discouraged although difficult to enforce. I was told that every season one or two young children are killed or maimed through falling off a train.
Even though sidings are closely spaced, two or three short sidings are placed between stations to allow cripples to be shunted out of trains. These sidings are only some 10-12 feet long and just sufficient to accommodate one truck. It is a rigid rule that cripples must be switched out of a train as soon as possible after having been discovered. If a truck breaks a coupling link, for example, it might appear easier to use the link from the next truck rather than shunt out the offending vehicle. The railway has found that such cripples tend to be overlooked however and it is deemed more efficient to send someone to repair the cripple. In any event it seems that there is very little need for these sidings. Speeds are low and the grease bearings on the trucks will normally last a season without attention so hot boxes are almost non existent. An examiner checks each vehicle as it passes through the unloader and in the week of my visit only one truck-day had been lost because of' bad order. (A bad order ratio of 0.25%)
But to me the most impressive part of the operation was at Basseterre, the focal point of the system where the eastern and western lines converge and where the trucks are unloaded. The track layout was streamlined a few years ago and this has helped to maintain a fluid operation. There are six reception sidings, each with a capacity of 40 trucks, for both the eastern and western lines (twelve in all). Authority to enter the yard is given to drivers by semaphore signals, one for each line. These signals are on the same post, yet because of the angle at which the two lines converge the signals are placed at right angles to each other on the post. Having been given authority from this somewhat unconventional signal, drivers are instructed by radio as to which siding to take. The locomotive is then uncoupled and moves to the adjacent shop track to take on fuel and sand. The trucks are then moved in cuts of about nine, mainly by the minute Ruston 40 h.p. locomotives through the weigh house to the mill reception siding (each line of which is protected against runaways by a derail). The trucks are then unloaded from the side and moved back to the reception sidings, again by the Rustons, to be made into an empty train. Empty trains can be accumulated and started out directly from the loading area (the wye at the north end allows such a train to be routed to either line). The operation is arranged so that the entire process from loaded train arrival to empty train departure is accomplished with but one change of direction. Considerable advantage is also taken of gravity.
The backbone of the locomotive fleet is the set of Hunslet locomotives purchased around 1957 but in addition to these there are a few Davenports and a Whitcomb on the main line. The small Rustons help out around the yard, A rather temperamental 1934 vintage Armstrong-Whitworth diesel electric switches the branch to the jetty which moves out all the refined sugar for export. This locomotive would only work for two particular men and when one died it was decided to make it a one man, one shift locomotive. In 1977, I visited the closed sugar factory on the adjacent island of Antigua where four diesels were being prepared for shipment to St. Kitts. These are now working on St. Kitts and have allowed one Davenport to be scrapped.
Because of the cost of getting it off the island there is no market for scrap and many of the earliest relics are tucked away in overgrown sidings. Among the more choice inhabitants of the weeds are a steam locomotive together with two gasoline locomotives that first saw service in the trenches during world war one. In an attempt to promote a better flow of air, holes had been cut in the thick armour plating.
The rolling stock consists of 650 cane trucks of two types, green and yellow, the only difference being in the tare weight, 50 mud trucks and 75 bagasse trucks. Mud and bagasse are both by-products of the milling process. A considerable amount of mud is extracted from the cane and, this is either used as fill or put back on the fields. The railway always keeps some 8-10 loaded mud trucks at Basseterre, along with spare rail, etc., to deal with any washouts that may occur. Bagasse is the fibre part of the cane and is a waste product. Experiments have been carried out to make this into particle board. Until such time as a market can be found, however, the bagasse is put back onto the cane field as a mulch.
The island of St. Kitts was struck by a severe earth-quake in October 1974 which damaged several of the railway installations. Luckily this occurred when the line was shut down and repairs were made without having to interrupt service. Another hazard that the line faces is hurricanes. These tend to come towards the end of the season or in the off season and the winds can easily blow over whole trains of empty trucks. During the off season the trucks are deliberately derailed to avoid hurricane damage.
I hope I have given the impression that the St. Kitts Sugar Factory railway is an efficient one. It is expensive to operate but until the roads on the island are improved the company has no alternative. The road network is presently poor as also are prospects for improvement. It seems therefore that the future, the immediate future at least, is assured. It would be wrong to assume that the line lacks its personal touch, however. Looking at the train control board I noticed that all trains (i.e. locomotives) were numbered except one which was lettered "C", It turned out that this was originally numbered 13, a long wheelbase locomotive that was continually derailing or breaking down. It became such a problem that the company decided to eliminate the unlucky number and name the locomotive "Churchill" instead. The remedy has worked well in that from that day on the erstwhile black sheep of the family has behaved impeccably!
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, January 1982.
Update on the St. Kitts Railway
I visited St. Kitts in early May and found the sugar cane season in full swing. If anything, the railway is busier than ever. There are 18 locomotives on the roster of this 2 '-6" gauge line although only 17 are active. The roster has changed since I was there in 1981.
Four 0-6-0 diesel mechanical locomotives have been brought over from the nearby island of Antigue. These were all built by Ruston and Hornsby. They have coupling rods. Three have been overhauled and repainted. No. 18 is still being worked on and retains its Antigua green.
The two Whitcombs have been rebuilt with Caterpillar engines (shades of Thurso) . When they came from Jamaica, they came with additional axles. They are very hard on axles and were described to me as "a big fat woman with spindly legs" .
One of the Davenports, no 15 » has been retired and its number has been taken by a brand new Hunslet which sports a 1982 builder's plate. They are very proud of this unit which was spotted specially for Paul and I to inspect and photograph.
Although he was on his lunch break, the driver of No. 12, the venerable Armstrong Whitworth 1934 diesel electric, was brought in to show us "his" machine. This is pre-historic and I am sure it would have been preserved if it had been in Europe or North America. Instead, it still works five days a week moving refined sugar and molasses from the factory to the deep water berth. A great deal of ingenuity is required to keep it running (Shades of Thurso) and I was amazed at how they had built up the contacts with weld.
It became apparent that in the Caribbean, the word "scrapped" doesn't mean what it does in Canada. I was told that the Davenport, No. 15, had been scrapped and yet we were standing right next to what looked from the outside to be a complete locomotive! The word really means that the unit has been consigned to the "rest line" where rests the shells of earlier locomotives from which parts may be taken to keep the others going.
Perhaps the most interesting development is that the railway now carries passengers. Four cane trucks have been equipped with seats and a roof for tourists. The railway doesn't run on Sundays and I am sure we could hire it for the day! It goes to all the places of interest on the island. I would like to get together a group to go on holiday down there next May and spend just one day on the railway. It would be a riot! If you're interested, please phone me at (613) 745-1961.
Motive Power RosterThe following is an as accurate a list as possible of the St. Kitts Sugar Cane Railway locomotive roster as of May, 1983
Roster Notes: Locos 8:2, 10:2, 11:2, 15:1, 16, 17, 18 are fitted with coupling rods.
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, July/August 1983