An Update on the St. Kitts Railway

A St. Kitts Railway train going north crosses a loaded St.Kitts Sugar Manufacturing Corporation heading south at Lodge Station. SSMC locomotive 14 on the cane train is somewhat dwarfed by the double decker ‘Island Series’ coaches of the scenic train.
Photo: April 2003, St. Kitts Scenic Railway, Courtesy of Steve Kitts.

In Branchline in January 1982 and July /August 1983 I wrote  articles relating to the sugar cane railway on the island of St.Kitts.  I have just heard from Steve Hites, President & Director of the St. Kitts Scenic Railway Ltd. who has provided an update.  The railway was built to bring sugar cane from the cane fields to the sugar factory in Basseterre.  It ran a circle around the island and had never carried a scheduled passenger service.  There had been isolated attempts to start up a tourist train from the 1980s, in an effort to take advantage of the large number of visitors to the island who began arriving on the tour boats.  However, it wasn’t until January 28, 2002 that the St. Kitts Scenic Railway began operations had has been in business ever since.  Mr. Hites described his early operation.

“The little parade cars had no springs, and it was like riding on a 1880s wooden buckboard wagon on a bad dirt road in Wyoming. After an hour your rear end felt every rail joint as if it were a deep hole in the track. The sharp stalks and leaves of the sugar cane brushed right up against the sides of the little parade cars, whapping in your face, against your body, and actually becoming dangerous if you didn't hold your head down and close your eyes, or even cover your face with your arm or hand. Dust boiled up from under the parade cars as you rattled along, going up into your nose, mouth, and eyes, sometimes choking clouds of it, covering everything, because the track was laid right on the soil with no ballast. The squeak and crash of the parade cars with their link and pin couplers wobbling along and crabbing in the curves made it impossible to hear anyone speak. No narrator or sound system would have overcome the noise of the train. And the slack action in the train made any movement to even take a picture very questionable.

“Lastly, we immediately saw that the little cars were so low to the rail that you were in a deep canyon of cane on both sides of you. Only in cuts or on bridges could you really "see" out of this canyon to get the scenery. If we wanted to be a "scenic railway" tour (and we felt the SSMC (St.Kitts Sugar Manufacturing Corporation) had a scenic railway, to be sure!), we needed to be able to get the guests up high enough that they could see over the top of the cane. Even a conventional railcar would be too low (we knew this from riding around the island in vans, buses, and taxis: the Main Road views were just as limited by the cane as the Railway views were).

“The result, of course, was the new concept for the double-decked "Island Series" railcars, designed by Thomas G. Rader of Colorado Railcar (who designs and builds the full dome cars for all of the tour companies in Alaska, and for the Rocky Mountaineer), and built by Jeff Hamilton of Hamilton Construction. We have five of the cars in service, and five more are stored in Burlington, Washington. These will be shipped to St. Kitts as business demands.

"The SSMC shut down all sugar production on July 31, 2007. That day the very last sugar train rolled into the factory yard with a wreath of flowers draped over the No. 15 locomotive's nose. It was a very sad day for little St. Kitts. The "factory horn" (the marvelous old 1912-era steam whistle that blew to signal the start of each shift of work, and that could be heard all over Basseterre) fell silent, never to be heard again.

"No other trains are operating now except the Scenic Railway excursion trains.

"We usually run five to six days a week in the fall/winter/spring, and will run every Thursday this summer for the "Carnival Destiny" cruise ship that now comes to St. Kitts year around (starting in January 2008). The port calls of this single ship will now allow the Railway enough business to keep our key employees on staff, and keep our train and track crews minimally engaged.

"Without this ship we would have to suspend rail service between May and October, which makes it very difficult to reopen the line again come fall. We had to suspend service in both the summer of 2006 and 2007 as there were no summer ships during those two years.”

The SKSR train ascending the grade at key in April 2003. Note the greatly extended exhaust pipe on the locomotive, fitted for all-too apparent reasons!
Photo: SKSR, Courtesy of Steve Hites.

Mr. Hites also mentioned that “even though we initially started running in the full 30-mile circle around the island, we now run just the 18 miles from Needsmust Station out to La Valle, all on the "North Line", which we think of as the "Wild West Indies" part of St. Kitts, the most beautiful, scenic, and undeveloped...a representation for visitors of what the old Caribbean once looked like when most of the islands had rail systems instead of roads. (Our current 18-mile run is made in 1 hour 45 minutes on average, and we own a fleet of sightseeing buses that take passengers on the final 12 miles on around the island to town on the Main Road, making the full circle by rail/highway in only 3 hours), while the original excursions made the 30 mile trip completely around the island.”

The narrow gauge sugar trains no longer run on the island but the railway has a healthy future carrying tourists.

Having passed through the SSMC yards, the Scenic Railway train approaches its terminus at Needsmust. Photo: SKSR, courtesy of Steve Hites.

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, February 2008.

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