St Kitts: the ‘last and only’ railway in the West Indies
Vitali Vitaliev recalls a nostalgic ride on the West Indies’ last passenger railway.
My undying wanderlust was, most likely, first triggered by the four kilometre-long narrow-gauge Children’s Railway in the outskirts of my native Soviet city of Kharkov. It was run and staffed almost exclusively by kids, who carried out all the duties (apart from the driving) for two under-sized yet gleaming and fully functioning locomotives – a diesel and a steam engine – pulling a dozen or so mini-carriages between the two stations: Park and Lesopark (Forest Park).
All Kharkov children wanted to be part of that toy railway and the number of small, yet fiercely incorruptible, conductors and ticket inspectors, all in smart uniforms, would at times reach 20 per carriage.
Unlike those kids, however, I never wanted to work on the trains. I wanted to travel on them, to be a passenger, to sit near the window with my eyes shut and, inhaling the inimitable railway aromas of tar and hot steam, imagine myself on board the Orient Express or the Trans-Siberian Railway. That was the start of my ongoing passion for railways, which later, having got mixed up with a passion for islands, resulted in my persisting fascination with island railways.
Since coming to the West nearly 30 years ago, I have experienced the Victorian ambience of still-thriving steam passenger trains on the Isle of Man, the squeaky electrical Soller trains and trams of Majorca, the freight-only narrow-gauge trains of Tasmania – where I was once lucky enough to take a ride in an engine-driver’s cab – and many more. There’s some inexplicable charm in those few remaining railways, confined to relatively small pieces of land and stubbornly refusing to be pushed out by other much more practical, yet much less romantic, means of transport.
Now, stuck at home as I am, recovering from major surgery and still in pain, I often meditate by looking back at the blissful sun-drenched day I spent last November on the island of St Kitts, which used to be England’s very first settlement in the Caribbean - the so-called ‘Mother Colony’ - and is now part of the western hemisphere’s smallest (and the world’s seventh smallest) independent nation of St Kitts and Nevis. It is not common knowledge that this tiny island, with a population of under 40,000, boasts the ‘last and only’ railway in the West Indies (if we ignore private freight lines).
“Welcome to paradise!” smiled the skipper of the motor boat, taking me across the Narrows – a three mile-long stretch of the sea separating Nevis (where I stayed) from St Kitts, past the cone-shaped Booby Island, home to the magnificent brown pelicans, locally known as ‘boobies’. The name of the boat was ‘Point Taken’, by the way.
Talking about the peculiar toponyms of St Kitts, I cannot help mentioning Mount Misery, renamed Mount Fertile in 1983, an extinct volcano dominating the island, and the station called Needsmust, from where my train journey ‘needed’ to start.
The 18-mile, 30-inch-gauge railway was built between 1912 and 1926 to deliver sugar cane from the fields to the main sugar-processing factory in Baseterre, St Kitts’ capital. With over 200 plantations and estates, the sugar industry of St Kitts and Nevis was the most advanced in the Caribbean. It was the first to move on from wind to steam power in 1870 and – unable to cope with growing international competition – the last to close at the end of 2005. Between those dates, sugar had been the undisputed king of the island’s economy, with the railway as its main and only transport artery.
I had (needed?) to wait at Needsmust for nearly 20 minutes until a flock of coaches delivered several hundred tourists, mostly elderly Americans, from the huge Norwegian cruise ship, moored in the harbour and dominating the island like a new movable Mount Misery. The railway now functions only for the benefit of cruise liners’ passengers and I was lucky to be there on that day.
Then, the so-far empty train arrived. It was like nothing I had seen before. Its double decker island series WR & YR coaches, with six-foot vaulted windows in the spacious air-conditioned parlours and open-air observation platforms, looked very much like a set of paddle steamers on wheels. Filled to the brim with obstreperous American tourists, brandishing pina coladas from the upper decks, it soon started to resemble a peculiar dry-land cruise ship.
Off we rattled, led by a small hand-car travelling about 50 yards in front of the little 0-6-0 Lyd2 hydraulic-power diesel locomotive (which was, as I later discovered, built in Romania and originally sold to the Polish State Railways – here we go: Eastern Europe comes to the Caribbean!) and testing the track to make sure it was safe for the train.
That brought back another, this time rather sinister, East European association: during night time feasts at his out-of-Moscow dacha in the early 1950s, the dying and utterly paranoid Stalin used to ask his factotums to taste food first to make sure it was not poisoned. “Comrade Molotov, would you care to try that nice-looking herring?” he would say. That may seem irrelevant to the Caribbean, but for me, frequent flashbacks to history and to my own past have always been part of the magic of train travel.
The whole two-hour journey was like a slow levitation above the spectacular tropical landscape, as our eccentric 10-mile-per-hour train puffed unhurriedly past abandoned sugar plantations, with their crumbling chimneys and sail-less windmills.
To the accompaniment of the railway’s own vocal trio, we rattled over 23 tall steel bridges spanning deep ‘ghuts’ (canyons), past small farms and villages, where cute local schoolchildren in their colourful and surprisingly neat uniforms were waving to the train for all they were worth. From their faces, it was obvious that each of them dreamed of becoming an engine driver, or at least a train conductor, and looking at them I couldn’t help remembering Kharkov’s Children’s Railway, from where – many years ago – my global wanderings began.