It seemed a strange coincidence that as I was writing a piece about the old Bermuda Railway a news article should appear today on redeveloping part of the railway trail to make it accessible.
From the end of our road you can access the Railway Trail – just cross the road and down a few steps – so last Sunday before the sun made walking uncomfortable, we walked along part of the trail from East to West, reaching Flatts and the old Aquarium Station. Apparently once this building held a museum which would have told us all about the railway. It is closed now, which is sad. I am not sure when it closed because some of the tourist sites still mention it and the boards along the trail too.
Bermuda had a railway for 17 years, from 1931 until 1948.
When I heard this I imagined a narrow guage track with miniature steam trains, but this one was a full sized standard guage track with gasoline locomotives, Pullman carriages and 42 stations.
What happened to it? It would perhaps have been a solution to the overcrowding on the roads, a way of avoiding the rush hour and an income generator from tourist use. Sadly it seems to have declined in the post war years, and when cars were finally permitted on the island the railway could not compete.
In terms of cost per mile of track the Bermuda Railway surpasses any other – in actual money it cost over £1,000,000, which translated to current values is about $2million per mile. The track was 21.76 miles, almost end to end with a loop midway into the city of Hamilton. For the most part it was single track with 14 passing loops. Entry to each section was controlled by a key system, the driver removed a key at the start of the section and replaced it at the end, keys only being released if the counterpart was firmly located at the other end.
Why did they build it?
In the early 1900s tourism was becoming a major source of income for the island, taking over from ship building, competing alongside agriculture and predating the Bermudian finance and insurance industry. Cruise ships came from the States, people stayed on the island to escape from winter in US or Canada, a contrast with current tourism that peaks in the sunnier months. In 1908 the Motor Car Act banned all but a few essential vehicles so limiting residents and tourists alike to carriages or bicycles. Even so, serious consideration of a railway was several years later and then, once approved it took a whole ten years to complete. I may have said this already, things can happen quite slowly in paradise. Eventually the company Balfour Beatty were brought in to complete the task and before even they opened the line they were undertaking repairs and rebuilding of the original work. Investors must have had an anxious few years – curiously nearly all the money was raised from overseas, non- Bermudian investment.
Most of this I didn’t know until I started reading; it caught my interest but feel free to skip this section.
What exactly is a Pullman Carriage? I feel I ought to have known this, at least two relatives worked for British Rail (which might not exist any more) – George Pullman was an American engineer who designed the eponymous luxury carriage, initially a sleeper car, famous for carrying Abraham Lincoln’s body from Washington to Springfield. So the name became synonymous with luxury and first class – Bermuda Railway had more Pullman Carriages than it did the cheaper “Toastracks”. I have seen two descriptions of the latter – one suggested they were so named because the seats flipped over so passengers were always facing forwards and the other said they had no corridors or aisles, had upright seats and open sides – both of course could be correct, I have not managed to find a detailed photograph.
What is the difference between narrow and standard guage? I expected this to be a simple answer – standard guage is 4 foot 8 and a half inches between tracks so narrow guage is probably smaller. Apparently there are many different gauges – for example in Ireland the distance is 5’3″, in India 5’6″.
The story is reminiscent of the VHS/Betamax or Bluray/HD battle: back in England in 1825, Stephenson, of Rocket fame, built the Stockton and Darlington Railway, using an inter-rail distance of 4’8″ (plus a little bit); then along came Brunel (the chap with such an amazing name, Isembard Kingdom) and he built the Great Western Railway using a broader gauge of 7′ ¼”. For fifty years the British railways were run like this – different sizes of track and rolling stock in different regions? Clearly this impaired any national service and so finally by 1892, Brunel had lost the battle and English tracks were standardized at 4’8 ½ “. Both Stephenson and Brunel had died by this time, of pleurisy and a stroke respectively (of course those bits are going to interest me!) It actually doesn’t make much sense that the broader gauge wasn’t implemented – it is more comfortable, more stable and gives more carrying capacity, but government decisions don’t always make sense.
I am old enough to remember conductors on buses and trains who had a cris cross of straps across their chest as they carried a ticket machine on the left and a money pouch on their right side. The ones I recall wound a handle and a newly printed ticket was issued, pink or green sugar paper, about 2 inches long, that went soggy in my sticky hands (I was only little).
However there was a system predating even this antiquity – the Bell Punch System – preprinted tickets of different values were punched by the machine so the front side the hole covered the stage at which you got on the train and on the reverse side the hole fell on the name of the station where you should get off (the same company produced the first desktop calculators – my husband collects calculating machines and we have one which I learned today is called ANITA – A New Inspiration To Accounting, developed by the Bell Punch Company)
I am digressing, as happens, but if I don’t move on I won’t have time to talk about the Railway Trail – which is what exists now, 18 miles, much of it along the coastline, a protected trail for walking, cycling, running. The trestles have long been dismantled and the trail diverts inland rather than crossing the bays, but you can almost walk the length of the island. According to Trip Advisor the trail is ranked no 34 out of 185 attractions in Bermuda (are there really that many?) and there are only two negative reviews there over the last three years. I am not quite sure how many stars I would give it – some parts are beautiful with pretty views and interesting plants, but there is nowhere you can park a car along the track and once you have walked one way the only way back is to retrace your steps. I prefer circular walks, which is probably why it has taken me so long to start exploring the trail. Now I can reach it on foot or cycle I have no excuse not to go further along, so next time I shall walk East.
The rail line was finally closed on May 1st 1948 and the rolling stock was sold to British Guiana, the original investors never receiving a single dividend. It wasn’t until 1984 that the trail was opened up for the public. In that time most stations were dismantled, a couple put to other uses, and along the track the most prominent remains are the concrete bases for the trestles, like giant’s stepping stones.
by Colin Pomeroy, ISBN 0952129809,
Bermuda Railway website by Simon Horn