The International Steam Pages

A Garland of Islands, Part 3, Hispaniola, the Guianas ("honorary islands"), and Urban Trams in the Caribbean

Robert Hall writes about island railways of the world in a series of articles:

Click here for the other parts:

For the first parts of my “Garland of Islands” that feature the New World, am covering the most “island-y” section of the Americas, namely the West Indies – plus a couple of places seen to merit inclusion therewith, in defiance of strict geography. I am indebted for information, to various sources – above all, to David Rollinson’s comprehensive work, “Railways of the Caribbean”.(ISBN 0-333-73042-9

The two-nation island of Hispaniola, divided between Haiti in the west and the Dominican Republic in the east, had public railways in times past; but in a fragmented and not very logical-sense-making way.

Haiti has always been (to put things mildly) not the most fortunate of countries; and a place about which railway information is a little on the meagre side. Plans were entertained at one time for a national Haitian 1067mm gauge public rail system, essentially linking the capital Port-au-Prince, with the country’s north coast. Three separate sections of this hoped-for network, totalling 217km, were opened to traffic; not all this total kilometrage was however operational, at any one time. The lines concerned opened – through various sometimes dramatic ups-and-downs – mostly over the first fifteen-odd years of the 20th century; their operating concern was the Compagnie Nationale des Chemins de Fer d’Haiti. One line expired early, in the general region of 1930. The northernmost section was closed to public traffic, around the mid-20th-century; a part of it continued in industrial use for a few more years.

CNCFH’s most southerly and longest line, from Port-au-Prince northward along the coast to St. Marc and Les Verrettes, was also the longest-lasting – public traffic finished in 1963, after severe hurricane damage. Industrial / agricultural workings continued on sections of the line for a while longer – by the late 1970s, all these were no more. In their (very relative) heyday up to about the end of World War II, CNCFH are thought to have been worked largely by Baldwin-built 4-6-0s; diesel locos were likely introduced in some shape or form in the 1950s, and passenger service on the line north from the capital was furnished in its latter years, by diesel railcars.

Haiti’s other public railway was on the 762mm gauge, and opened essentially in the same era as the CNCFH’s lines. It bore the truly splendid title of the Chemin der Fer de la Plaine du Cul-de-Sac. This line, whose common-carrier stretches totalled not quite 80km, took a west-to-east course across the eponymous plain, which lies just south of Port-au-Prince – line’s route from Leogane on the coast, via the capital, to a point near the border with the Dominican Republic. Although it originally offered public passenger and freight facilities, the CFPCS’s primary purpose was always to serve the cane-sugar industry. The railway’s operation and ownership were closely tied-in with that of the Haitian American Sugar Company (HASCO), which owned some 30km-plus of connecting 762mm gauge purely-cane trackage; and with the (non-electric) and physically connected tram system, of the same gauge, which served Port-Au-Prince from 1897. Motive power and rolling stock were freely interchanged between all three undertakings. The original, largely “pooled” locomotive fleet mostly comprised 0-4-0Ts and 0-4-2Ts, some by Porter of Pittsburgh and others by European builders – Krauss, and Tubize. Later, at least some 2-6-0s were in service; one is plinthed near Port-au-Prince. Internal-combustion trams / railcars came into use from the early 1920s.

In 1932, the Port-au-Prince city tram network was abandoned; and the CFPCS withdrew public passenger and freight services, and from then on was used exclusively by HASCO, for sugar-industry-related purposes. This situation continued for a number of decades. In the second half of the twentieth century, diesel locomotives clearly appeared on the scene. “Jane’s World Railways” for 1969 / 70 lists the CFPCS as still having a route length of nearly 80km; and with a locomotive roster of three steam, five diesel, and two electric locos (sic – in fact these were Whitcomb B-B diesel-electrics of 1951 / 52 – incidentally, both still in existence). The western stretch of the line to Leogane was abandoned in 1983; date of demise of the eastern section would seem unknown. HASCO’s sugar factory and its remaining 762mm gauge trackage (all-diesel-worked by then) were closed about 1990.

Francophone Haiti’s island-sharing alter ego / sparring partner, the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, once featured public railways, over and above an assortment of industrial / agricultural rail systems (some of the latter are still active today). The public lines were located in one quite small northern corner of the country, and never served its capital city. The Republic’s first public railway was the Ferrocarril de Samaná y Santiago, which never served either of the places mentioned in its title (this in the best traditions of railway-type battiness – think of our own Manchester & Milford). The 1067mm gauge “S & S” ended up running from Sánchez, on the Republic’s east coast, to an obscure terminus 100km to the west; opened 1886. A couple of branches followed; a very short one in 1905, and a longer one – 55km, northward to Moca, linking there with the country’s other public railway – in 1917.

The Dominican Republic’s other – connecting; but, wonderfully, built on a different gauge (762mm) – public railway, was the Ferrocarril Central Dominicana. This line was originally projected to run the 150km-odd between Puerto Plata on the north coast, and the capital Santo Domingo on the south coast. These ambitious plans did not work out, and the furthest extent of the railway (first section from Puerto Plata opened 1893) was the approximate 60km southward through Santiago (the nation’s second city, never reached by the Samaná y Santiago) to Moca, ultimately the connection point with the aforementioned S & S.

The Central Dominicana was faced with a very steep climb off the coastal plain, a little way out of Puerto Plata – 1 in 20 in places. This hill section was originally equipped with Abt type rack, with four rack tank locos built by Cail of France. Around 1920, the rack operation was abolished; the hill-climbing motive power thenceforth, was two US-built Shay type geared steam locomotives – powerful machines, able (if with some difficulty) to handle the grades involved, on an “adhesion” basis.

Post- World War I, both railways found themselves vulnerable early to road competition, especially for passenger traffic. Passenger operations faded out over time; though the S & S tried to stem the tide, by use of a petrol railcar. Freight activity continued, ever lessening, for some decades. The Central Dominicana is thought to have been abandoned around 1950. The S & S is reported to have lasted until 1970. Replacement of steam traction by diesel on this railway, is not documented; its freight haulage being steam up until closure in 1970, is marvellous to dream about, but a little hard mentally to accept. One would envisage steam-starved American and Canadian railfans flocking to Sánchez in the late 1960s, to value the wonders of the S & S’s steam freight action, and broadcasting worldwide (even in the pre-Net era) the delights experienced; but often in this game, it’s not as might be imagined.

At least earlier in its life, the S & S -- with, at the outset, Scottish promoters -- equipped itself with locomotives from Scottish builders: “between the World Wars”, line work was mostly performed by a small stud of North British 2-6-2Ts. A couple of Andrew Barclay 0-4-2Ts shunted, and worked on the Sánchez docks, supplemented there by steam travelling cranes. As above, later motive power on the S & S is not known. Aside from its hill section, the Central Dominicana was served largely by a fleet of Baldwin 2-6-0s.

Since 2008, the Republic’s capital of Santo Domingo has had in operation a light-rail Metro – first line thereof opened in ’08, a second under construction. Almost everywhere in these parts, seems to be getting into this game. Poor Haiti very probably also wants a Metro for Port-au-Prince, with everything possible being done there, to make that a reality.

Will continue this piece by pulling a bit of unashamed “author’s prerogative” stuff. Narrow-gauge buffs sometimes proclaim standard-gauge systems which they like, “honorary narrow gauge” ; and I’m going to declare a couple of honorary islands -- namely the Guianas: solidly part of the continent of South America, and on the full Atlantic, not the Caribbean, coast. I have precedents, in some sort, to make this act not totally outrageous. Guyana (formerly British Guiana) has always identified itself culturally, very strongly with the (British) West Indies. I learnt this long ago from a Guyanan housemate; who emphasised that a sure way to irritate and rile up a Guyanan, is to describe him as “South American”. Mr. Rollinson includes Guyana in his book; though oddly, not adjacent-to-the-east Suriname (“Dutch Guiana”) – albeit the book covers industrial lines on various Dutch islands in the West Indies. I shall nevertheless write of Suriname’s remarkably long-lived public line. Little Cayenne (“French Guiana”), “next-door-once-again”, never had a public railway; though it has known some “industrial” narrow-gauge trackage, reportedly largely with human (prisoner?) power.

A bit more precedent, of a kind: there was decades ago, a not-terrifically-bright British politician named Creech-Jones. The only thing for which this chap is remembered, is his speaking in public of something or other happening, to do with “the island of British Guiana”. More-on-the-ball nitpickers immediately seized on Creech-Jones and ridiculed him for this gaffe, and continue to do so to this day. In the light of the place’s self-identification with the West Indies, I’d be willing to give Mr. C-J a pass -- not everyone is a genius about geographical minutiae. At all events, I can say that I am about to do a Creech-Jones.

Guyana’s public railways – now defunct – have the distinction of being the first such opened, anywhere in geographical South America: opening of first section, in 1848. In a parallel with the unfortunate event in Britain in 1830, involving Mr. Huskisson: during the opening day’s festivities, one of the railway’s directors was fatally run over by a locomotive.

Guyana’s public rail system was nothing if not straightforward. It featured a line (1435mm gauge) from Georgetown, the capital – on the coast – eastward not quite 100km along the coast, to Rosignol (ultimately reached in 1897): river-ferry terminal for, on the far bank, Guyana’s second city of New Amsterdam. A second route (1067mm gauge, inaugurated much later than the 1848-origin standard-gauge line) ran from Vreed-en-Hoop (ferry terminal on the opposite bank of the Demerara River, from Georgetown), 30km westward along the coast to Parika, on the broad Essequibo River. (Trivia item – the Dutch-flavoured names are explained by Guyana and neighbouring Suriname having all been Dutch territory, until Guyana was ceded to Britain in 1814.) The two lines were styled, respectively, the Demerara – Berbice and Demerara – Essequibo; or (less colourfully but more succinctly) the East Coast and West Coast, Railways.

Originally privately-owned, the railways passed into the hands of the colonial government in 1922. They lasted for another fifty years, often undergoing difficult times – with, the old story, road motor competition becoming ever more acute. Traction was for long 100% steam, with a couple of handsome British-built 1435mm 4-6-4Ts entering service in 1924 to supplement the then largely ancient loco fleet. In 1948, the entire rolling stock of the just-closed Bermuda Railway – motive power (all internal-combustion) and coaches, was transferred to Guyana’s 1435mm gauge “East Coast” section. This equipment from Bermuda’s seemingly rather flimsy line was surprisingly useful, it would appear, in rejuvenating and shoring-up for a while, the beleaguered Guyanan railway. Help from other nearby parts of the Empire, seems to have been something of a “Guyanan rail” theme: as mentioned earlier, two locomotives from the Barbados railway reputedly went, after Barbados’s gauge-reduction at the end of the 19th century, to Guyana’s 1067mm gauge “West Coast” line.

It is thought that post-1948, further diesel power was acquired, whereby Guyana’s 1435mm gauge was 100% diesel in its latter years; steam is believed to have lasted longer on the 1067mm gauge. The railways endured past the country’s gaining independence in 1966, but not by a great span of time: the entire system, both gauges, was abandoned in 1972.

The 1067mm “West Coast” line receives a mention in Gerald Durrell’s IMO delightful book “Three Singles to Adventure”; recounting a trip in 1951 by the author and companions, collecting animals for zoos, in what was then British Guiana. The “Adventure” of the title is the name of a place up-country, base for the expedition’s first phase: reached from the capital via the ferry to Vreed-en-Hoop and the 1067mm gauge line thence to Parika, then further by water. In that era, the train to Parika was of course steam-hauled (this confirmed by “textual evidence”). After a comedy episode of poor connections resulting in the party’s catching the train by a hairsbreadth, there follows an idyllic description of the colourful Guyanese countryside rolling by, observed from the carriage window. I revel in Durrell’s “zoo collecting” books: he was seemingly a lover of all things in life, by no means just of the animal kingdom – in other books, he writes delectably in passing, about long-ago railway experiences elsewhere in South America.

Suriname (“Dutch Guiana”), immediately east of Guyana, was also common-carrier rail-served, by the “Suriname Landspoorweg”. In contrast to Guyana’s lines strictly following the coast, the SL’s one route struck inland from the coastal capital, Paramaribo. Inaugurated in 1905, it was a classic Dutch steam tramway (metre gauge), transplanted into a tropical setting. At maximum extent, it ran for 173km into the interior. Over time, “bits fell off”. In the late 1950s / early 1960s, the more northerly sections (road traffic taking over) and more southerly ditto (flooded in consequence of large-scale damming of the Suriname River) ceased to operate. There remained active, the median 86km between Onverwacht (Dutch for “unexpected”), and Brownsweg (on the north shore of lake created by abovementioned damming). In the tramway’s final years, services were one return (by inference, mixed train) working per week – out one day and back the next. If I have things correctly, the tramway served the country’s airport, a little way south of Onverwacht and 30km out of Paramaribo. There was a metalled road from the capital as far out as the airport; south from there, only tracks through the bush – so until a late date, the tramway played a useful role in serving remote settlements. The line’s northernmost 20km or so, Paramaribo – Onverwacht, were abandoned over the period 1957 – 61. The tramway used to run through the streets of the capital, which was presumably found a nuisance to road traffic even in the 1950s.

It is gathered that the weekly return train, as above, was steam-hauled. Three-car DMUs were introduced to the line in 1954, but it would seem that this was one of those instances – occasionally and happily found on this scene – where the supposedly modern improvement was outlived by the old-fashioned set-up which it was intended to supersede. The weekly return working is reported to have continued until final closure in 1988 – per reports, the track Onverwacht – Brownsweg is still in place today.

The tramway’s steam motive power comprised an assortment of 0-4-0 tram locos, several built by Borsig and a couple by Krauss, for the line’s opening or shortly after. 0-4-0 tram loco (skirt-tank type) Para, Breda-built a little later, in 1916, was the machine which lasted longest in service – it was the only active loco for a fair number of years at the end of the line’s life. Per recent information, Para is now plinthed at Onverwacht. After closure in 1988, various moves were made with a view to reviving one part or another of the line for tourist workings, using this locomotive; however, nothing came of such plans.

A few enthusiasts made it to Suriname in the latter decades of the tramway’s life. I find it a little surprising that more did not do so: in the 1980s, when steam in genuine commercial service was becoming sadly rare worldwide, adventurous gricers went to assorted outlandish / fearsome places in quest of the commodity ; but so few attempted Suriname. Steam trams are not every steam-lover’s “thing”; and logistical downsides are easy to see -- but railfans, like birdwatchers, are often contemptuous of mere common sense. Seemingly, in the main not so in this case.

Quite a number of the islands dealt with in this article, at one time boasted urban tram systems (all defunct as at 60-plus years ago). These are all illustrated (and more) in Allen Morrison's excellent site - . A list of specific links is given at the end of this page.

Jamaica’s capital Kingston, and Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain, both had such systems, originating with animal power in the 1870s / 80s, and electrified around the turn of the 19th / 20th century. Trams ceased to serve Kingston in 1948, and Port of Spain in 1950. The same applied to Guyana’s capital Georgetown: animal-powered trams inaugurated in 1877, the system electrified 1901, and closed – historically early – in 1930. From pictures of these tram networks in action, it appears that regrettably, the British double-deck electric tram did not take on in the Empire’s Caribbean possessions, the way it did in Hong Kong (and obtains there, to this day) – in the West Indies, American-style single-deckers seemed to be the rule. Bridgetown, capital of Barbados, had a five-route tram system which was horse / mule-powered throughout its career, from 1885 to 1925.

In Puerto Rico, San Juan had an electric tram system, 1435mm gauge as opposed to the metre gauge of the island’s railways – metamorphosed in 1901, and subsequently much expanded, from urban steam tramway routes dating from before PR’s cession from Spain to the USA. San Juan’s trams ceased to run in 1946. The cities of Mayagüez on the west coast, and Ponce on the south coast, both had small tram systems which started life animal-powered, were electrified in the early twentieth century, and closed in the late 1920s.

Haiti has always been renowned for “doing things differently”, and that trait applied to the trams of Port-au-Prince. Electricity was never used on them; the city’s first tram system was animal-hauled, and ran between 1878 and 1888. After a brief successful start, the trams encountered difficulties: a combination of poor maintenance, and stiff competition from buses – also animal-drawn. Incidentally, the most effective method for animal-powered trams in these parts is said to have been “double-heading”; or rather, a tramcar drawn by a horse and a mule, harnessed side by side.

After a hiatus of nearly ten years, in 1897 the Société des Tramways de Port-au-Prince inaugurated a network of steam tramways serving the city, on the 762mm gauge. As mentioned earlier, when the physically connected Chemin der Fer de la Plaine du Cul-de-Sac, of the same gauge, opened a few years later; there was much inter-working and sharing of motive power and stock between the tram system, the CFPCS, and the Haitian American Sugar Company’s connecting cane lines. The city tram workings were basically entrusted to the earlier-described small 0-4-0 and 0-4-2 tank locos. Rather as with the animal-drawn trams which had preceded the steam system; the city trams came to suffer severely from road competition (private car, and bus) at a surprisingly early date – while the locos and tramcars, perhaps not very stoutly built, showed signs of ageing and wear quite early on. In an attempt at “damage control” in the early 1920s, the steam stock was largely replaced by US-built small bogie petrol trams; but despite this move, services were withdrawn from the last of the city’s tram routes in 1932.

A final “tram” incidence: the Dutch island of Curaçao, just off the Venezuelan coast, has had industrial railways – this location being highly water-poor, said railways never used steam: donkey and human power, and later diesel locomotives, have featured instead ! No public railways proper on the island; but for nearly 35 years there operated a street tram route a couple of kilometres long, between the centre of the capital Willemstad, and outlying parts of town. This began in 1886, as a very-narrow-gauge, animal-powered undertaking; it had a chequered career, including a very brief period of competition from a rival animal-powered tramway following an alternative route between the same extremities. After a spell of acrimonious disagreement between the island government and the tramway’s operators, the government cancelled the tramway undertaking’s lease and undertook the building, between the same termini as referred to above, of a new metre-gauge tram route. To operate this new line, three four-wheel petrol trams were ordered from Britain: chassis by the United Electric Co., motors by Straker & Squire Ltd. of London. These vehicles entered service in 1911. They were initially successful, but after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, it was impossible to get spare parts for them; this continued to be a problem even after the end of the war, and matters reached a point where the trams were almost unusable. The tramway’s operators were thus granted a charter to inaugurate a replacement bus service; which came about in 1920. A particular tramway scene with a remarkably brief life, of just nine years. It is pleasant to muse on the possibility of there still being around as this is written, a few nonagenarian-or-more inhabitants of Curaçao who in their childhood travelled on the metre-gauge petrol trams.

Notes and links:

In general, as always entering the name of the railway under Google Images will produce some gems and a lot of dross.

Haiti - see information available elsewhere on this site

Surinam - see information available elsewhere on this site.

Allen Morrison's site lists tramways all over Central and South America but the key pages for the purposes of this article are:

Rob Dickinson