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Jamaican trains may never roll again

The Jamaica Observer: February 25, 2007

Highways and greater number of cars cast doubt on future of rail service.

Five years after investors - first the Indians, then the Chinese - submitted impressive plans to put Jamaica's moth-balled railway back on track, the country remains without a passenger rail service.

And it was beginning to appear at the weekend that the familiar dark and light blue locomotives of the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC), which excited school children as it drew into Balaclava and Catadupa stations, will no longer dot the rural landscape.

Both the Indians and the Chinese have blamed the Jamaican Government for foot-dragging, and officials at all the relevant state agencies skilfully ducked Sunday Observer efforts to determine what, if any, was the future of the rail service.

jrc railcar.jpg
A rotting Jamaica Railway Corporation locomotive sits on the company's track downtown Kingston.

Calls to the JRC general manager, Owen Crooks, were referred to the Ministry of Transport. Then the questions to Permanent Secretary Dr Alwin Hayles of the transport ministry were in turn referred to the director of policy, Valerie Simpson, from where the newspaper was pointed to the Development Bank of Jamaica, to no avail.

"They are the people doing the negotiations," was the dismissive response. In the midst of the uncertainty, knowledgeable Sunday Observer sources suggested two compelling reasons for the lack of interest the Government was showing in reviving the passenger rail service.

First, commuter trains stopped running in Jamaica 15 years ago and coaches now lay rotting at the downtown Kingston station, yet the Jamaica Railway Corporation is still making a nice profit.

The JRC earns approximately J$40 million per year - the bulk of it from mining companies through track user fees for the hauling of alumina and bauxite.

jrc kingston railway station.jpg
The Kingston Railway Station head office at Darling Street, West Kingston.

"The balance of its earnings are derived primarily from the rental of real estate and its three operable locomotives," Leo McEwan, communication officer at the transport ministry confirmed.

So profitable is the corporation that it has continued to pay a staff of 76, who were retained when the JRC ceased commuter operations in 1992.

The staff fulfills contractual obligations to users of the facilities - real estate tenants and bauxite companies - although the wage bill figure of $1.6 million given to the Sunday Observer appeared minuscule.

The staff members include artisans, train controllers, track staff, technicians, administrative workers, accountants, secretaries and auxiliary workers. Engineers are employed when the need arises.
"Right now, they are earning their own keep and are responsible for their own operations," McEwan insisted.

According to the ministry, expenditure of the JRC has to be kept within earning, as the Corporation does not receive a subvention from the Government of Jamaica budget.

The JRC, as at December 2006, had a book value excluding land holdings, of $178.48 million, according to Ministry of Transport figures.

Wages made up 42 per cent of its expenditure; maintenance and rental accounted for 18 per cent and security cost was 15 per cent. The remaining 25 per cent is broken down for travel and subsistence at eight per cent; motor vehicles, three per cent; utilities at six per cent; professional fees, three per cent; staff welfare, one per cent; records management, one per cent; and a miscellaneous cost of two per cent.

Moreover, railway stations across the island have not been maintained and the JRC, with a total of 215 miles of railway, shares the maintenance of 59 miles of the operational lines with the bauxite companies. Lines not used for hauling bauxite ore are left unattended for the most part.

The ministry declined to reveal the exact amount that the JRC earned from the various bauxite companies for the use of its railway lines, saying that track user agreements between the JRC and individual bauxite companies were "confidential between the parties".

The Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI), the agency charged with overseeing activities in the bauxite industry, also refused to divulge any amount paid by bauxite companies to the JRC for the use of railway lines.

"These questions should be addressed to the Railway Corporation," the JBI said in an e-mail response.
The second reason for the Government's laissez faire attitude, one economist suggested, was uncertainty surrounding the viability of a commuter railway system, given the radical change in the transportation landscape since the closure of the JRC passenger service 15 years ago.

"The Highway 2000 project has made road travel more convenient and quicker, at least from Kingston to May Pen," the source said. "Additionally, with the advent of a new motor vehicle policy in 1997, the motor-car population has grown tremendously, reducing reliance on the public transportation system." Cargo transport, it is argued, is where the JRC could play a more significant role, both along the existing route, and with additional lines along the north coast.

The JRC, established under the Jamaica Railway Corporation Act, remains a corporate body and can transact rail-related business other than transporting passengers and cargo. It has the power to purchase, hold and dispose of land and other property of whatever kind for the purposes of this Act.

With complaints mounting about the poor public passenger transport system, the Government, in 1999, began talks with overseas investors regarding the privatisation of the JRC, starting with an India-based rail company.

The National Investment Bank of Jamaica (NIBJ), in January 2002, announced that negotiations with Rail India and Economic Services (RITES) were completed and work would begin soon.

But one year later, in 2003, India's top diplomat in Kingston suggested that the Jamaican Government was dragging its feet on the proposed joint venture.

Transport Minister Robert Pickersgill fired back, pointing the finger at the Indian consortium for the long stalemate, indicating that they were demanding far more than Jamaica was prepared to give.

In 2005, the Government, having apparently given up on the Indians, again signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the operation of the railway, this time with the Chinese.

The Chinese are now echoing the cry of the Indians, saying that the Jamaican Government is delaying the project that could see rail movement of cargo and passengers resumed in the island.

"People should be given the choice of the highway and railway. Some people don't like to drive long distances and some people don't have cars," the Chinese ambassador was quoted as saying in an Observer report late last year.