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Rail service is the answer
Posted: Wednesday, December 21, 2005

By George Alleyne,

It was an unfortunate error in judgment for an earlier Administration to have phased out the rail service and replaced it with a bus service. The buses, as the conventional taxis and the maxi taxis would later demonstrate, were poor substitutes for the mass lifting of commuters. The buses should have complemented the trains. Had the rail service not been in existence, then the buses would have been the answer, albeit temporarily, to the route taxis, whose increase in popularity had created uncomfortable problems of their own. When trains were withdrawn in 1968 no one in authority appeared to have understood that Trinidad and Tobago with its increasing production and export levels of crude and even with the emergence of the industrial estate at Point Lisas and natural gas would become the mini industrial giant it is today, attracting billions of dollars in international, regional and domestic investment. And with this the criss crossing of tens of thousands of workers on a daily basis. Add to this the introduction of free secondary education and the rise in dormitory towns which would add to the criss crossing nightmare.

The transport focus of officialdom was narrow, confining itself in 1968 to buses versus route taxis. But if as an expert on transport from the International Cooperation Administration [ICA], Guido Moss, who had been sent to Trinidad and Tobago, following a request from Government, had argued: "A low cost transportation system can not be built upon the use of a vehicle carrying as few as five persons", then, clearly, the retention, modernisation and expansion of the rail service with the ability of a single train to lift hundreds of commuters at a given time, should have been seen as the viable alternative. Of course, buses, as pointed out earlier, could have complemented the trains. For example, if a train could lift, say, 800 passengers, it would take 200 four-passenger, or 160 five-passenger route or conventional taxis to do the same job. In turn, it would require 66 of the later 12-seater maxis or 33 24-seaters. In addition, the train service could have been operated on the old rail bed with the minimum of disruption of road traffic, save at level crossings, and this would have been a relatively small inconvenience.

W. Andrew Rose, who had headed the Rose Commission of Inquiry on transport, had strongly recommended the limiting and zoning of conventional taxis, and although this was, in the somewhat narrow context of his brief, an argument for buses, nonetheless it was an argument that would have greater validity had it been for the retention of the rail service and a complementary bus service. Today, the country is faced with the obscenely unhealthy situation of massive traffic jams, excessive exhaust fumes, illegal speeding and overtaking on the shoulders of roads and otherwise dangerous overtaking when road traffic conditions and the law are against this. In addition, there is the uncomfortable ingredient of road traffic jams being a large contributory factor to a loss of productivity in both the work place and the classroom through late arrivals of employees and pupils. The loss, however, is not limited to the actual late coming or late arrivals, but includes the clear need of workers and pupils, who may be under stress, to unwind.

The classroom loss is multiplied should the teachers decide to go over the work already covered in an effort to accommodate the latecomers. This results in a slowing down of the progress of the affected classes. It is a terrible, terrible dilemma with which the teachers are faced. Perhaps I should state that the rationale for the train service, when it was introduced in 1874, was not the operation of a passenger service, for either pupil or worker, for that was considered secondary if not unimportant, but rather to serve the sugar industry through the hauling of sugar cane and the transporting of molasses, and later, increasingly, the oil industry. There was a bit of a lagniappe, however, through the facilitating of expatriates. The rail service in Trinidad was designed, initially, to benefit expatriate investor interests in sugar and has been pointed out, oil. The passengers, particularly those of the working class, were an afterthought.

The emphasis on expatriate investor interests in Trinidad, re the trains, had been no different in Kenya, Uganda, South and South-West Africa and India. "Colonial railroads", a German author, F. Balzer, would write in 1916, "are the principal means to achieve the economic and political goals of a rational colonial policy of the mother country." In addition, the Food and Agricultural Organisation [FAO] would state on Page 275 of its 1995 Report "World Agriculture Towards 2010: An FAO Study" "....during colonial periods the transport infrastructure was heavily skewed in favour of the colonial enclaves or to connect ports to mines, as massive railway building in the sparsely populated Africa was considered uneconomic." But I have strayed. I had headed the Public Relations Department of the Public Transport Service Corporation when the rail service was phased out on December 28, 1968. When Engine No. 42 pulled out of Port of Spain on its last return journey to San Juan there were many persons who, having turned up for the historic occasion, stood on the old railway platform singing "Auld Lang Syne". Eight years later, a road would be laid on the old railway bed to San Juan, heralding the start of the Priority Bus Route.

If the Government of the day, driven by the economics of the 1960s and an almost desperate need to rationalise expenditure, had closed down the former Trinidad Government Railways, at the time a subservient part of the Public Transport Service Corporation, then in today's context, not simply of a rapidly expanding economy, but the increasing need, dictated by globalisation, to be competitive in the domestic, regional and international market place, what is required is a reintroduction of rail as a crucial factor in the battle for increased productivity. And as stated earlier, both in the work place and the classroom, and road conditions aggravated by the country's almost 500,000 registered vehicles should not be allowed to be barriers to achieving this. Government's decision to reintroduce rail is to be saluted. On one hand the nation must be in a position to guarantee that its work force is not prevented from reaching factories, plants, offices and farms on time and home and leisure as early as possible after work because of traffic jams. The same thinking must apply to schoolchildren, many of whom are at the risk of being demotivated through constant late coming and the built in excuse, for laggards, of difficulty in obtaining transport. A Merry Christmas to all of my readers.

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