FINAL RUN: The locomotive at Harris Promenade, San Fernando, TGR No 11, may have been the one that took passengers on a final run in 1965. –Photos: DEXTER PHILIP
Last train to Rio Claro
August 30, 1965:
Richard Charan Multimedia Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
On Christmas Eve 2011, William Edwards died at San Fernando General Hospital, three days after falling ill. He was 87 years old and had outlived his wife, only child and every sibling.
Edwards, who lived alone in his later years, was considered by some as a recluse, so his passing was unknown to many in his village of Brothers, Tabaquite. A small circle of family and friends attended the funeral at Belgroves Crematorium to send him off.
But a peculiar thing happened in the weeks following. As news began trickling through the village that he had died, the memories were stirred, and “Eddie” was alive again in the mind’s eye, leaning out the open window of a locomotive, sounding the steam whistle, calling out to neighbours as his engine pulled the carriages carrying people, produce and cargo along the train line linking Rio Claro to the rest of the island.
It turns out that Edwards, who found employment as a boiler man at Trinidad Government Railway (TGR) on June 30, 1942, had worked his way up to being an engine driver.
He was in charge of one of the fleet of engines that travelled a system extending between Port of Spain and as far as Siparia (along an embankment through the now Highway Re-Route Movement-disputed South Oropouche lagoon) and Sangre Grande, with a circuitous route to Princes Town.
By the time his employer (then the Public Transport Service Corporation) made him redundant and sent Eddie home on October 25, 1966, he was a man with a skill no one needed.
He would later find employment as a wardsman at the hospital where he would die.
But for the citizens who used the line between Jerningham Junction and the stops at Longdenville, Todd’s Road, Caparo, Brasso, Tabaquite, Brothers and San Pedro and Rio Claro, Eddie would always be remembered as the man who drove the train to Rio Claro the last day it ever carried passengers--August 30, 1965 (the same day of the celebrated “Last Train to San Fernando” from Port of Spain).
The Express spent several days following the path of the railway out of Rio Claro to discover that, two generations after the end of the rail, many still have vivid memories and unresolved complaints.
Some blame the economic and infrastructural decline over the decades to the State’s decision to replace the railway with buses (a decline only now being reversed, unknown to most, through major road, water, drainage, and utility projects).
People wanted to know why no one had thought to preserve the TGR buildings, and signal boxes, road crossings and platforms.
The people of Dades Trace, where a building still exists, asked why no one had maintained the impressive homes of the station masters--Coudray, Villafana, McAllister, Mitchell, Superville, McIntosh--who were of significant social standing.
Does anyone know how important this rail line was back then? asked 78-year-old Lucy Ashby.
It was either the train or footing it out of her village of cocoa plantation workers. Now the only evidence of its existence, said Ashby, were the concrete and steel bridge crossings too difficult for scrap dealers to steal.
Her sister, Angela Charles, 76, who paid four cents to travel by train into Rio Claro to see Carnival in the 50s, said she often wondered what would have become of her life, if the train, which allowed travel into the capital, had continued operating.
When the Express spoke with Khairoon Shah last year, she was 88 years old but remembered, as a newlywed, walking the kilometre or so to Brothers Station as far back as 1942, to catch the train to visit her family, in Libertville.
“That engine was loud and you knew it was coming from the long trail of black smoke from the chimney. One headed up to Rio Claro for 9 a.m., passing back at 11 o’clock. Another went up at 2 p.m. and back down at four. And the train was always there on the exact time, bringing people and mail, bread, ice, carrying back cocoa and coffee and sugarcane. So you had to be there or you lose out,” she said.
Shah said on the final day the passenger train rolled, “Edwards was the one who drove it from Jerningham. They gave a free ride and we rode all day and in the night.”
Her son, Khairoon Shah, 66, said he, too, as a teenager, understood something big and sad was happening that day, when the seven cent fare from Brothers Station to Rio Claro was waived.
“They never should have scrapped it. The village felt connected then. When it stopped running, it killed this area,” he said.
As a result of a series of fortunate events, one of the most substantial Trinidad Government Railway properties still exists where the Brothers Station stood.
The family of the ticket master remained occupants of the building when the train service ended and, on January 13, 1975, it was acquired by Stephen Subero, himself a lifetime worker with the railway.
The building, likely used by the station master, comprises a living area, three bedrooms, and a detached kitchen, which prevented the entire house from going up in flames in the event of a fire there. The outhouse is also still there, along with two concrete cisterns to supply the property, locomotive and passengers of the time.
Subero, 77, who raised ten children in that building, recalled when the carriages pulled up and villagers came with their bull and donkey-drawn carts to collect the items they had purchased from “town”.
“Let nobody fool you, nothing about the rail was easy. My father (Henry Ayers) had the job of checking the line (all 13 or so kilometres) from here to Rio Claro before 6 a.m., to make sure no big tree fall across. Only when he say so, the train would run,” he said.
Despite a hard life, Subero said he recognised early that the building in which he made a life was different.
“People from all over Trinidad have come here to ask questions about the train and take photographs. I never had photos because back then it was survival. I walked barefoot for the first 36 years old my life. But these people who come here want to learn about the railway. They amazed this place still here. So as long as I am alive, I will take care of it.”
Subero, who can trace his family back to Venezuela, then declared that he was the former bandleader of the Naya Dangeet Orchestra of Brothers Road and sang an Indian classical composition.
The Express found some of Eddie’s relatives at Pleasantville, San Fernando, last week.
They remembered a proud man with a photographic memory. He was also a stick fighter, cricketer, had a passport but never left Trinidad, and got a driver’s permit but never owned a car.
What he loved most, they said, was telling stories about his time as a railway man and it is disappointing that his knowledge never became part of the public record.
Curiously, many who knew Edwards said it was TGR Engine No 11 that he drove that final day on the Rio Claro line, but no one the Express spoke with is certain of this.
If true, Edwards, who spent his later years working at San Fernando General Hospital, would have passed by Engine No 11 every time he went to work. After being decommissioned, the No 11 was put on display at Harris Promenade, where it still is today. Edwards would know the truth.
Editor’s note: If you want to know more about the railway system in Trinidad, you can visit Facebook pages of researchers Wayne Abraham and Glen Beadon and the VirtualMuseum Oftrinidadandtobago Facebook page of researcher/historian Angelo Bissessarsingh.
The Rio Claro railway line was completed in 1916, with the facility located on what is now the compound of the Ministry of Works. Its construction was a massive engineering feat, with Trinidad Government Railway laying down 30 miles of line between Jerningham Junction, Cunupia and Rio Claro, and finding a way past the landmass in Tabaquite by tunnelling through it (Knolly’s Tunnel opened in August 1898). One of the train stops serviced the TCO Refinery and the end of the line was Poole Village, since Rio Claro back then was no more than a collection of huts surrounded by cocoa and coffee estates. The town’s government rest house was the only colonial facility, with the police station, court and post office located in Mayaro. The rail is the reason Rio Claro developed. While 1965 is the end of passenger service to Rio Claro, the train operated for several more years, before the lines closed in December 1968.