AMONG the images that will be part of this Government’s permanent record, are those of human barricades, a hunger strike and confrontations between police and people refusing to leave ancestral land and homes located along the route chosen to extend the Solomon Hochoy Highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin.
The State used the compulsory Land Acquisition Act to effectively order that property owners accept relocation, in exchange for fair compensation that not everyone wanted. The matter involving the disputed planned highway span between Debe and Mon Desir is now a convoluted court case.
Many may not know this, but a good hundred years ago there was a similar mega project of equal or greater importance to the development of Trinidad. And this also necessitated the State having to acquire private property. The project involved the building of the Trinidad Government Railway (TGR) track to link San Fernando with Siparia, with parts of the track laid down on a man-made embankment through the very lagoon that the Highway Re-Route Movement believes will be hydrologically affected, and ruin the wetlands.
Railway researcher/collector Glen Beadon, who has amassed what is possibly the most detailed record of the TGR, the Caroni rail system, and the tramways which preceded both, said the construction of the line between San Fernando and Siparia was the final chapter in the story of the Cipero Tramway, which was dissolved through the issuing of Ordinance No. 31 of 1912. The Cipero Line had to be acquired by the government in order to link San Fernando to Golconda and onwards to Debe, Penal and Siparia. Beadon shared some of his research with the Express.
The story of the Siparia railway is closely linked to the development of Trinidad’s oil industry in the early part of the 20th century.
In 1910, Horace Richard Marwood, general manager & chief resident engineer of the TGR, made his way to England to discuss plans and estimates with the consulting engineers. The estimates for the cost of construction already approved by the Legislative Council were in the order of £141,891.
Construction of the new railway began in 1912, commencing at a point on the TGR, 250-feet or thereabout, measured in a south-westerly direction from the south-western corner of the San Fernando station building (at Kings Wharf). On the 14th November 1913 the new Siparia line from San Fernando was opened for public traffic. Siparia was 51 miles from Port of Spain. The first TGR passenger trains called at a temporary station on Coora Road.
The final station, which was to become Siparia Station, did not open until the following year in 1914. San Fernando to Siparia was a distance of 16 1/4 miles. Trains ran three times a day to Siparia from Port of Spain. Monday through Saturday, at 6.36 a.m., noon and 5.04 p.m. and from Siparia to Port of Spain at 5.01a.m., 10.42 a.m. and 3.40 p.m. There were two trains in both directions on Sundays.
Trinidad’s railways were prosperous in the early years but began running into financial difficulties in the period leading up to 1920 when the TGR lost money for the first time.
World War II saw a brief revival of fortunes with increased traffic on the railway and corresponding improvement of receipts. However, this was short lived. Motor vehicle usage on the island was increasing and took more and more of the transportation market share away from the railway, forcing a permanent decline. Despite efforts to arrest this by successive administrations, by 1950 the railway was in serious trouble once again.
On the 12 March 1953 came first closure announcements on the Arima to Sangre Grande, San Fernando to Princes Town and San Fernando to Siparia lines. All of these lines were to lose their passenger services. In a twist of fate, the Siparia line was to hold on to its goods services, presumably in order to service the now booming oil industry. In the 1950s the road system in Trinidad was not yet suitable for the transportation of heavy refinery equipment and drilling oilfield apparatus and reliance for this was placed on rail.
During the course of its life the line brought many people to Siparia from all points of the railway network particularly during the yearly festival of La Divina Pastora when many extra trains, known as “Specials”, were put on in order to accommodate the high volume of traffic.
This practice continued for a number of years following the withdrawal of passenger trains to Siparia in 1953. After 1953 the railway soldiered on as a goods line with a sporadic goods service. There was a brief resumption of a passenger service of sorts. In 1964, the authorities in Siparia petitioned for the need to provide transportation for schoolchildren to and from San Fernando. This service only lasted a very short time. The Siparia line closed forever, along with the Southern main line and the Rio Claro line, on 30 August 1965. This, however, was not the end of the story for a very small section of the original railway between Golconda and Debe Junction.
This piece of the TGR, just over half a mile in length, was taken over by the sugar industry for its own railway traffic, and continued in service for another 33 years until 1998. The point which marked the beginning of the original Siparia Railway could have been preserved only a few years ago. Sadly it was lost shortly before the sugar industry in Trinidad folded in 2005.
Siparia railway station on the other hand still stands today. Like so many other surviving relics of Trinidad’s late railway system, it was not the authorities that saved the buildings but members of the local community. The Siparia Deltones steelband moved onto the compound in 1971 and has kept the old railway station in a satisfactory state of repair. Sadly all traces of the railway lines and locomotive turntable have disappeared but the railway cottages survive as does the old goods warehouse, out of which the band makes its music.
Note: Readers can look forward to more articles regarding Trinidad’s railway system, as researched by Glen Beadon