REMINISCING: Retired station master Monteith Saunders looks at a book titled Railways of the Caribbean depicting a photograph of a steam locomotive.

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The last of the railwaymen

...On duty as final train rolled

By Richard Charan richard.charan@trinidadexpress.com

THERE was a man working out of the Port of Port of Spain back in the 70s, whose job it was to take a boat out to the massive cargo ships anchored in the deep, in order to sign in the seamen arriving from every part of the world. 

If the sea was rough, it would take Monteith Saunders a nauseating hour to get to the vessels. He would have to time the swells, throw himself on to the rope ladder and climb aboard, to check documents and flags, and resolve criminal matters and pay disputes.

Saunders retired from the post in 1974 at the age of 60, with a secret unknown to all except those closest to him. Until now.

It turns out that long before he ended up in that maritime job, Saunders was one of the highest-ranking employees in the Trinidad Government Railway (TGR) which, for close to 100 years, was the island’s most important means of transportation, carrying cargo, and far more people and produce than the coastal steamers.

In the quarter-century he worked the rails, Saunders held almost every position in the TGR and worked in every train station in the system that was more than 170 kilometres at its height.

He moved from the lowest position at the TGR to the one of the most senior — that of station master. The trains he travelled and the terminal buildings he oversaw are all but gone, save for some crumbling concrete and brick work, and that engine rusting away at the Harris Promenade, San Fernando. But the memory of what he saw during his career is alive in the memory. A memory so sharp that Saunders remembers every date and incident, and the emotions he felt as the Government began closing the lines and stations one by one, until there were none.

Saunders, who is nearing his 90th birthday, ended up retiring in Marabella, his home a street away from the railway terminal where the tracks from Princes Town and Port of Spain converged, on the way to San Fernando and places further south. 

And it is here, looking through a file of TGR documents and photographs chronicling his life, that Saunders told his story. 

St Vincent Street, San Fernando, was the place of his birth — September 16, 1924. He had two sisters. One is still alive. They attended the Wesleyan Methodist School at Harris Promenade. At age 16, Saunders said he was on his way to becoming a teacher, having successfully passed the first of three exams. But in the Easter of 1941, “on a whim”, he decided to apply to the TGR and to an oil company in what was then the oil boom town of Fyzabad. There were no vacancies in the oilfield, but the TGR sent a letter containing a train pass and an invitation to an interview in Port of Spain. Saunders did not hesitate. The next time he heard from them was by letter appointing him to the Penal train station located along the San Francique Road. The date – May 16, 1941. He took up duties as an “unqualified student” and learned quickly, promoted to “qualified student” within a year, having passed the Telegraphic examination, a necessary skill since this was the way messages were transmitted along the lines (telephones were few and unreliable, said Saunders). Back then the railway reached all the way to Siparia, the line travelling along an embankment through the Oropouche Lagoon not far from the disputed route of the highway that may connect Debe to Penal. The fare from San Fernando to Penal then was ten cents. In 1942, he was posted to the Caroni station.

“We had to get there by 5.30 a.m. before the first train rolled and went to sleep after the last train left, except at crop time when the trains were going all through the night. But most times my work was done by about half six in the evening, when that train coming from Siparia passed our station on the way to Port of Spain. It stopped at every halt and station, taking about three hours for the entire trip”.

The following year, Saunders was promoted to goods clerk, and assigned to the San Fernando terminal. 

“It was the height of World War II and almost everything was moving by rail, rice, flour, mail, equipment. The goods train brought the cargo from the Port of Spain port, and discharged it in San Fernando and from there we had an ancillary service, a fleet of TGR lorries, that would take it around the county, all the way to Icacos. That was when the Americans were also operating their own locomotives. They brought in their own crew and wagons and engines, to carry equipment to the base in Wallerfield. They left everything for us after the war”.

In 1945, Saunders was given the job of bookings clerk, selling tickets out of that San Fernando Railway Station, the ruins of which are still there. 

“It is heart-rending to see that building now. Back then it was the hub, the terminal for the Princes Town train and as important as the stations in Port of Spain, St Joseph and Jerningham Junction, and the station master was an important person in the community”.

In 1948, he was transferred to the Siparia station and the following year became the assistant station master at the Williamsville station located along the rail line to Princes Town. He moved on to train clerk at the Princes Town station, and stayed there until it closed (the exact date of closure to passenger traffic was April 1, 1953 and goods traffic went on June 8, 1953, according to historian/researcher Glen Beadon). 

Saunders said, “I was there the day it closed. They say the route was not profitable. I remained there for a few months afterwards until all the TGR equipment was secured and removed. I then returned to San Fernando as the chief bookings clerk”.

Saunders said that was when he was appointed as station master, and returned to Penal, where he first began his career. By then, the TGR was only operating a train to transport schoolchildren from Siparia to San Fernando and back. He was there when the San Fernando to Siparia line, as well as the Sangre Grade line, was closed in 1953. 

Saunders would work at the Cunupia station until 1959 before returning to San Fernando as an assistant station master and stayed until that final train arrived there on August 30, 1965, remaining on duty in the building as the assets of the company were dismantled, leaving only the Arima to Port of Spain line still open.

Saunders said that at one point in his career, he had the duty of relieving the station master, and as a result, worked in every single station in the TGR system.

“It was an onerous thing, you see, because you would leave home and not see it for days, moving by train from one station to another to take up duties”.

Following a stint at the San Juan station, Saunders ended up a relief for the station master in Port of Spain.

“And that is when the end of the railway caught me (on December 28, 1968). I was the one who receive the last train. It was no shock. We knew it was coming. Some of my friends and associates had already left or accepted transfers to the government service. But as before, I remained on duty (along with a couple administrative clerks) for several months as the train went out to bring in all the equipment.  I was told to report to a government ministry after I took my vacation. And that is how I ended up as a Clerk III in the Harbour Masters Division in 1969, and promoted to assistant shipping master in 1972”. The assets of the TGR were absorbed into the newly created Public Transport Service Corporation).

Saunders is the father of ten, (eight children with wife Cilma who died in 1974 at age 44). At last count, he said, he was the grandfather of 50, great-grandfather of 50, and the great-great-grandfather of one. “I never married. I lived for my children. I have had a remarkable life and two careers, but the railway, I loved it” he said. “And I am fortunate to still be able to do things on my own. So tell them there are a few of us railway men still around. And we have a story to tell”.

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