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World War II on the Bermuda Railway

For the Bermuda Railway, the immediate effect of the war was a substantial drop in traffic, as passenger numbers fell with the collapse of tourism. Freight traffic also dropped, though not by as much. As the war continued, however, both passenger and freight traffic grew substantially, and the railway more than proved its worth.
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Sailors standing alongside a railway motor coach on Front Street
Britain had long maintained a major naval base in Bermuda, the Royal Naval Dockyard on Ireland Island in the West End. The war meant greatly increased use both for Dockyard and for the British Army barracks at Prospect, near Hamilton. Large numbers of soldiers and sailors, either in transit or off-duty, made regular use of the trains.

Traffic continued to increase after Britain signed the “destroyers for bases” agreement with the United States. Britain leased land to the Americans for use as military bases in British territory from Newfoundland to the Caribbean, and in return received 50 World War I-vintage destroyers and other military equipment. In Bermuda, the new American bases included Kindley Air Field near St. George’s and the U.S. Naval Annex in Southampton, both opened in April 1941. Kindley provided Bermuda’s first airfield, and both bases were largely built on land reclaimed from the sea.

Not only did the numbers of military personnel using the railway grow yet again, but base construction meant large quantities of freight had to be moved to the base sites from the Hamilton docks. It was necessary to purchase two new diesel locomotives, built from new and used parts, from the United States in 1942 and 1943. By the end of the war the diesels were handling the great majority of Bermuda Railway traffic.

Stretched to the Limit

Before the War began, the railway had been having great difficulty keeping up with the cost of maintenance and repair. The increased wartime traffic simply made the situation worse, especially since wartime conditions made it virtually impossible to obtain needed supplies from England or America. To top things off, the railway’s labour force had been severely depleted by wartime service, and the engineering and maintenance departments could barely keep up.

Increased Traffic, but No Increased Profit

Despite the massive traffic increases (in 1945 the railway carried a record 1.5 million passengers) financially the Bermuda Railway still could not manage to break even, as running costs continued to outstrip revenues. It became increasingly less possible to undertake the major rebuilding and renovation projects that were badly needed.
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Automobiles in Hamilton meant future competition
Within the first two years of the War, for example, it had become apparent that significant deterioration had occurred in the timbers of the railway’s many bridge and trestles. This problem would come back to haunt the company once the conflict was over.

Another wartime development had implications for the future of the railway. To aid the war effort, Bermuda's severe restrictions on motorized traffic were greatly reduced. Official automobiles, trucks and other vehicles became increasingly common on the Island’s roads.

By the time the war was over, it was clear that the Bermuda Railway could not continue as it was. The question was: what to do?
In the end, neither the Railway Company nor the Bermuda Government could think of anything other than Closing It Down.