Bermuda Railway FAQ
Many of my answers to these questions come from my book, The Bermuda Railway, which has been published by the National Museum of Bermuda Press. So if you want more detail, and this website isn’t enough for you, that is where to look (learn more).
Why were there no cars in Bermuda?
So why were there no cars in Bermuda? In one word: tourism.
Bermuda was small and conservative, and people were not keen on the idea of motor cars running up and down the colony’s narrow roads in any case, but it was the reaction of Bermuda's visitors that tipped the balance.
The rich Americans who came to Bermuda did so to get away from the bustle of the U.S. East Coast, where motorized traffic was becoming commonplace. They lamented the potential destruction of Bermuda’s special charm by automobiles, warning that if cars were allowed in to the “Isles of Rest”, visitors might have to find somewhere else to spend their winters.
In 1908, Mark Twain, a frequent and enthusiastic visitor, convinced another illustrious tourist, soon-to-be U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, to circulate a petition calling on the colonial government to ban the motor car and protect their island paradise. Read No Motors, Thank You! to find out more.
Encouraged by the petition, the Bermuda House of Assembly passed the Motor Car Act of 1908, which banned all private motor vehicles from the island. Banned they would remain until 1946.
The transportation problem remained, however.
Why did Bermuda build a railway in the first place?
The Bermudian elite didn’t want to lose the colony’s appeal to the Americans, hence the ban on motor vehicles passed in 1908. But the problem of transportation in Bermuda remained.
Some Bermudians wanted to rescind the motors ban and bring in motor buses, but others thought that a railway might fill the bill, making it possible to get from either end of the island to Hamilton in an hour rather than half a day. It wasn’t an easy decision, as Deciding to Build a Railway shows.
Where did the railway run?
The railway ran as a single-track main line from its eastern terminus at the old capital of St. George’s, along the north shore of the main island to Hamilton, Bermuda's capital and only city, and on through Paget, Warwick and Southampton parishes, to finally reach Somerset Island and its western terminus at Somerset Village. (The route is shown on the map that appears at the top of the Take a Trip on the Railway page.)
A possible extension of the railway beyond Somerset to the Royal Naval Dockyard on Ireland Island was never built, and while the idea was raised of extending the railway to Tucker’s Town, Elbow Beach, and into the centre of St. George’s, no such branch lines were ever added.
Essentially the railway’s cash-poor operations made any such extensions impractical.
Did the Bermuda Railway have steam engines?
People often think the railway must have been steam powered since it was built in the 1920’s. In fact, the railway company made the unusual choice of gasoline-powered engines. See the Rolling Stock page for details.
Bermuda has no natural sources of fresh water, other than rain collected on the roofs, so steam engines, with their high water requirements, would have been impractical. As well, during the debate over the railway, many people thought steam engines would be noisy and dirty. For a while the pro-railway forces were calling the proposed train a “bus on rails”, presumably because this sounded less disruptive.
They decided on gasoline-powered rather than diesel engines, because practical diesels only became available in the 1930s.
How did WWII affect the railway?
By the time World War II arrived, the railway was in difficult shape. It had never made a profit for its investors; at best its small operating profits were eaten up by maintenance costs. As well, its equipment was wearing out and spare parts were increasingly hard to get, as the gasoline-driven railcars and locomotives that had been state of the art in 1931 had since been surpassed by diesel-electrics. Once the war began spares were almost obtainable. The war also led to staff shortage as railway workers were called up to serve in the armed forces.
At the same time, however, the railway was more needed than ever before. Although the tourist trade had dried up, the construction of the American bases led to greatly increased railway traffic, both freight and passenger, so much so that the railway actually made money for two or three years. It purchased two diesel-electric locomotives from the United States to meet the demand, and by the end of the war they were pulling almost all the trains.
Once the bases were completed, though, traffic began to shrink to more traditional levels, leaving the railway in the same uneconomic situation. Worse, the line’s many wooden trestles were reaching the end of their practical life and would soon have to be rebuilt or replaced.
For more detail, see World War II on the Bermuda Railway.
What happened to the equipment after the railway closed?
In 1946 the Bermuda Government purchased the Bermuda Railway from the private company which owned it for £115,000. The decision to close the railway came two years later. In 1948 the government sold all the railway rolling stock and other equipment, right down to most of the rails and wooden sleepers, to the government of British Guiana (now Guyana), which ran that colony’s railway. The Bermuda Government received £86,000 for the railway equipment and material.
Unlike Bermuda, British Guiana had decided to renew their equally worn-out railway rather than close it down. Of course, British Guiana had a much longer history of railway operations; the first railway line there opened in 1848. The British Guiana Railway kept running until 1972.
If there were no cars, how did people get about?
Traditionally Bermudians had travelled by boat, by horse and carriage, and on foot, although starting in the 1890s the bicycle had quickly become Bermuda’s “modern transportation” of choice. Bermuda’s traditional transportation was part of its appeal to visitors and travelling around the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage was a tourist staple.
Who built the Railway?
After much debate, in 1924 Bermudians finally decided to build a railway to provide transportation in their island, but they were not too keen on paying for it. One of the appeals of the railway solution was that it would be financed by British investors, while motor buses — another possible option — would require the Bermuda government to spend a lot of money modernizing the existing coral stone roads
But while the Bermuda Railway Company was set up by act of the Bermuda legislature in 1924, it took several years to get the project off the ground because those hoped-for British investors were not fully convinced that a “Bermuda Railway” would make them any money.
It took until 1928 for Bermuda Traction – the railway company’s British owners – to raise the funds needed and to finally begin serious construction. The costs would keeping rising, and it would be the end of 1931 before the railway actually began operations.
Who worked on the railway?
The top administrative and engineering staff were brought in from Britain, while the operating staff was generally Bermudian. Over its 17 years of operation, the company had between 100 and 125 staff.
The general manager was Ronald Stemp, who came from an English railway family, the chief engineer was Harold Kitchen, also English, who had worked on mining railways in South America and then for the company that designed the Bermuda Railway rolling stock, and the company secretary was William Curtis.
Bermuda was a segregated society, and the office staff was all white. The operating and maintenance staff was a mix of white and black, but where some train drivers were black, all train conductors were white, until a staffing crisis in 1947 led the company to change the policy. This change resulted in the resignation of seven white conductors.
If you were a visitor to Bermuda between 1986 and 2015, and you came into Hamilton in the morning via Crow Lane roundabout, you probably saw Johnny Barnes at the side of the road, since he was there every morning welcoming his fellow Bermudians into the city. Mr. Barnes once worked as an electrician on the Bermuda Railway. He died in 2016, but grateful Bermudians have erected a statue of him at the spot where he greeted people.
You can find out more about him on Wikipedia.
What were the trains like?
The Bermuda Railway began with six motor coaches, each of which was designed to pull a single trailer coach. Essentially railcars, the motor coaches could be driven from either end, so when a train reached the end of the line, the motor coach would simply run around its companion coach and then pull it back the way it had come.
The coaches were all 1st class, and the motor coaches carried 16 1st-class and 24 2nd-class passengers. The lack of adequate 2nd-class seats led the railway to bring in six more, 2nd-class, coaches.
The railway also had two power freight vans, similar to the motor coaches but without seats and windows, and in 1932 two more powerful locomotives were added, since longer trains were needed.
In 1939, 15 trains a day made the 10-mile trip from Hamilton to St. George's, and 13 made the return trip back to Hamilton. Trains stopped at each of the line’s stations on the route, and the journey took almost an hour. The western route from Hamilton to Somerset saw about 10 trains a day in each direction, and it too took close to an hour.
For more detail see The Railway in Operation.
Why did the railway close?
The Bermuda Railway had always been in a difficult financial situation. Most years it had made a small operating profit, where its income was slightly greater than its running costs. But it had never been able to pay off any of the enormous construction debt it had carried since 1931. It had not even been able to put aside adequate funds to cover depreciation, the inevitable wearing out of its equipment, track and buildings.
By 1946 the more prosperous early war years were long past and the British owners sold out to the Bermuda government, essentially threatening to simply shut down Bermuda’s only public transportation if the government refused to buy.
At first the Bermuda government tried to continue running the railway, but it soon became clear that it would cost an enormous sum simply to get the line back into first-class shape. To the regret of many Bermudians, the decision was made to close down the railway and set up a public bus service instead.
For more detail, see Closing It Down.
Imagine the situation if Bermuda had kept the railway, running it today as a modern urban railway system like the ones found in an increasing number of cities around the world.
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