Henry rails Government over train service

Sunday, January 03, 2016

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Mike Henry has accused the Government of abandoning the plan for a multi-modal transportation system that he had developed while in office, suggesting that had there been follow-through after his party lost the December 2011 General Election, the country would now be on a growth path.

Henry, the Opposition spokesman on transport and works, was responding to a report in the December 13 edition of the
Sunday Observer in which Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC) Chairman Joseph A Matalon said that the corporation was looking to revive routes from Montego Bay to Kingston in a push to re-enter the tourism sector.

Matalon, who said the JRC’s enterprise team hopes to make recommendations to the Cabinet early January, stated that there were two plans being considered: Plan A "to divest the entire corporation"; and Plan B, the "break-up strategy".

Pointing out that trains had previously transported tourists from Montego Bay to Appleton Estate, Matalon estimated that the current lines could facilitate four such trips daily.

"There are a number of stops along [the route]… there are some caves for people who like to visit caves," he said, adding that the plan includes reinstating the dormant handcraft post along the route. The post, he suggested, should become a standalone, self-sustaining entity.

"We have done the business plan and that (handcraft) is very viable," Matalon told guests at the launch of the space art initiative in downtown Kingston on December 5.

But Henry, in his response, said that what he read was "only the tip of the iceberg of the plans" he left in office.

Here is the full text of his letter to the editor.

Dear Editor,

I read with great interest, the article in the Sunday Observer of December 13, regarding the purported restoration of the passenger rail service, which sounded like an echo of promises before, but with little understanding or explanation of why we are not implementing or pursuing a policy of a complete growth plan for the transport service of road, rail, sea and air as a critical factor in the growth path for the country.

What I read in theObserver was only the tip of the iceberg of the plans I left in place at the Ministry of Transport and Works in 2011. So are we now hearing about rail service revival, especially with a general election approaching? This comes from the People’s National Party (PNP) who have never demonstrated the will to go beyond the rhetoric and who have repeatedly closed down the railway. Who will we believe?

Having held a watching brief for years in Opposition and seen the abandonment and abuse of the rail service assets under successive PNP Administrations, and knowing the importance of the railway to our national economic growth, I specifically factored in the saving of this valuable ‘spoke’ in a multi-modal wheel (hub) of an economic growth plan to connect road, rail, sea and air transportation across the island.

This coincided with the new era of the fast trains, and so, rather than allow the local railway to die and be plundered, especially in the dying era of the local bauxite industry, I set out to restore the rail in phases along the routes being used or more recently used by the bauxite companies.

One will appreciate and recall my interim restoration of passenger rail service, between Spanish Town and Linstead in St Catherine during the last Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Administration, with plans to reinstate the broader rail service in phases – Gregory Park in Portmore to Frankfield, Clarendon via Spanish Town, Old Harbour and May Pen, then Kingston to Montego Bay, with the traditional stops along the way (and this without any call on the central budget).

Indeed, we restarted the Spanish Town to Linstead service for passengers, including schoolchildren, with plans to build out the service with cargo transfer at a later stage. Having been long shut down by the PNP, we also reintroduced the rail service to the annual Denbigh Show in May Pen using the restored Clarendon Express coaches, and would, in phase two, have expanded the Clarendon Heritage and Environment Tour.

All of this was to preserve and recover the plundered assets of right of way, and to save and obtain income from railway scrap metal of rail lines and bridges across the countryside. The 2007 JLP Administration began the process of tracking down the misuse of land (the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC) is the largest owner of land in Jamaica), and so account for the plundering of railway-owned lands by both the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.

During this process, a social intervention team would have been put in place by 2012, which would be charged to balance the social issues by utilising areas of these lands for a mix of socially integrated housing and shopping malls. One such area was to be the land surrounding the Spanish Town railway station, which is ripe for development as an integrated heritage-type investment of a railway museum linked to the historical town itself, with high-rise apartments tied to job creation in the heritage industry.

Indeed, an economic zone would be created for that area, incorporating traditional craft, and the vision is endless.

Imagine, a Spanish Town Free Zone through reclaiming historical houses, like my family home in the town, which a few hundred years old and which housed, at various times, the first Jewish Rabbi and the first Roman Catholic Archbishop of Jamaica, and which I would certainly offer free to start the process.

Couple that with a social intervention plan (indeed, Singapore had to train people to live in high-rise complexes) and thus, by now, 2015, would have begun to blossom into reality, and it could also draw on the dormitory of skills residing in Portmore.

The timeliness of tying this kind of development to part of the settlement of reparation from the British Government is part of the vision, obviously in a debt-for-equity swap.

This development plan was for both passenger and cargo, while, at the same time, also to begin heritage/visitor tours, including a rum tour riding the oldest train service in this hemisphere for which a PPP proposal was left on the table.

This would all involve enjoying the scenic tour on the earliest recognised engineering feat of rail connection, the JRC, which was once described as the 11th wonder of the world, over and through mountains, along coast lines, and connecting with all our major ports.

And, indeed, why not ultimately offering a Kingston to various parts of Jamaica tour package on routes called ‘Jamaica’s Orient Express’? To enhance the national multi-modal growth agenda, there is the very important sea to road to rail cargo element of the rail service. This would involve connectivity to air, allowing for movement of global cargo from Kingston’s port to Vernamfield in one seamless movement, then expand the passenger hub via the same Vernamfield through the ‘Open Skies’ policy of flying from the Far East to Africa and the Middle East connecting to South America and Europe via Jamaica.

Indeed, much of the necessary infrastructure is there to get the rail service back on track, and it takes only a maximum of a year to restart operations as I showed back then.

This was part of the plan I left in the ministry and presented to the country in the 2009-2015 multi-modal plan, which should have been implemented if the country’s interests came before partisan interests.

By now, with the timelines that were left, and investment proposals which were on the table, the rail service should have been all but fully restored.

One such agreement for a partnership between the Port Authority of Jamaica and private sector interests included:

A) Building an MRO service and cargo service at Vernamfield with an aerospace college.

B) Finalise with Herzog (a US rail company) the private investment in the rail service of some US$500 million.

C) Completing the dredging of Kingston Harbour for the Kingston Container Terminal by an investment structure of shareholding; and the build-out of the Fort Augusta section of the port.

D) Building out a national airport connectivity strategy to serve the Caribbean by upgrading the final stages of the Ian Fleming Airport at Boscobel.

All of these plans and arrangements have been left to lie fallow as the Government has done nothing to move them to finality, this after some four years in office.

As we await the coming election, I give the assurance that there will be no delay in removing the barriers of inefficiency and inability to grasp what Jamaica needs for economic growth to start, and for us to succeed in the era of the fast trains, boats and planes, and lift the economy from the struggle for survival to prosperity building with real economic growth.




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