What Once Was...

What Once Was...

Sunday, March 29, 2020

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“It's all broken,” the child said to his mother. And right he was, as there is very little that remains intact and functional at the once bustling Kingston railway terminus on Pechon Street in downtown Kingston. The occasion was a recent guided tour, facilitated by Kingston Creative, and guided by the Jamaican architect Patrick Stanigar. It was my second visit to the station (the first one was many years ago) and my most comprehensive to date, as I was able to visit the freight section, which I had not seen before. There is still a functional, air-conditioned office in the main building and a fair amount of staff, including a resident caretaker. Like most of the visitors present, I was however shocked at the deterioration, which is taking parts of the complex to the point where rehabilitation may become very costly and even impossible.

The history of Jamaica's railway system starts in 1845, with the inauguration of the Kingston terminus and the first part of the Western Jamaica Connecting Railway, from Kingston to Angels in St Catherine, a 14.5-mile track. It was among the earliest such ventures in the Western Hemisphere, along with the railway system in Guyana, which opened a year later. Initially, the main impetus to introduce trains to Jamaica was the modernisation of the sugarcane industry, in the wake of Emancipation, and it was driven by the economic interests of the plantocracy rather than the transport needs of the common person. The railway system was steadily expanded during the 19th century, and gradually became focused on passenger transport as well as freight. By 1895, it was possible to travel from Kingston to Montego Bay by train. This opened up previously inaccessible parts of the island and allowed for efficient and affordable travel between the country's cities, towns, and other centres of economic activity. Trains also played a major role in the inland postal service and in getting produce from the country to the urban markets.

With the start of bauxite mining in the 1940s, the train system was further expanded and acquired an additional role, the transport of bauxite and alumina to the ports, and of the chemicals used to process the bauxite, to the plants. What is left of Jamaica's railway system still fulfils that function today. Lack of maintenance and investment, and the impact of several major hurricanes, however caused Jamaica's railway infrastructure to deteriorate and the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC), which had been established as a government corporation in 1960, began to accrue major losses. Several trajectories stopped operating and public railway transport ceased in 1992, save for a brief revival of the May Pen to Linstead line 2011-2012.

The vision and mission statement of the Jamaica Railway Corporation board reads as follows:

Restore.............. Modernise............ Expand............

To recommence a safe, reliable and affordable freight and passenger rail service throughout Jamaica, to synchronise with other modes of transportation, with emphasis on the cost effective movement, while meeting the needs of the JRC, its customers and stakeholders in an environmentally friendly atmosphere, always striving to develop the communities served.

At least there is hope, it appears, but it is hard not to be cynical. While we toured the train station, a fellow visitor spotted a water-damaged file folder which had been casually left among the debris in the freight terminal. Its header was “Rehab Plan” and the folder appeared to date from 1989, when the passenger train system was on its last legs. The folder says it all in a way, as there have been many such plans since then, none of which have thus far come to fruition

Trains have played an important role in Jamaican society and culture, and were an integral part of daily life in many parts of the country, crucially including the culturally generative neighborhood of Western Kingston. Not only did trains open up the previously isolated country-side, which no doubt contributed to the rural to urban migration that helped to produce modern Jamaica, and modern Kingston, but they appealed to the popular imagination as sites of social and cultural transformation. Bob Marley's Zion Train of course comes to mind and there is a theory, related to me by the director/curator of the Jamaca Music Museum, Herbie Miller, that the reggae rhythm echoes the rhythm of the train engine. A whole culture had developed around the trains, including the preachers who frequented the passenger wagons and harangued their captive audiences with loud exhortations about doom and redemption. And trains were also used in the tourism sector, with the now also defunct Appleton Express, which took tourists from Montego Bay to the rum factory of Appleton in St Elizabeth, along a scenic route through the Cockpit Country.

The social terrain Jamaica's public transport system navigates has always been fraught with tension and even violence, and the train system was no exception. Jamaica was the site of a major train accident, the infamous Kendal Crash in 1957, when a train derailed while descending a steep hill, killing about 200 persons and injuring about 700 more. It is said that the train had been sabotaged by pick-pockets who tried to take advantage of the overcrowded conditions. By the time I moved to Jamaica in 1984, the trains to Montego Bay were still running and many commuters who lived in the rapidly growing dormitory communities around Spanish Town, including several of my early colleagues at the National Gallery of Jamaica, took the train from Kingston to Spanish Town on a daily basis — it is just a very short walk from the National Gallery to the Kingston station. Regular minor accidents and disruptions had become the norm by then, with frequent low-speed derailments, and the trajectory took its passengers through some of the most troubled areas of the city, which added other experiences. I remember vividly how one of my colleagues arrived at work one day, deeply shaken by an incident he had witnessed along the way: the aftermath of the mob killing and burning of a man, with children who were dancing and chanting around his charred corpse.

There is however a strong public attachment to the memory of Jamaica's trains, as the massive turnout to last month's tour well illustrated, and this goes beyond the sentimental, as many of those in attendance expressed quite well-considered views on how and why the train system should be revived. Professional and amateur photographers had a field day, and strayed all over the place, giving our valiant tour guide the unenviable task of having to herd the proverbial cats, and many of the photographs taken have since made it to the social media of Kingston Creative.

While touring the site, we encountered the evidence of several past corporate events and photo-shoots, for the station is undeniably a photogenic and resonant site. The station has also been a major subject for the Jamaican painter Michael Elliott in the mid-2000s. There is, however, also something deeply uncomfortable about the manner in which such dereliction is increasingly used as the “couleur locale” backdrop in Jamaican fashion, music and consumer culture. To see train wagons with the inscription “Happiness Express” in the midst of all this decay is perhaps more irony than we need right now. It is problematic when infrastructural and social “brokenness” are romanticised and co-opted as grungy “urban chic” and “ghetto vibe,” and a serious critical discussion on this troubling dynamic is long overdue as part of a broader conversation on gentrification. I would rather see a shift in focus to how such sites can be redeveloped in useful, meaningful and imaginative ways for the greater good, to which such corporate initiatives could in fact contribute.

There is no doubt in my mind that Kingston, and the rest of Jamaica, would really benefit from a redeveloped and efficient train system. Trains are an environmentally sensible alternative to cars and buses, and anybody who spends any time in the daily traffic chaos and congestion in Kingston and between Kingston and St Catherine, despite the recent road improvements, knows that things cannot continue like this. The traffic situation would be greatly helped if there could at least be a reliable commuter train service from Kingston to Spanish Town, Portmore and Old Harbour and, if at all possible, also to St Thomas. And, as was suggested during a lively January 30 Gleaner-RJR organised town hall discussion on Kingston's over-development problem, a local train transit system, across and around the city, would make a tremendous difference. And there are possibilities for the tourism industry that also need to be reconsidered.

For all the jadedness of the present moment, we need to continue to dream, imagine and think about what is in fact possible, if the vision, drive and collective action are there. There have been plans for many years, also, to turn the Kingston railway station into a cultural centre, with museum, gallery and performing arts functions. I think that this is a fantastic idea that could be a real game-changer in Kingston and Jamaica's cultural ecology. Patrick Stanigar mentions that a Taino canoe had been found during excavations in the freight area and that out of that the idea had come to establish a transport museum on the site. And there is more than enough land-space to also construct the sort of visionary music museum Michael Thompson had in mind — with the right imagination, contemporary architecture could exist in a provocative and culturally interesting balance with the Georgian-Victorian style of the main station buildings.

The point I wish to conclude with, however, is that none of these plans have to exclude the others. On the contrary, there is the possibility for extremely productive and exciting synergies, and for one to help drive the other. Some years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the amazing Stanica Cultural Centre, in the city of Zilina in Slovakia, which is a functioning local transit train station as well as a very active, cutting edge cultural centre, with gallery spaces, workshops and studio residency space, a performing arts theatre (which is inventively built, wattle and daub style, from recycled beer crates and clay under an adjoining highway bridge), and a very popular café. Thousands of people, many of them non-traditional art audiences, pass there on a daily basis, and view and participate in the exhibitions and performing arts events, as well as the regular cultural festivals.

The Stanica Cultural Centre, in premises which were once derelict too, is not a governmental initiative but was conceived and is managed by an artists' collective. And all of this is happening in an environment that does not have any of the architectural interest of the Kingston railway station, but brings much needed life to the dreary, post-communist architectural environment of that part of Zilina. Just imagine what such an initiative could do in Kingston, Jamaica! The key point is that revival of the Stanica station was piloted by the creative imagination, that imagination which can be so transformative and revolutionary when appropriately channelled and empowered. Derek Walcott's Nobel Prize speech reminded us that the imagination can powerfully mend those things that are broken, and beautifully so. And that is, I argue, what needs to happen here in Jamaica, on a more widespread level than the train system. Are we ready to let the imagination rule and transform our physical and cultural environment? As far as I am concerned, that is very well possible.

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