The St. Kitts Railway

Author: 
Mark Bartlett

A short history

St. Kitts (formerly St. Christopher) is one of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. Formerly a British colony, along with its neighbouring island it achieved independence in 1983 to form the nation of St Kitts and Nevis.


St Kitts: Rounding the northern tip of St. Kitts the Dutch island of Sint Eustasius comes into view from a train heading for La Vallee. Mark Bartlett 18/02/2017 [Ref 58588]

Sugar cane was grown on St Kitts from 1640 onwards and by the end of the 18th century over 200 estates were producing cane. Many of the old sugar mills can be seen around the island but in the 20th Century, with competion it became less and less profitable and it was realised that for the sugar production to continue it had to be concentrated at a single factory and this was constructed in Basseterre, now the capital, in 1912. Construction of a 2 foot 6 inch gauge railway also began to link the outlying estates with the new factory and in stages this was continued until in 1926 the railway formed a thirty mile circle around the island. 

Interestingly, the railway only operated seasonally from February to June as its sole purpose was the sugar crop. Initial motive power was seven Kerr-Stuart 0-4-2PT locos but these were replaced by diesels in the late 1950s. The frame, wheels and boiler of No.5 apparently survive in very poor condition on the island.

The initial diesel fleet was supplied by Hunslet new to the island but in later years they were supplemented by locos of other manufacturers coming second hand from other Caribbean systems that were closing. Full details of the various locos in the fleet can be found in an excellent illustrated article on the International Steam website: http://www.internationalsteam.co.uk/trains/caribbeanindex.htm


Basseterre Sugar Factory: The central sugar factory at Basseterre which was in operation between 1912 and 2005. The St Kitts Railway made a thirty mile circuit of the island and operated seasonally to bring harvested cane from the various estates to this central processing plant. Before the 21st century tourist trains sugar cane was the sole traffic on the line. Mark Bartlett 18/02/2017 [Ref 58497]

Post sugar operations

The railway allowed sugar cane farming to continue on St Kitts long after other islands had ceased production but it was steadily losing out to European beet production. The factory was taken over by the government in 1972 but had become unprofitable and the government took the decision to close the factory in 2005. The last sugar train ran on 31st July 2005.

Prior to this however, on 28th January 2003, the privately owned railway had started running tourist trains. For the first three years these ran alongside the sugar crop trains and round the full circuit. Once the sugar trains ceased however, and based on feedback from the cruise companies who were the principal customers, the railway passenger services were concentrated on the eighteen miles from the depot at Needsmust (near the international airport) up the east side Atlantic Coast and round the top of the island before terminating at La Vallee. Here rail passengers transfer to buses that have brought another group of passengers from Basseterre to make the return trip – a very convenient arrangement for all concerned.

The passenger trains are formed of five purpose built double deck cars with air conditioned saloons down stairs and canopy covered open seated areas upstairs. They were built in the USA specifically for this line and are supported by a ‘generator car’ providing the on train services. The little 110-160hp sugar train locos were clearly not powerful enough for these big trains and alternative motive power arrived in the form of three FAUR Romanian built Lyd2 (0-6-0DH) locomotives. These were purchased second hand from Poland and have been re-engined with Henschel 450hp power units, although No.3 is presently non-operational. They also had to be re-gauged from 750mm to 762mm to be compatible with the imperial St Kitts tracks. A new bogie diesel-electric locomotive was reported to be being built by Global Locomotive in the USA to enter service in 2014 but on my visit in 2017 the services were still in the hands of the 0-6-0. 


La Vallee: Circle the wagons!. Looking a little like a scene from a Western film, a St Kitts Scenic Railway train sits on the La Vallee turning circle, the present limit of operations. At this point train passengers transfer to buses to return to Basseterre by road while those who have arrived on the buses return by train along the Atlantic coast. Mark Bartlett 18/02/2017 [Ref 58507]

The line today

The eighteen mile St Kitts Scenic Railway as it is now known runs east from Needsmust station (and depot) to the Atlantic coast of the island before turning north to run with the sea on one side and the volcanic mountains that form the islands backbone on the left. There are numerous valleys (or ghats) on the coast and at each one the railway turns inland to go around the head of the valley, often using spectacular unfenced steel viaducts. Weaving in and out of houses and fields and passing a number of old sugar mills the train heads steadily northwards through beautiful scenery. At the north end of the island there are views of the Dutch island of Sint. Eustasius before the train turns south again to run through further rural scenes to the current limit of operations at La Vallee. Here it passes over points that form a junction with the disused section of line to Basseterre before entering the return loop station where the buses arrive with the next group of passengers and take those from the train back to Basseterre via the west coast road.


Needsmust Depot: Locomotives at Needsmust Depot, St Kitts. No.15 has been renovated and is used for occasional maintenance trains. Two stablemates from sugar cane days lurk in the right hand shed while one of the Romanian built hydraulics is undergoing a repaint. The modern building behind is the terminal of the airport. Mark Bartlett 18/02/2017 [Ref 58677]

Impressions

The Scenic Railway is primarily aimed at cruise passengers, who form a large percentage of the visitors to the island. Although I was looking forward to my visit I had seen the pictures of the bright double deck coaches and did think it might be a very ‘touristy’ line. In actual fact it was a delight to travel on the railway. Although little remains from the sugar cane days the old mills and transfer sidings were visible and pointed out by the train guide and the twists and turns over the viaducts and around the ghats meant there was always a new vista to appreciate. Much of the scenery of the island also reminded me of Scotland so if you are fortunate enough to get the opportunity to visit St. Kitts I heartily recommend you do so and whilst there take in this wonderful railway too. If you need any further encouragement the two complimentary rum punches served on the journey should clinch it!


La Vallee: Lyd2 Faur locomotive, one of three Romanian built 450hp 0-6-0s bought by the St Kitts Railway from Poland to haul the Scenic Railway passenger trains, stands on La Vallee loop at the northern limit of services. The line originally continued down the west coast to form a loop but that section has not carried trains since 2005. Note - Lyd2 designation: L=narrow gauge, y=3 axles, d=diesel power and 2=hydraulic transmission. Mark Bartlett 18/02/2017 [Ref 58416]



The St Kitts narrow gauge Scenic Railway, with 6 double-deck carriages using the former sugar cane plantation lines. The man in the green and white shirt is part of a trio singing traditional songs to the passengers. [Bit like the last train to Cambuslang on Sat night: Ed.]

Brian Smith [14/03/2009]


Former trailers used to transport sugar cane, now lying in a disused siding alongside the St Kitts narrow gauge railway on 14 March 2009.
Brian Smith [14/03/2009]


Bridge carrying a disused narrow gauge sugar cane railway on the island of St Kitts. The rail bridge apparently was an experience to watch as the trains passed over, the taxi driver assured us that as a young boy he and his friends waited every day for it to fall apart, but, as can be seen, it still stands.
Peter Todd [/04/2010]


Abandoned level crossing and crossing-keeper^s hut on the disused NG sugar cane railway on St Kitts. Photographed in April 2010.
Peter Todd [/04/2010]


Locomotives at Needsmust Depot, St Kitts. No.15 has been renovated and is used for occasional maintenance trains. Two stablemates from sugar cane days lurk in the right hand shed while one of the Romanian built hydraulics is undergoing a repaint. The modern building behind is the terminal of the airport.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


A donkey finds a little shade on a section of abandoned St Kitts Railway trackbed in February 2017. This view looks south from the level crossing near Fairview, a former plantation house overlooking the west coast to the north of Basseterre. The last train on this part of the line ran around 2005.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


The northbound St Kitts Scenic Railway train passes an abandoned sugar cane transfer station, one of many on the surviving eighteen miles of line. Some remaining tracks can be seen in the immediate foreground but most of the sidings have been lifted since cane traffic ceased in 2005.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


Abandoned sugar cane wagons sitting in a former transfer station on the St Kitts Railway, as seen from a passing passenger train in February 2017. Although the tourist train passes a number of these former yards this was the only one where I saw old rolling stock.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


An abandoned Sugar Mill on St Kitts, seen from a passing train. The railway was built to connect the various plantations with a new sugar factory in Basseterre that opened in 1912 and the small mills like this were all closed although many can still be seen.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


The central sugar factory at Basseterre which was in operation between 1912 and 2005. The St Kitts Railway made a thirty mile circuit of the island and operated seasonally to bring harvested cane from the various estates to this central processing plant. Before the 21st century tourist trains sugar cane was the sole traffic on the line.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


Circle the wagons!. Looking a little like a scene from a Western film, a St Kitts Scenic Railway train sits on the La Vallee turning circle, the present limit of operations. At this point train passengers transfer to buses to return to Basseterre by road while those who have arrived on the buses return by train along the Atlantic coast.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


A double decked St Kitts Scenic Railway coach. The five in use are substantial vehicles, built in the USA around 2002. The lower saloon is air conditioned with loose wicker seating and tables - very colonial. The popular upper decks have longitudinal benches and are completely open apart from the canopy cover - ideal for en route photography.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


The St Kitts Scenic Railway train running north alongside the range of volcanic mountains that overlook the Atlantic Coast.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


Viaduct over a ghat (valley) on the St Kitts Railway, seen from a train that had crossed it a few moments before. There are many such unfenced structures on the east coast of the island and the train often weaves around a headland then runs up a short valley before crossing one or more of these impressive bridges and heading back to the coast.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


Hunslet 6wDM 101hp (HE 5218/1958) seen outside the Needsmust depot of the St Kitts Scenic Railway on 18th February 2017. The loco was one of a fleet of Hunslets that operated sugar cane trains on St Kitts until withdrawn around 2002. It has since been restored and sees occasional use on maintenance trains on what is now a popular tourist railway but is not powerful enough to haul the heavy passenger services. The design similarities between No.14 and the standard gauge (Class 05) Hunslets are very noticeable.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


Hunslet 0-6-0DH No. 15 of the St Kitts Railway (HE 9086/1982) sits in the sunshine outside Needsmust Depot, alongside the international airport. This 160hp loco is another survivor from what was once a large fleet used on sugar cane traffic until 2005 on the 30 mile line that circled the island. It has been retained/preserved by the St Kitts Scenic Railway for p/way duties.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


A passenger train on the St Kitts Scenic Railway, running north along the east coast, swings inland round the head of one of the numerous valleys. The first vehicle behind the 0-6-0DH is a generator car that powers services on the five coaches. The truck about to pass under the viaduct is a support vehicle that shadows the train with the driver operating the level crossing barriers. 180217.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


Former sugar cane transfer station, seen from a passing train on the St Kitts Scenic Railway. This appears to be the same location photographed in 2009 [See image 23010] and the abandoned trucks clearly haven^t moved in that time. Similar sites are to be seen all along the railway but in most cases all rails and any wagons have been removed for scrap.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


Motor trolley at the La Vallee turning circle of the St Kitts Scenic Railway. The trolley runs ahead of the passenger train with the driver operating some of the level crossing barriers. It is sitting on the points leading to the disused west coast section of the line to Basseterre which continued south from here.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]


Lyd2 Faur locomotive, one of three Romanian built 450hp 0-6-0s bought by the St Kitts Railway from Poland to haul the Scenic Railway passenger trains, stands on La Vallee loop at the northern limit of services. The line originally continued down the west coast to form a loop but that section has not carried trains since 2005. Note - Lyd2 designation: L=narrow gauge, y=3 axles, d=diesel power and 2=hydraulic transmission.
Mark Bartlett [18/02/2017]