All not yet aboard western ‘gravy train’
Rail revival being resisted by settlers who built homes on tracks
A plan to evict squatters living along the old train track between Montpelier and Montego Bay in St James is facing strong resistance from the New Ramble residents, many of who captured portions of the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC) property and...
A plan to evict squatters living along the old train track between Montpelier and Montego Bay in St James is facing strong resistance from the New Ramble residents, many of who captured portions of the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC) property and built homes after the Government halted the passenger rail service in 1992.
After a three-decade hiatus, plans are now afoot to revive the service, which was a source of income for rural communities along the route from Montego Bay to Appleton Estate in St Elizabeth.
The removal of those encroaching on state-run JRC lands is to facilitate the resumption of the exclusive tourist attraction that is to start close to the Montego Bay Cruise Port and travel through the picturesque countryside to the historic rum-making estate. The plans include the rehabilitation of the railway, adjacent lands, buildings, and supporting infrastructure along the 55-kilometre stretch, at a projected cost of US$40.2 million.
But the second phase of the rehabilitation project is a concern for JRC CEO Donald Hanson and his team, especially in the volatile New Ramble community – otherwise called Bogue Hill – which is located on the backside of the exclusive residential neighbourhood of Bogue Heights, with its vast collection of 1980s mansions, interspersed with lush greenery.
Over the past decade, several international companies have expressed interest in the resumption of the attraction, but the JRC has reportedly settled on doing business with a consortium led by Sandals Resorts International boss Adam Stewart, under a shared-use system, where the operator would pay rent for the use of the lines.
Like most unplanned settlements in western Jamaica, New Ramble welcomes strangers to the community with a subtle caution that danger looms if the space is violated.
The guardedness was evident during a recent visit by The Sunday Gleaner.
Information is hard to come by, unless through a contact who is held in high regard, but the use of a camera is considered an unforgivable sin within these borders.
A walk through the community tells a story of neglect by successive political representatives, with roads in disrepair, uncollected garbage, alarming images of poverty and a lack of economic prospects creating a hotbed for criminality. With little or no employment opportunity for residents, some turn to prostitution and the lottery scam as a means to earn.
Not all in New Ramble are informal settlers. Forty-five-year-old businesswoman Carmen, who has lived in the community all her life, said that she legitimately owns her property.
“As a child, I recall the days of the train passing through and the tourists would throw out money to the children, but my father was strict, so I could only watch,” she told the news team.
“Even though legal property owners in the area are not affected by the planned rehabilitation of the railway service, it is a concern that they want to push aside those who have been here for so many years. It could be a challenge to get some persons to leave because the community should have already been told where they will be moved to,” Carmen added.
FAILURE TO ENFORCE LAW
Melvin Ottey, a former councillor for the Spring Gardens division in the St James Municipal Corporation and the manager of the community resource centre, said any stand-off between residents and the powers that be must be blamed on JRC’s failure to enforce the law.
“The railway has not taken steps to enforce their regulation and that has led to wanton capturing of the land, and I am fearful for the day when they will try to move the people without any proper arrangement,” Ottey said.
While acknowledging that there are gaps in communication with the community, St James Western Central Member of Parliament Marlene Malahoo Forte expressed her support for the resumption of the rail services, which she said is inevitable.
The second-term MP, who is also minister of legal and constitutional affairs, said all aspects of the relocation exercise is being managed by the JRC, claiming that she is yet to be apprised of the plans.
“As the member of parliament with a responsibility to make representation on behalf of my constituents, I repeat my call for the JRC to communicate clearly in a timely and appropriate manner with the affected residents,” Malahoo Forte stressed to The Sunday Gleaner. “As disruptive as the move will be to the people, I also ask for their cooperation.
“The JRC must also advise those who are affected if the intended property has been subdivided with titles, as well as the terms and conditions of the resettlement,” she charged. “I will be vigilant in my scrutiny of this matter.”
Hanson, the JRC boss, refused to divulge the location being considered for the resettlement. And while stating that only those within 20 feet of the track will be affected, he did not give an estimated number of persons or households.
A source shared with The Sunday Gleaner that relocating the residents could cost over $2 billion, but Hanson was tight-lipped on that projected expense as well.
“We have put together some funds for that, so, yes, we can confirm that persons will be relocated, but it will not affect a lot of people. It is a certainty that it is going to happen,” he said. “Because of the problem in the New Ramble/Bogue Hill area, we adjusted the plan and decided to start the tour from Montpelier because we cannot just kick them off, even if we have the power to do so.”
He admitted that JRC had looked at re-routing the rail line to run alongside the to-be-constructed Long Hill bypass, but that was deemed too costly.
Most of the rail lines that ran through New Ramble have been removed and the corridor leading to the first of three old train tunnels between Montego Bay and Anchovy, St James, converted to a roadway.
The Sunday Gleaner team got a stern rebuke from a woman relaxing at the entrance to the first tunnel, which was filled with furniture and other items, when we attempted to take photographs.
Sections of the train track to the Montpelier station are overgrown with vegetation and trees have sprung up between the rails, while a welcome sign in Anchovy is erected inches away from the track. A raft of commercial activities is housed on the compound of the old Anchovy train station, including a barber shop, restaurants, and car repair business.
Despite 30 years of inactivity and its dilapidated state, overseas interests see great potential and have given the current infrastructure a passing grade, noted a Europe-based expert, who declined to be named.
“I have seen and helped to manage a lot of railways in my many 44 years, but I have never seen one with more potential for social change and community development, with all the expensive stuff intact, but detained in moribund aspic by stupidity, fear, and corruption,” he said.