One of the most popular visitor attractions on the island of St Kitts is its scenic railway. This unusual narrow gauge train, dubbed “the last railway in the West Indies” ambles along, passing through some of the island’s beautiful countryside.
The rise of the St Kitts’ sugar industry
Sugar cane was introduced in St Kitts in the 1640s, probably from Barbados. In those early days, there was a diversity of produce and farmers grew tobacco, cotton and indigo. But the island’s fertile soils and tropical climate meant that sugar cane thrived. It soon became a hot commodity. Wealthy planters bought out small growers to amalgamate plots of land into larger plantations. While the cost of investment was high, the potential rewards were also great.
In 1770 sugar, rum and molasses represented 92% of St Kitts’s exports and a significant proportion of the island was devoted to the growth of sugar cane. At that time, St Kitts was the richest British colony per capita and the dozens of sugar cane estates scattered across the island were a major contributor to the economy.
20th century change
By the 20th century, however, the industry was struggling, the result of a host of problems which included inefficient production techniques and competition from elsewhere. Desperate times called for desperate measures. In 1912, with the price of sugar plummeting, a group of investors came up with a radical solution. They would club together and construct a modern sugar factory in Basseterre in the hope of achieving economies of scale.
It wasn’t a simple task. Getting the construction materials into place involved constructing a special raft as there were no boats large enough to handle the weight. Labourers worked slowly but steadily, using small cement mixers, until everything was finally open.
Along came the railway
In order to get all that sugar cane to the factory, they also built a railway. It took a while, opening in stages, but the project was finally completed in 1926. Trains ran from February to June each year as they brought in the harvest and delivered the sugar cane to be processed. The plan worked – at least for a while – and the industry limped on. But by 1972, it looked like the writing was on the wall. The industry was beset by spiralling costs and mounting losses.
It took four years and tense negotiations to figure out the value of the factory, the land on which it stood, the ageing machinery inside and of course the railway. On 17th December 1976, the deal was finally done. The St Kitts government paid £1 million for the industry they desperately needed to turn around.
Sadly, although the industry was nationalised, it wasn’t to be a happy ending. Even government subsidies weren’t enough to save it and that meant there was no choice but to end this centuries-old tradition. Sugar production finally ceased in 2005, far later than on many other Caribbean islands.
Repurposing the sugar train
The St Kitts government partnered with private enterprise to resurrect the sugar train, this time carrying passengers rather than sugar. Instead of ripping up the tracks, they realised that this was the ideal opportunity for a new venture that would improve tourism provision. For a few years before the factory shut down, there was a transition period and tourist trains ran alongside locos pulling cargo.
Since 2005, trains have covered the eighteen miles of the original circuit that remains from Needs Must to La Valle station; a fleet of buses are used to complete the loop. In all, the 30 mile trip takes three hours and allows tourists to see the island at a leisurely pace. It’s ideal for cruise ship passengers seeking a manageable excursion.
Even the rolling stock is interesting. The line uses double-decker carriages of a style not found anywhere else in the world. With their green, red and white livery, they mirror the colours of the St Kitts and Nevis national flag. Seating is provided on the enclosed, air-conditioned lower deck.
However, the best views are from the upper deck. This observation car has a canvas roof to keep off the hot sun and the light breeze that runs through keeps everyone cool. But it’s no accident that passengers are four metres off the ground – that’s the height of the tallest cane, so they can see over the top of it.
The perfect way to appreciate St Kitts’ beauty
The scenery is varied. The train makes its way along unfenced viaducts and across the box girder bridges that span coastal canyons known as “ghuts”. Christ Church is the longest of four steel trestle bridges. It spans 100 metres as it rises over the main road below. Here and there, relics of the sugar industry landscape come into view: a ruined windmill, perhaps, or an old chimney.
Looking inland, when the cloud lifts, it’s also possible to catch sight of the verdant slopes of Verchild’s Peak as well as the 1,156m-tall Mount Liamuiga. Green vervet monkeys hang out in the trees. Much of this thickly-forested interior is accessible only on foot. It’s a real treat to be able to admire this view. Almost two thousand years ago, Mount Liamuiga erupted. The waves have eroded the resultant lava flow into a landmark called Black Rocks.
In fact, much of the line follows a coastal route, treating passengers to views of the Caribbean Sea. When the train reaches the north of the island passengers catch a glimpse of of the neighbouring islands of Sint Eustasius and the more distant St Barts.
Later in the journey, the bus passes the UNESCO-listed Brimstone Hill Fortress. The British military designed it but enslaved labour built it. This impressive structure was so heavily fortified it was almost impregnable. Though the French managed to exact a British surrender in 1782, they had to hand it back the following year as part of the terms of the Treaty of Paris. After that it was never taken by force again. It’s one of St Kitts’ most interesting historical treasures and you won’t want to miss it.
Take a ride
With a top speed of just 8 miles per hour, there’s plenty of time to admire the view from the train and snap some photos. As the wheels clack over the rails, a running commentary ensures no one misses the important landmarks. Attentive waiters supply the rum punch and daiquiris. Meanwhile the St Kitts Railway Choir provides the soundtrack with a selection of folk songs, hymns and spirituals. If you want to learn more about the story of sugar in the Caribbean, then taking a ride on the St Kitts Scenic Railway seems a pretty good place to start.