Building the Bermuda Railway

In 1920, Bermudians used the same means of transportation that they had for generations: horse-drawn carriages and carts, boats, bicycles and, of course, people's feet. Bermuda had few developed roads and almost no motorized transport at all, since the 1908 Motor Car Act had banned all but a few official vehicles.

Furness advertisement
No doubt, some of the colony's 20,000 people felt that they could continue to get along as they always had. The prospect of motor cars, trucks and buses running along Bermuda's narrow and unimproved roads seemed to horrify both locals and visitors alike.

Still, a growth in both population and commerce following World War I and a steady increase in the tourist trade meant that something had to be done. In particular, Furness Withy, the largest steamship company serving Bermuda, was eager that some form of public transportation be provided so that the tourists who landed at St. George's, in the east end, could easily be transported the 10 miles to Hamilton, the capital, and beyond through the rest of the islands.

While the extended argument over trains vs. automobiles (see No Motors, Thank You) was in a way a debate over Bermuda's internal and external interests, many influential Bermudians felt that local and foreign interests coincided in the tourist trade. The effectiveness of lobbying by tourist interests was clear, but tourism was an increasing source of wealth for Bermuda as a whole.

William Foxlee's 1922 report had come down firmly in favour of building a railway, and after much debate in the colonial assembly and among Bermudians at large, the decision was made to build a railway under the Bermuda Railway Act, 1924. Although Foxlee had recommended a narrow-gauge line powered by steam engines, the Bermuda Railway would be standard gauge and its locomotives gasoline powered.

Unlike a network of bus lines, which would require widening and strengthening of the colony's roads, the railway would run on its own right of way and, it was thought, would be less disruptive to Bermuda's way of life.

A Long and Difficult Process

True or not, the actual building of the Bermuda Railway was a long and difficult process. Although the Railway was only 22 miles long, it would be more than seven years before trains were actually running. Difficulties in acquiring the necessary land and a seemingly endless succession of financial and technical problems led to a series of railway acts in the Bermuda assembly granting extension after extension to the Company.

Land was a particular problem, as Bermuda's landowners held out for more cash than the Railway Company was willing or able to pay. The decision was made to run the railway as close to the shoreline as possible in order to reduce disruption and land acquisition costs. As a result, the Bermuda Railway had to build 33 bridges and trestles in its 22-mile length.

Unloading motor coaches
By May 1930, although all the bridges and most of the roadbed had been completed, only three miles of track had been laid, and it was estimated that some 55% of the work remained. A new, more experienced, British contractor—Balfour Beatty—was brought in to complete the work, which it did by the end of 1931.
Construction locomotive

Opening Day

On October 31, 1931, the opening ceremonies took place, and the Bermuda Railway began regular service on the Hamilton to Somerset division. Operations would begin on the Hamilton-St. George's section on December 19, 1931.

The Railway was running, but already the general low quality of both material and construction was making itself felt. On many sections track ballasting occurred only after opening, as part of general maintenance, and major rail and sleeper replacement programs were undertaken during 1932. Similar problems would recur throughout the railway's life.

Opening Day, Oct. 31, 1931
Crowds on out on Front Street for opening day, Oct. 31, 1931.

Bermuda had its railway, but see Operating the Bermuda Railway for signs of trouble ahead.