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Closing It Down

As World War II drew to a close, the Bermuda Railway faced a bleak future. Since opening in 1931 it had never made money and, as the years passed, was increasingly unable even to break even.

The war had left the railway in a still worse situation, following six years of greatly increased traffic combined with barely any maintenance. Severe structural problems had been discovered in the line’s many bridges and trestles and, as well, large numbers of sleepers needed replacing.

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A glance at the long trestles at Flatt’s Bridge makes evident why rapid deterioration in the railway's wooden structures was a major problem.

In 1945 the Commission on Public Transport presented a report to the Bermuda government. Its figures showed that, between 1932 and 1944, the railway’s operating profits ranged from a low of £4,430 in 1935 to a high of £42,495 in 1942, the peak traffic year of the war. But this was without even considering depreciation of equipment or buildings. As for the debt load, nothing was ever paid on investor capital; by the end some £400,000 was owing in unpaid interest!

The railway company quickly petitioned the Bermuda Government to buy them out, which it did for £115,000 under the Railway Purchase Act of January 26, 1946. The Government appointed the railway’s chief engineer, Harold Kitchen, to head the now publicly owned company.

The obvious question is, why buy the railway? Did the Bermuda Government feel obliged to maintain the colony’s only public transport, or did it really think there was some way the line could be maintained in public hands? A retrospective on the railway published in the Bermuda Royal Gazette in 1985 included an intriguing quote from a Mr. Bob Clarke, who was a member of the Bermuda Public Transportation Board in 1946:

“We had a meeting with the engineer and an accountant from the English company [the railway’s British owners]. They said unless the Bermuda Government bought out the rolling stock and physical assets, they were going to run all the trains down to the yard at East Broadway, lock up the trains and go home.

“The Bermuda Government was faced with the complete breakdown of public transport and decided to take it over.”

In any case, it was not long before the Government sought outside advice. In February 1946 an American firm of consulting engineers, Sanborn and Fitzpatrick of New York, were asked to make a study of the railway and consider possible futures for it, including shutting it down and converting the railway right of way into a highway.

Rebuild or Shut Down?

The engineers’ report arrived in early April. It made the situation clear: over three-quarters of the railway’s trestle timbers were showing serious signs of decay. To repair or replace the bridges and trestles, along with deteriorating sleepers, rail and other hardware, would cost $306,000. Putting the whole entire railway back into first-class shape would cost $850,000. Conversion of the trackbed into a highway was an even less attractive option, with an estimated cost of $1,819,000.
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An early Bermuda bus in King’s Square, St. George’s, probably a Seddon Mk 10 model, which dates the picture from 1952 or later.
No immediate decision was made, and the railway continued to struggle on through 1946 amid increasing concerns over the safety of the line and the possible need to close certain sections for emergency repairs. In the meantime, the 1946 Motor Car Act was passed, permitting Bermudians to own private motor vehicles. Already by April a bus service was running between Hamilton and Tucker’s Town (a part of the island that the railway had never served).

In early 1947 the decision was made to close the railway and replace it with a bus system. Harold Kitchen, who had worked on the railway system from the beginning, was made Director of Public Transportation to oversee the transition. The railway line to Somerset was finally closed on January 1, 1948, while the line to St. George carried on through May 1 because of delays in road-strengthening projects and bus deliveries.
With hindsight, one can only imagine how a rejuvenated Bermuda Railway might have contributed to today’s tourist trade in Bermuda.
The What Might Have Been page takes a look at the possibilities.