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Deciding to Build a Railway

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Following World War I, Bermuda worked to rebuild the tourist trade that the conflict had brought to a sudden halt. In 1920 the House of Assembly gave the Bermuda Development Company, a subsidiary of the Furness Withy steamship line, a charter to develop a luxury hotel and golf course at Tucker’s Town on Castle Harbour. The resort would become a symbol of Bermuda’s high-quality tourist trade.

The House of Assembly had banned automobiles in 1908, but the problem of internal transportation refused to go away. In the 20’s it became more acute as the native population grew and tourism revived. From a low of 1345 people in 1918, tourist arrivals climbed back to almost 18,000 in 1921.

From December 1921 to February 1922, the Assembly saw a series of intricate manoeuvres that were typical of the running battle over transportation in the colony. In December, the Assembly voted 16 to 15 to give first reading to the Motor Car Act, 1921, which would have allowed the use of motor vehicles in Bermuda, “under certain restrictions”. The anti-motor car forces, determined to stop this process in its tracks, resorted to the time-honoured tactic of sending the bill to committee. The manoeuvre worked, and the Assembly voted 15 to 14 to set up a committee “to consider and amend the Motor Car Act”.

When the committee reported back in February 1922, the House discovered that idea of motor car use had been dropped altogether. Instead the committee now proposed the “Inland Transportation Act”, which called for a survey to determine if it was feasible to build a light railway in Bermuda, and for consideration of an interim, government-run omnibus system to operate while the railway was built. In the course of debate, the idea of an interim bus service was also dropped, and only the railway survey remained. The bill was passed, 15 votes to 14, and £1500 was voted to the Board of Public Works to pay for the survey. Once again, motor car supporters had been (narrowly) outwitted.

British engineer William Foxlee was commissioned to produce the survey, and in December 1922 his “Report on a Light Railway” was presented to the Bermuda House of Assembly.

Foxlee’s Recommendations

Foxlee proposed that a 3' 6" narrow-gauge, single-line steam railway be built from one end of Bermuda to the other. Starting from the village at Mangrove Bay in Somerset (now known as Somerset Village), the railway would follow the line of Middle Road all the way to the eastern end of Hamilton Harbour. From there the line would turn southeast and follow the South Shore Road to the southern corner of Harrington Sound. The “main line” would turn north and follow the western shore of Harrington Sound to Flatts, continue along the North Shore, cross Ferry Passage at Coney Island and finally reach St. George’s at Mullet Bay. A loop off the main line would serve Tucker’s Town, while in Hamilton a short branch line would serve the docks.
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If Foxlee’s recommendations had been followed, the Bermuda Railway might have looked more like this view of the Jersey Railway!
Motive power would consist of three side-tank steam engines, each capable of hauling a 100-ton load up the proposed 1 in 50 (2%) ruling gradient. One of the three was to act as a spare. Foxlee had considered electric power, but decided that the extra expense of stringing overhead wire, without any resulting reduction in running costs, could not be justified given the level of traffic he expected.

Foxlee proposed that passenger stock should consist of six corridor bogie coaches, each with a capacity of 40 to 50 passengers, and two luggage vans. Goods traffic would be served by ten 12-ton goods wagons and two brake vans. He suggested that all traffic could easily be served by six daily mixed trains in each direction, supplemented by occasional special goods trains.

The total estimated cost for the railway was almost £400,000, and Foxlee thought that the line could make enough money to pay a 5% return on this amount of invested capital. However, he admitted, “the success of the Railway depends entirely upon the Tourist traffic, without which I venture to say the construction of any Railway whatsoever in the island would not be financially feasible.”

Others were not so sure of his figures. A comment by J. W. Potter for the British Crown Agents in London implied that Foxlee had perhaps overstated the potential earnings of a Bermuda railway compared, for example, to the money-losing railways of Jamaica and Trinidad. In a statement that with hindsight seems prophetic, Bermuda’s Royal Gazette remarked on December 19, 1922, “The Crown agents confess they cannot check Mr. Foxlee’s estimates but there is such a wide difference that it is more than likely that financial success depends upon the accuracy of the figures.”
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Foxlee’s map of his proposed railway. Each red dot represented a station, and there were only 14. The Bermuda Railway as built had many more.

Other Proposals

Foxlee’s Report was not the only scheme being proposed to solve Bermuda's transportation problems.

Bermuda’s Director of Works, P. N. H. Jones, also proposed that a railway be constructed, but only from Hamilton to Tucker’s Town. There a wharf would permit passengers to continue on to St. George’s via ferry. In the West End, ferries through the Great Sound would provide the transportation needed between Hamilton and Somerset. Eventually, perhaps, the railway could be extended. Jones was concerned about cost, and was afraid that Foxlee’s whole project might be turned down because of its high price tag.

House of Assembly member H. W. Watlington proposed an alternative plan combining motor trucks and ferry services that would take advantage of Bermuda's waterways. Ferries would travel from Somerset to Hamilton, a special road would be built from Hamilton to the western end of Harrington Sound, and ferries would cross the Sound and pass into Castle Harbour, through a new channel cut for the purpose, before continuing on to St. George’s.

Finally, another member of the House, longtime automobile supporter T. H. Outerbridge, proposed the building of a special road to carry motor vehicles from one end of the Colony to the other.

The Results

None of these proposals were acted on, and Bermuda’s transportation problem would remain unresolved for at least a little while longer. Within two years, however, the House of Assembly passed the Bermuda Railway Company Act, 1924, giving permission for the founding of a company to build a railway from one end of the island to the other.

The Bermuda Railway would follow most of Foxlee’s route very closely, but instead of building the loop line through Tucker’s Town, it continued the Hamilton Harbour extension north, via a tunnel under Par-La-Ville Park, and on through the more densely populated parts of Pembroke and Devonshire parishes before rejoining Foxlee’s route at Flatts. As well, the Bermuda railway did not retain Foxlee’s choice of steam power, instead making the unusual choice of gasoline-powered motor coaches.

The decision had apparently been made, but it would take another seven years before the trains were running. Read Building the Bermuda Railway to see why it took so long.