A look back at the Arima to Sangre Grande Railway extension, 120 years on

Statistics:

  • Length of railway: Arima to Sangre Grande Railway extension 12 ¾ miles (or 66.73 chains)
  • Start date for construction:  26 August 1895 – Estimated Cost: £87,894
  • Date of First train:  25 August 1897      
  • Date of official opening: 1 September 1897 – Final Cost: £79,856
  • Chief Resident Engineer: H. Oliver
  • Engineers in Charge of works: Messrs. F. H. Church and Alfred Quesnel
  • Assistant Engineers: Messrs. A. von Gillhaussen and St. Yves de Verteuil
  • Consulting Engineers, London: Messrs, Gregory, Eyles and Waring

History of Sangre Grande Extension Railway:

The period between 1859 and 1884 may be regarded as the first “Railway Mania” of Trinidad. During that time, the benefit of this speedy form of communication had already brought prosperity to those areas lucky enough to find themselves on the early railway map of the island. Such was the benefit of this advancement that a second wave of railway construction was undertaken between 1896 and 1914 when Sangre Grande was one of the first places to be considered for connection due to its prominence as an agricultural region and particularly for its production of high quality Cocoa.

Following the success of the Port of Spain to Arima Railway in 1876, the Couva Extension Railway in 1880 and the San Fernando Extension Railway in 1882, the stage was set for further Railway extensions in Trinidad.

Despite earlier discussions calling for a tramway (a lighter animal hauled line) proposal between Arima and Sangre Grande, instead it was decided to extend the Government railway eastwards, not from Arima but from Caroni Station, along the southern banks of the river, with the aim of reaching Cumuto.

On 26 July 1881, John Edward Tanner, Director of Public Works, submitted a report for the extension of the railway system to Cumuto in the north and along the Guaracara Tramway to Princes Town in the south. The Cumuto line construction started in 1881 and became known as the St Helena Railway.

The St. Helena line from Caroni to Cumuto was proposed as a light steam tramway and its intended eventual destination was Mayaro, 30 miles to the south east. Plans rather optimistically included a future branch line north-eastward, from a junction at Sangre Grande, towards Matura and Toco.

The Legislative Council duly appointed a special Committee chaired by W.R. Pyne to consider and report upon the proposed extensions. The committee having carefully examined Mr Tanner’s plans, estimates and much previous correspondence on the subject, submitted their own report to the Legislative Council on 4 August 1881.

The Committee’s report concluded that it would be “desirable to construct both lines as ordinary railways in lieu of Steam Tramways as originally proposed. Both lines will be branches or feeders of the Main Line, but as the objects and conditions of their formation are widely different, it is best to treat each under its respective head

In the case of the Guaracara line, much of which had already existed since 1859 between Union and Garth as an animal tramway, approval was immediate and construction began in 1882 soon after completion of the San Fernando Extension Railway.

The report went on to list the “unquestionable advantages” to be derived from the construction of the Cumuto branch. The report continued; “when completed, it will not only afford an outlet to a number of Estates which at present have no roads but will pierce a large area of good land available for Cocoa cultivation and which in the absence of roads must remain presently useless. It must be borne in mind that the swampy alluvial lands through which this line is to pass supply no material for making roads and that the speediest and cheapest method of opening up this description of country is to begin with a rail or tramway, and your Committee are of opinion that in a few years the sale of Crown lands in the vicinity of this line will cover the cost of construction. The rapid disposal of Crown lands in the neighbourhood of Chaguanas which were rendered accessible by the opening of the Couva line fully justifies this opinion.”

Following Mr. Payne’s very favourable Committee report, work on the St. Helena Railway swiftly got underway and a considerable amount of construction was carried out. The whole line had been surveyed, the ground cleared and drained, embankments extending four miles built and one mile and a half of rails were laid down when suddenly, on 12 December 1881, the venture was stopped from London by order of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Kimberley.

Despite a petition by the inhabitants and owners of land in the ward of Lower Caroni for the Government to reconsider its position, the decision was taken to “temporarily abandoned” the intended St. Helena Railway Extension to Cumuto on economic grounds.

Down south, the Guaracara line, although attracting much argument and discussion, was completed by 1884 as planned.

Following years of deliberation and a change of administration the old trace was eventually dropped for a fresh railway proposal between Arima and Sangre Grande, which seemed to revert to an earlier line of thinking. The new report, entitled “Projected lines of Railway”, was issued by the Legislative Council on 18 March 1893 and was once again aggressively debated by those districts left out. It seemed that every area now wanted its own railway station.

John Edward Tanner, Director of Public Works (under which the Railway was administered) retired during March of 1893 and returned to England in poor health. Approval for the new extension east from Arima was obtained, although only as far at Sangre Grande, on 7 October 1893. Future extensions, to Mayaro in the south and Toco in the north, would now depend on further economic evaluation.

While the Legislative Council debated whether Government or private contract should build the line, a preliminary rough survey was carried out by Mr. Smart.

On 26 February 1894, the Government appointed William Edward Smith as new General Manager of Railways taking over from John Edward Tanner who had previously been Director of Public Works. From 1874 to 1894 the Trinidad Government railway was run by the Public Works and railway department. From 1894 onwards the railway was administered by its own General manager.

On 5 July 1894, His Excellency the Governor, F. Napier Broome, ordered a definitive line survey to be carried out with a target completion date set for nine months or less. The Engineer in charge of surveys was Mr. Cochrane and Mr Albert de Labastide, Maintenance Engineer of the TGR, assisted by Mr. von Gilhaussen, an employee highly recommended by the acting director of Public Works, The Hon. P. Stevens.

Upon conclusion of the new survey, a fresh set of plans were submitted by Mr. Smith and approval ‘to authorize the construction of a railway from Arima to Sangre Grande’ was obtained from London on 14 August 1894 by Secretary of State, George Frederick Samuel Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon KG GCSI CIE VD PC.

It was decided that the Government should construct the railway and the engineer selected to carry out the construction of the proposed extensions was first announced in the San Fernando Gazette on 25 May 1895; “It affords us the greatest satisfaction to be able to announce that Mr H. Oliver, M.I.C.E. has been selected to carry out the proposed Railway extensions in Trinidad. Mr Oliver is we understand well known to Mr Wrightson, the Director of Public Works, having been already employed in Railway construction in Ceylon from which colony it will be remembered that the last-named gentleman was promoted to Trinidad. Mr Oliver, we understand, is very highly thought of in his profession.

He will leave England on the 27th and we shall hope to see a speedy commencement of these much-needed lines of communication”.

Mr. H. Oliver, Chief Resident Engineer, arrived on 3 July 1895, and after some initial time occupied in organizing his staff and in making various preparations for the commencement of work, including re-surveying of portions of the proposed line, and various alterations in the plans. Construction of the Sangre Grande line began, some 15 miles and 55 chains from Port-of-Spain, got under way on 25 August 1895.

Mr. Oliver would be responsible for the Sangre Grande Railway Extension and the Tabaquite Railway Extension which was to begin construction one year later on 26 March 1896.

Assisting Mr Oliver were Messrs. F. H. Church and Alfred Quesnel employed as Engineers in charge of works and Messrs A. von Gillhaussen and St. Yves de Verteuil as Assistant Engineers employed at different times in the construction of the railway.

By 30 August 1895, one-sixth of the estimated quantity of earth work, spread over the first five miles, had been completed. Materials (stone and cement) had been carted to the sites of bridges on the first four miles, and building operations commenced.

The Sangre Grande Line was to be 12 miles and 66.73 chains in length with 54.51 chains of sidings and the cost of construction estimated at £87,894 or £7.9M in today’s money.

There were 20 bridges and 24 culverts on the railway. As no suitable building stone was available in the neighbourhood, bridges and culverts were constructed of cement concrete. The superstructures for the bridges were designed by Messrs, Gregory, Eyles and Waring, the Consulting Engineers and given ample width between the iron girders for all requirements.

In all Mr. Oliver undertook three deviations from Mr. de Labastide’s original plans; from 16 miles 74 chains to 18 miles 64 chains, in order to reduce a large embankment ; from 22 miles 10 chains to 24 miles 18 chains, to avoid two bridges which would probably have had bad foundations, and two large embankments ; and from 27 miles 14 chains to 28 miles 50 chains, the end of the Railway, to place the line on higher ground, and to avoid large embankments which would have been necessary on the original line, to keep the formation above floods.

Gradients were reviewed throughout the entire formation and the steepest were slightly reduced. Cuttings were re calculated to a base of 20 feet with slopes of 1 to 1, two feet wider than originally estimated.

The Railway crossed three Main Roads, the Tumpuna, the Cumuto and the Eastern Main. For the first two, first class level crossings with iron gates on both sides were provided for. The Eastern Main Road was crossed by a bridge of 25 feet span. Ten second class or occupation crossings were estimated for. For these openings in the fencing was left, and chains hung across from post to post instead of gates.

An additional vote of £3,229 was provided for due to the provision of latrines, public fencing, residences and signals at all stations. Also, at Sangre Grande a larger goods shed, engine house and ash pit, engine turntable, water tank and fore pump were considered necessary by the General Manager of the Railway, and the expenditure was duly sanctioned by the Government.

Under the head of contingencies, the sum of 10 per cent of the total cost of estimated works was provided for to cover possible overruns in expenditure due to the nature of bridge foundations and the weather to be experienced during the time that certain works were to be in progress. 

The Railway was to be built for a length of about 7 ½ miles through private lands for which compensation had to be paid.

The principal difficulty connected with the construction of the Railway was the need for a road alongside the line between La Horqueta and Cunapo; especially as metal, soil and cement had to be conveyed to the sites of the bridges and culverts, from Arima. The situation improved considerably when parts of the railway were used as a road once the cuttings and embankments were formed.

On 16 April Ordinance No. 4 of 1896 was officially issued by the Legislative Council; ‘to authorise the construction of a Railway from Arima to Sangre Grande’

The first section of the new railway line opened to Guanapo, a distance of 3 1/4 miles from Arima on Saturday 1st October 1896.

In 1896, the Trinidad Government Railway ordered a new engine from England for the extension, No.13, which was placed into service on 25 August 1897. Engine No.13 was built by Kitson and Company of Leeds and was very similar in design to No.11 which is preserved today at Harris Promenade in San Fernando.  

Following two years of construction, the Arima to Sangre Grande railway was opened for traffic on August 25th of 1897 when the first train, hauled by Engine No.13, arrived at Cunapo. It appears that Cunapo had become Sangre Grande although the latter was a short distance beyond.

On that Wednesday, 25 August, shortly after 12 noon the first special train arrived with His Excellency the Governor Sir Hubert Jerningham, Director of Public Works Mr Walsh Wrightson, Senior Member of the Legislative Council Sir Louis de Verteuil and other prominent invited guests including two Cocoa proprietors of the area, Aucher Warner (son-in-law of the previous Governor, Sir William Robinson), soon to become Solicitor General; and JG De Gannes.

Following a parade of the children of the Cunapo Government School amidst arches decorated by streamers, coconut branches, cane leaves, and balisier, Aucher Warner addressed a jubilant gathering at the new railway station: “A great period of prosperity is about to dawn for those who do not know, in a circle about me lie some of the finest cocoa plantations of this island. As a result, this place is bound to become an important inland town, a centre of commerce and labour for the whole of the north-eastern region.”

A call was made on the authorities to improve communications to the east coast of Trinidad, then still only accessible by horse-and-carriage through dirt tracks, through the onward expansion of the railways as previously planned. Warner continued: “With the development of Sangre Grande we hope soon to be able to say: “We crossed the island in a day, saw the sea, and came back.

The coming of the railway had in fact altered history by the loss of “Cunapo” for “Sangre Grande” as the area around the old railway station remains known today. The official opening of the Sangre Grande extension railway took place on 1st September 1897 when trains began to operate to public time table.

The total final cost of the extension was £79,856 (or £ 7.3M in today’s money) equal to £6,222 per mile of railway. The line was built under budget, for about £8,038 less than the original the estimate (around £739,000 in today’s money), a very infrequent occurrence in today’s world where gross project overruns appears to be the order of the day

The total quantity of earthworks executed amounted to 259,262 cubic yards. This is considerably more than was provided for in the estimate, for, after the estimate was made it was found necessary to raise formation level on a long embankment between Balata and Aripo rivers as much as 2 feet 6 inches, as the high flood level had been taken too low. Then again, a large embankment at Guaico required more than twice the calculated quantity before it would stand in its proper shape. The cost of the earthworks was £10,053 and the average cost per yard was 9.3 pence.

There were forty-four bridges and culverts on the railway: the following list gives their sizes:

  • 1 Bridge, three spans, one 100 feet, one 80 feet, and one 50 feet (Guanapo river)
  • 1 Bridge, one span, 80 feet.
  • 4 Bridges, each one span, 50 feet
  • 6 Bridges, each one span, 25 feet
  • 1 Bridge, two spans, one 15, one 8 feet
  • 7 Bridges, each one span, 15 feet
  • 14 Bridges, each one span, 6 feet
  • 3 Culverts, each one span, 5 feet
  • 3 Culverts, each one span, 4 feet
  • 2 Culverts, each one span, 2 feet, 6 inches – 2 Culverts, each one span, 2 feet.

All the masonry was made of cement concrete, the total quantity being 4,911 cubic yards.

The permanent way consisted of rails weighing 60lb. to the yard, fastened to the sleepers, which were 9 feet by 10 inches by 5 inches, by holding down bolts with clips, and dog spikes. The sleepers were made of native Balata, Demerara green heat and mora and creosoted Baltic Fir.

The railway was fenced through all private property except for the high woods of San Carlos Estate, where it was not considered necessary to erect fencing. It was originally proposed that the fencing should have iron posts, and standards, but balata posts at the suggestion of the consulting Engineers were used instead, with the result that a considerable saving in cost was affected.

There were four stations on the extension: Guanapo, Cumuto, Guaico and Sangre Grande. It was first intended to have three stations only, but at the request of planters and others in the neighbourhood of Guaico, a small station in addition was given near the crossing of the Guaico river. The expenditure on stations was considerably under the amount set down in the estimate, this was partly due to modifications in the designs of some of the buildings.

The unexpected high rates which had to be paid for some of the land through which the railway runs caused the estimate for land and compensation to be exceeded.

The expenditure under the sub-heads Construction Charges and Engineering and Administration was also in excess of the estimate, this was partly due to the time taken to construct the railway having been longer than was expected, owing to the very wet weather experienced in 1896 and 1897.

The Arima to Sangre Grande railway was officially handed over to the traffic department of the Trinidad Government Railway by the engineering department and contractors on 1 September 1897. On the same day, Telegraph communications was established at the following stations: Cumuto, Guaico and Sangre Grande.

At first trains ran three times a day to Sangre Grande from Port of Spain, Monday through Saturday, at 8:10 am, 1:16 pm and 5.30 pm and from Sangre Grande to Port of Spain at 6:15 am, 10.40 am and 3.20 pm. There were two trains in both directions on Sundays which ran to the same schedule as the first and last weekday trains. The timetable was very slightly altered from time to time over the years. 

There was always an engine stabled in the shed at Sangre Grande and a turntable for turning the locomotive for the return journey to Port of Spain.

Sangre Grande became a popular location for Railway excursions from the capital, one such outing was Reported in the Port of Spain Gazette on Sunday 3rd February 1908 when; “His Excellency the Governor Sir. Henry Moore Jackson and a party of ladies and Gentlemen including The Earl of Dudley and Countess Dudley, The Right Honourable H Arnold Foster M.P. and son, Hon G.T. Fenwick and R.S. Archer Warner, went on an excursion by special train yesterday (2 Feb 1907) to Sangre Grande. They left the City at 11:15 a.m. and returned in the evening by special excursion train”.

Another report which appeared in the Port of Spain Gazette on January 6th, 1920 provides us with an idea of the goods traffic on the Sangre Grande line reporting that; “2600 bags of Cocoa brought in by goods train today with 1600 bags alone from Sangre Grande line”.

A truly historic event occurred on the Sangre Grande line when TGR Engine No.11 hauled the first ever passenger train on the Trinidad Government Railway to be fired by local crude oil rather than imported British (Welsh) coal, between Port-of-Spain and Arima, on 31 October 1918. This train terminated at Sangre Grande before returning to Port-of-Spain the same day.

The Port-of-Spain Gazette carried the following report: “A TGR locomotive, No. 11, successfully ran from Port of Spain to Arima on oil for the first time instead of coal. This was a great achievement and because of the successful trials on No 11 the TGR announced that up to six locomotives could be burning oil by the end of 1918”.

Today historic locomotive No.11 is preserved at Harris Promenade in San Fernando.

The railway operation suffered accidents over the years, on 30 November 1921, the Sangre Grande Goods train ran off the line at D’abadie without loss of life or serious injury to the crew. However, on another occasion, 12 November 1923, another Sangre Grande Goods train derailed between Guanapo and Cumuto. In this instance Guard Julius, while carrying out shunting operations, sustained injuries necessitating his treatment at Arima hospital.

On 4 July 1920, a fire broke out on TGR locomotive No.9, which was at the time fired by oil, at Sangre Grande engine shed. A cleaner, Gonzales, was seriously burned and sent to hospital.

A significant event in the history of the railway to Sangre Grande was the rebuilding of many of the original bridges to accommodate more modern heavier locomotives which began to arrive from Canada in 1920. Construction work started in 1920 and on Monday 22 January 1923 the first of the new engines ran through to Sangre Grande. The previous day the Trinidad Guardian reported: “Sunday 21 January 1923: Now that the construction work of the three Railway bridges along the Sangre Grande line has been completed one of the new Canadian 40-ton engines will be run over that line for the first-time tomorrow morning. This, no doubt, will be a great boon to the public inasmuch as the engine will be charged with the drawing of the goods trains only. The engine was given a trial run over the line on Tuesday (16th instant) afternoon with a few carriages, the Chief Engineer, the Traffic Manager, the Construction Engineer and the District Engineer of the Northern Division. The trial proved satisfactory”.

During 1922, as part of special requirements for the new Canadian Engines, Sangre Grande and all other terminus stations across Trinidad received extended engine turntables (a devise used for turning engines at the end of the lines). The new tables were completed by C. R. Walker in 1923.

Trinidad’s railways were prosperous in the early years but began running into financial difficulties in the period leading up to 1920 when the TGR lost money for the first time.  

 In 1931 came the first call for railway closure when a Member of the Government Legislative Council called upon Governor Sir Alfred Claude Hollis to scrap the railway which had suffered heavy losses resulting in a drain on public revenue funds. However, with the outbreak of the second world war, in 1939, the railway became critical for the transportation needs of the Colony. Furthermore, on 27 March 1941 came the famous US Leased Agreement signed in London and on 24 April US Forces arrived in Trinidad and set about building the Waller air Base.

Major David Ogden was district engineer in charge of base construction in Trinidad where heavy reliance was placed on the railway. The Americans ran a branch line from the TGR main line, close to Cumuto, to the base at Wallerfield and brought in a large fleet of their own locomotives and rolling stock. Waller Army Airfield was activated during September of 1941

After the war, the railway once again found itself in financial difficulties and on 12 March 1953 the TGR announced cut in services, which came into being on 1 April, affecting the Arima to Sangre Grande, San Fernando to Princes Town and San Fernando to Siparia lines.

On 12 March 1953, the Trinidad Guardian reported: “TGR To Cut Service From Next Month – Curtailment of certain railway services, with the object of effecting cuts in operations costs, is being undertaken by the Railway Authority Board. effective April 1st, 1953. An announcement by the Chairman of the Railway board, Mr. R. C. Duff Urquhart, discloses that services will be fully or partially withdrawn from the following routes: ARIMA – SANGRE GRANDE: No service either for goods or passengers will be maintained beyond Arima. Passenger trains will leave Arima for Port-of-Spain and Port-of-Spain for Arima on present times.

SAN-FERNANDO – PRINCES TOWN: The rail passenger service from San-Fernando to Princes town will be discontinued but goods services will be maintained until further notice. An additional bus service will be put into service along the Guaracara – Tabaquite road between San-Fernando and Williamsville via Union and Reform or beyond according to traffic requirements. 

SAN-FERNANDO – SIPARIA: The rail passenger service from San Fernando to Siparia will be discontinued but goods services will be maintained. Passenger trains will leave San Fernando for Port-of-Spain and Port-of-Spain for San Fernando on present times”.

On 1 April 1953, the proposed closures went ahead as reported previously and The Guardian Newspaper reported: “3 Mournful Blasts and the Last Train Leaves Sangre Grande: Sangre Grande April 1 – Several railway patrons including vendors gathered on the platform of the railway station here last night, to bid farewell to two trains that left the district for the last time. The school children’s train which arrived at 6:30 pm, left at 8:45 pm, while the regular passenger train left at 9:15 pm after coming in for the last time at 8:20 pm with 12 passengers. No ticket was sold for the first train -at 5:45 am.- yesterday morning as the only passenger being a school boy with season ticket. The trains that left last night, were not regular trains all of which have been ordered back to Arima, the new terminus on the opposite end of the Port of Spain line. The last train to leave gave three mournful blasts each lasting three to four minutes as a farewell.

Goods Trains – Even the goods trains have been abolished, despite representations by large firms and establishments, which use no other means from Port of Spain and South. Some people are hopeful that the train service will return within three months. Many people of Sangre Grande mourn the cutting of the service even only for sentimental reasons since they claim that they knew the train from birth. An old resident informed the Guardian that the train was introduced into this town at the turn of the last century, around 1899. A staff of four – two assistant Station Masters and two porters – have been detailed to round off affairs at this end are assigned to the goods shed for the purpose of completing delivery of goods and parcels.”

With these defining events the Sangre Grande railway line slipped into history after only 56 years of existence. Today fragments of the route are still very much in evidence but it is hard to imagine the excitement and jubilation expressed on 25 of August 1897, upon the arrival of that first train one hundred and twenty years ago.

 

About the Author

Glen Beadon
Railway Enthusiast