By Dr. TARA SINGH
Ideas for this article are exploratory in nature and are by no means definitive. The aim is to stimulate discussion on the viability of such a project in Guyana at a time of high expectation for oil revenues to keep pouring into the public treasury. The strategic value of the past railway system could be attested to by older Guyanese who used the system either for business, to attend schools, or for leisure/recreation. They also know that the railway had been able to connect several of their disparate communities.
Unfortunately, the Guyana railway system fell to the hatchet of the so-called cost-benefit analysis.
With the mayhem on the roads of Guyana, the escalating transport costs for both expanding passenger and freight flows, as well as, the dire need for safe, efficient and comfortable traffic, one of the best means to avoid these pitfalls in the future is to build a railway system that will also bring divergent communities together. Guyana’s railway system of the past had proven that these objectives and more are achievable.
In 1992, the then Senior Minister of Finance, Mr Asgar Ally, had stated that he was in favor of restoring the railway system in Guyana and would have considered the recruitment of engineers from India should that project become a reality. Unfortunately, that only remained a dream as the PPP government in 1992 inherited a bankrupt economy and they had to utilize 153% of revenues to service the national debt.
To maintain critical programs, therefore, the funding had to come, in part, from borrowing and grants. In addition to reducing the debt to GDP ratio, the PPP government embarked upon a program to reduce the debt by asking donors for debt forgiveness. That was an effective strategy.
When Mr Ally left office a few years later, it was not clear if any member of Cabinet had taken up the building of a new railway system. Ally did indicate that the conduct of a feasibility study was necessary before any movement could take place. With his departure, the railway idea seemed to have faded. Other important matters like governance Issues and poverty reduction took center stage.
But that idea, though dormant for almost two decades later, was once again thrown into the public domain by the then President of Guyana Dr Bharrat Jagdeo. At a 1,000 Eccles house-let distribution program at the Providence Sports stadium, Dr Jagdeo announced the PPP government’s intention to build a railway system from Diamond (East Bank Demerara) to Mahaica (East Coast Demerara). However, that project could not be implemented because the PPP government at the 2011 Regional and General Elections had lost its majority in the Parliament and all visionary projects and programs were blocked by the opposition.
Notwithstanding, dreams of a railway system have not only survived the scrapping of the railway system in 1972-1974, but continue also to rise with the traffic nightmare on the roads as well as with the potential to fund a railway system from portion of the country’s oil revenues. To be clear, what is advocated here is a railway system along with a road system. These two systems have to co-exist.
It may be recalled that the 70 miles Georgetown to Rosignol railway was opened in 1848. It was the first railway system in South America.
The first phase of construction was from Georgetown to Plaisance; then it was extended to Belfield in 1854 and to Mahaica in 1864 and thence to Rosignol in 1897-1900. Having been managed and owned by the private Demerara Railway Company, this system was sold to the government’s Transport and Harbors Department in 1922.
The West Coast railway (called the Demerara Essequibo Railway) extending from Vreed-en-Hoop to Parika for 18.5 mikes, was completely built in 1914. The first phase of construction was from Vreed-en-Hoop to Greenwich which was completed in 1899 and it was next extended to Parika in 1914. There were 9 Railway stations and 4 platform stops. This system was scrapped in 1974.
Both the Georgetown to Rosignol (GRR) and the Demerara Essequibo (DER) railway systems were built and funded by the sugar companies. In this way, they could facilitate the speedy, and cost effective transport of their products like sugar, molasses, etc. to the shipping docks and commercial centers.
The railway system was discontinued by the Burnham PNC government because they cited continued financial operational losses. That was on the advice of a United Nations expert Professor Alam. When the DER system was closed in 1974, the PNC never thought that shortly afterwards, the fuel prices would increase dramatically and plunge the country into an economic downturn. The then Prime Minister Dr Ptolomy Reid was forced to admit that they made a mistake. And it turned out to be a costly one.
The PPP under Dr Cheddi Jagan had a vision to build a road to connect Guyana and Brazil. That project was aborted. The PNC under LFS Burnham had a vision of harnessing hydro power in the Mazaruni region and to build an access road to it.
That project known as the Hinterland Road Project was also aborted due to funding and other problems. Neither Jagan’s nor Burnham’s dreams of busting open the interior for development happened.
Despite those setbacks, the thought of harnessing the vast potential of Guyana’s interior has never ceased to capture the attention of other visionary leaders. For example, Dr Bharrat Jagdeo initiated the Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) that earned Guyana $(US) 250 million from Norway. He is also called a Champion of the Earth.
Another innovative project at the conceptualization stage is a proposed railroad linking Guyana to Brazil. This will promote trade, industrial development, jobs, more effective control over the flow of people across national borders. It will elevate the quality of livelihood of scores of Amerindian communities.
Of course these are theoretical postulates. There is need to have a feasibility study done first to determine the economic viability of such a project.
Notwithstanding, the road project from Wismar to Lethem must become a top priority. Later, the railway can be sited along the same route as the road.
It would be interesting to see if the building of a new railway system is found in any of the political party’s manifesto.
Have a wonderful New Year!
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.