Not yet ten years ago, there was talk that Guyana would resurrect the railroad along coastal Guyana. Indeed, this country had the first railway on the South American continent. We scrapped it when oil became a cheap commodity. Never in our wildest dreams did we expect that oil would have been the devil it is today… wreaking havoc with many economies.
The railway was a money spinner for cargo at a time when the roads in rural Guyana were atrocious; when trucks were not the modern vehicles they are today and their fixed axles caused the un-surfaced roads to deteriorate fast.
There was a time when people put their cars on the trains to get them to the city. On East Coast Demerara, the roads beyond the lower East Coast were simply horrible and almost impassable. It was no different on West Demerara. People travelling to locations along the Essequibo River would simply take the train.
Rice farmers made the most use of this form of transport and Transport and Harbours Department organized the railway system so that there was a link with every service offered by the department. For example, trains had to run at a certain time to catch a certain ferry. If the train was delayed, so too was the ferry.
Oil was cheap then and Guyana undertook some massive road works. There was the construction of the East Coast Demerara Public Road leading all the way to Rosignol. It also scrapped the West Demerara rail service. Travel was so much quicker. In the end the railway became redundant for people travelling the longer distances.
The government scrapped the East Coast railway in parts, eventually dismantling it all together. Then came the 1973 oil crisis. Even as Guyana was reaping a windfall from rice and sugar on the international market, the oil crisis was beginning to bite. The local currency devalued rapidly and suddenly the government recognized that scrapping the railway was a horrible mistake.
In hindsight one would say that scrapping the railway was precipitate but then again, with the global economy being relatively stable at that time, no one could have expected the backlash when the Middle East decided that it was going to use oil as a weapon against the West.
In countries where there are railways, it has been found that they are by far the cheapest mode of transport. In addition, they move large numbers of people at a time. The configuration of the tracks allow for travel across the shortest possible distance. This is good for fuel consumption and would prove cost effective.
Had there been a rail service in Guyana, the long lines at the various bus parks would not have been a reality. These days people spend hours at the bus park and then literally fight to board the buses. Some of them must endure discrimination and on many occasions watch helplessly as buses refuse to take them and their children.
The former President Jagdeo must have recognized the advantages of having a railway and discussed the possibility during a visit to India. The cost must have been prohibitive because since that early announcement, there has been no further discussion on the matter.
And while Guyana can only sit and wonder what if, others are planning to construct railroads. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales is planning a railway linking his country to Peru. This railway would run from the border with Brazil to the Peruvian port. The reason is that it is cheaper to ship cargo by rail than by road. Guyana at one time thought otherwise.
Bolivia is getting help from the Chinese who have said that they are keen to make the project a reality. And as fate would have it, China has the fastest train in the world. The Chinese are also in Guyana undertaking many projects. It is strange that the idea of a railway has not been mooted.
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