To say that Metro Express is the costliest project ever is not convincing; just think of the railway grid that covered Mauritius between 1864 and 1964
To say that our coming Metro Express is the costliest project ever is not convincing when we think of the railway grid that covered Mauritius between 1864 and 1964, paid by King Sugar. The efforts being put to realise the new project seem to pale in comparison to what went into, say, the building of bridges for the railway, as the cutting down of forests and the levelling of the ground to lay the steel tracks were all done by hand.
The Surra epidemic of 1901-02 decimated all cattle, and small trains were introduced to pull sugarcane to the factories. With time, the trains and the carts have given way to killer road vehicles. The latter, in turn, look costly and wasteful in terms of congestion and pollution so that the revival of the train has become imperative these days, when flying cars are in the offing.
Going down memory lane, the year 1956 is worth recalling for us as it was the last time passenger trains ran to carry primary school students to Pamplemousses Botanical Gardens free of charge to welcome Princess Margaret, the sister of Queen Elizabeth II. She was on a world tour, sent out by Sir Winston Churchill to forget her love affair with a lay officer, Peter Townsend, twice her age. Pupils and teachers jolted their way in the wagons to Pamplemousses railway station with the Union Jack fanions in hand.
Trains running in Mauritius were nearly a century old. Villages had cropped up around the stations which had become the hub of economic activities within a radius of one kilometre or more. Le Ravin had one such station, which is still preserved with minor adjustments. It was a beautiful carved stone building with a sloping roof of wooden shingles, glass pane doors and wooden shutters. The wide platform along which the trains and wagons stopped was made of polished stone slabs.
There was a cashier’s office where passengers bought travel tickets, a telephone service, the post office and the civil status office. There were storage facilities for goods that were to be transported. Different employees serviced the station under the supervision of a station master in uniform and kepi. They had their quarters in beautiful wooden buildings just beside the railway tracks or lines. They had a bell in their hands, along with red and green flags. Such flags were also used by attendants who lowered and raised railing barriers where the trains crossed roads. There were warnings: Stop, Look, Listen, written in black on yellow metal boards standing on both sides of the tracks, at a certain distance.
Passenger trains ran on schedule at 07.00 and 17.00 hours at Le Ravin station. Passengers were students attending colleges in Port Louis, office workers, businessmen and common people going places. Cows’ milk collected throughout the villages around and put in large cisterns was embarked for the town. Poultry and eggs bought from the homes of the public also found their way in the goods wagon. Fruit and vegetables and other commodities were included. The trains brought parcels and letters for the post office and newspapers for the public.
There was a siding near the station that went to Mon Loisir sugar factory for trains to load sugar in jute bags in goods wagons all in metal. They had large sliding doors but no windows, whereas the passenger wagons were wood yellow in colour with a lot of openings to view the countryside and places the train crossed. The goods train came very early in the morning. The trains travelling shook the ground with their weight. They were dreadful iron and steel monsters with jerky sounds, emitting white smoke of water vapour and black sooty smoke from burning coal. The shrill whistle was heard miles around. People and animals stood looking in awe as they passed, and steered clear of them.
Beside the station was a huge water tank on high walls and a large park with mountains of coal used to produce the steam required to propel the engines of the train. At the same time, there were scores of ox-carts in the villages, which required iron rims for their wheels and iron shoes for the oxen, all made by cartwrights who used coal from the yards (without paying) to heat the iron red to make it malleable. The coal emitted such tremendous heat that it could not be used for cooking. Ironsmiths made agricultural tools, door and window hinge-pins and many other iron products.
Trains carried in open wagons-like platforms the machines and equipment used in factories. Those for repairing the train machines went to Gustave Maurel ironworks along the siding. Young mechanics were formed at Plaine Lauzun workshops. Quite a few people were employed directly and indirectly by the Mauritius Railways. Village life revolved around the station with shops, vegetable market, cinema hall, playgrounds and what not.
The invention of the petrol ignition engine ended the heyday of the steam engine. Cars, lorries and buses out-competed the train that had become a financial burden to the government. Now its economic cycle has run its full circle so that its revival has become inevitable with newer challenges ahead. Road traffic has helped to create villages far and wide. Obviously, road and rail traffic will have to work hand in hand to make optimum use of resources. Better days are on the not too distant horizon.
- Published in print edition on 25 August 2017
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