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Tragedy at Kendal - 1957

The worst rail disaster in Jamaica's history, and the second worst rail disaster in the world at that time.

On Sunday, September 1, 1957, hundreds of members of the Holy Name Society of St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church boarded a train at the Kingston Railway Station for an all day excursion to Montego Bay under the guidance of their pastor, the Reverend Father Charles Earle.

Also on board were close to 100 known criminals, hooligans and pickpockets. In all the number of passengers totalled 1600 ­ an interesting feat given that the limit for each of the 12 cars was 80. The criminals were said to have caused such a ruckus during the trip that a priest declared that the wrath of God had surely descended on them.

Unknown to him, that statement was prophetic. At around 11:30 p.m. on the train's return leg, as the two diesel engines and dozen wooden cars neared the sleeping town of Kendal, Manchester, three shrill whistle blasts signalled the journey's abrupt and tragic end. Within minutes, the train had picked up speed and derailed. Fragments of human bodies were strewn among scores of twisted metal. Close to 200 persons lost their lives, and 700 sustained injuries in what was described as the worst rail disaster in Jamaica's history, and the second worst rail disaster in the world at that time.

Word travelled fast and hundreds flocked to the scene only to be greeted with the sight of corpse after corpse laid out on an embankment, looking, in the words of a survivor, like bundles of dirty clothes.

The cause of the accident was later determined to be the accidental closure of an angled wheel (brake) cock that had been placed incorrectly. Some survivors reported that many of the hooligans had ridden on the platforms and steps and some had tampered with that angle cock while en route to Montego Bay. Others indicated they had seen the wheel in question tightened in Montego Bay. While neither of these accounts could be confirmed, some things were known for sure. The train was overcrowded - there were 130-150 passengers per car. Confidence in the rail service was shaken and much looting and robbing of the dead and injured occurred after the crash. The ensuing investigation found a number of deficiencies among the Jamaica Railway Corporation. Regarding the train in question - the general standard of maintenance of the brake equipment was deemed unsatisfactory.

Left photograph:
Survivors and spectators picking their way through and around the wreckage of three telescoped coaches.

Right photograph:
A body hangs limp from the wreckage of a rail car. Police later said this man was on their 'most wanted' list.

Jamaica's Railway History

  • In 1845, the Illustrated London News (pictured above) described the JRC's ceremonious opening on November 21 of that year in detail. On that morning, the first leg ­ Kingston to Spanish Town ­ was opened at approximately 11:30 a.m by then colonial governor, the Earl of Elgin and attended by numerous influential colonists as well as members of the general public climbed aboard. The 10 carriage train pulled out of the Kingston terminal to the sounds of the 1st West India Regiment, beginning the first railway excursion in the British West Indies.

  • The £222,250 railway, a feat of engineering, was built soon after the first public railway in England, making it one of the first in the world. It owed its development to two pioneers, William and David Smith, merchant/landowner and planter respectively.

  • In 1869, the Spanish Town to Old Harbour extension opened, but the greater part of Jamaica's railway was constructed between 1885 and 1896 ­ Spanish Town to Ewarton (1885), Porus to Montego Bay (1894) and Bog Walk to Port Antonio (1896).

  • In 1879 the railway system was taken over by the government for a 10 year period before it was sold to an American syndicate for £800,000. By 1900, the American company, having lost money due to low receipts, turned the system back over to the government.

  • In the 1920s a one-way train ticket from Spanish Town to Kingston cost a total of 3 shillings, 6 pence. Travel in a 5 seater motor car cost 1 shilling, 6 pence per mile or 21 shillings.
  • On July 30, 1938, 32 people lost their lives and over 70 were injured in Balaclava headed from Kingston to Montego Bay. An engine jumped the rails and embedded itself firmly into the mountainside, followed by coaches which when forced on from the rear, piled themselves one on top of the other, orchestrating chaos and death.

  • In the 1950s dieselisation occurred, reducing operating costs and increasing passenger comfort. However, the cost of moving freight by rail in Jamaica was still listed as among the highest in the world ­ the system's operating deficit was in the region of £300,000.

  • By the 1970s, the railway extended for 333 km (224 1/4 miles) with the principal connections being Kingston and Montego Bay in the north-west, and Kingston and Port Antonio in the north-east, with a junction at Spanish Town.

  • Today, the Government is conducting discussions with a team from the Rail India Technical and Economic Service (RITES) regarding the long-delayed resumption of the national rail services. The first phase, commuter services, between Kingston and Spanish Town then Kingston to Linstead, was expected to be up and running by January 2001 but there have been delays. The initial investment required for the first phase is set at US$8 million. The Government is said to be considering an initial 40 per cent shareholding, to be used for improving infrastructure, loading stock and the purchase of new trains.

  • Having run for over 150 years, the railway ceased operation in 1992 except for sections on which bauxite is drawn.

  • Throughout the railway's history it provided a means of transportation for people of many races and classes, it afforded more people the chance to engage in islandwide travel and because of the relatively low rates, more people from lower socio-economic classes were able to participate.

Sources: Clarke, C. G. (1974). Jamaica in Maps. London: Hodder & Staughton Educational, Cundall, F (1923) Handbook of Jamaica. Kingston: Government Printing Office, Johnston J. (1903) Jamaica, the New Riviera. London: Cassell and Co. Ltd, The Jamaica Railway Corporation. The Railway in Jamaica, 1845-1870 - A Short History. Kingston : JRC.

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature posted September 3, 2001
Copyright 2001. Produced by Go-Jamaica.com