Mr Lalchan and the railway
THERE is a point along Lee Mong Road, Tabaquite, where you can drive no further. Big bush has erased the trail that once led on to the cocoa village on Chorro Estate, both places now just memories of old people.
At this dead end, you will find eight houses on a hilltop belonging to the descendants of the Sukhan couple, indentureship-era cane labourers who bought ten acres of agricultural land so they wouldn’t have to work for anybody ever again.
The Sukhans farmed the land, planting rice, corn, cassava and cane, raising six children, and in the tradition of the time, finding husbands for the daughters and passing the land to the three sons.
One of those sons, Lalchan, would find himself a witness to some of Trinidad’s important history, working as a young man in the village limestone quarries which helped surface area roads and in the pipe-laying project to bring water from the newly-dammed Navet Dam.
But it is those 26 years that Lalchan worked as a platelayer that you might want to know about. No such job exists in Trinidad and Tobago today. That’s because there is no longer a railway. The last train rolled into Caroni Ltd’s Usine Ste Madeleine sugar factory on May 15, 1998. And the last passenger train made that trip from San Juan to Port of Spain the evening of December 28, 1968.
Lalchan was an employee of Trinidad Government Railways (TGR), which operated a passenger and cargo service that, at one point, provided an unbroken link from Port of Spain to Siparia, Sangre Grande and Rio Claro.
TGR created a connectivity and speed of travel that modern-day commuters would do almost anything to have and propelled Trinidad’s pre-Independence economic and infrastructural development.
We spoke last week with Lalchan at his home, where he lives with the youngest of his nine children, a 60-year-old son. Here was a man still living in a time when courtesy and manners mattered. He donned his fedora, invited us in, brought chairs, asked whether someone needed a drink.
His memory was at times precise, at times blank. He spoke with pride about working for small pay, but building his own house before he found a wife. He told, too, of being ready for the end, about the deaths of two brothers, three of his nine children, and his wife four decades ago, when he was still young. Then told about who he expected to attend his 101st birthday next February.
Here is what we found out:
Lalchan got his railway job in 1940. He was on an eight-day leave from his road-working employ at the time, when he went looking for a better-paying job with TGR.
He got it, he said, “because I was a good workman” and “I never went back to the road again. It was the rail from then”.
It was his job to lay down those wooden sleepers, pounding on those railway spikes, greasing levers, ensuring that the lines from Jerningham Junction, Cunupia, to the turntable at Rio Claro were safe to travel, moving from one location to the next by railway handcar.
Every job he ever did in life was hard work, the railway hardest of all.
Lalchan is almost certainly the oldest TGR worker still alive.
Railway historian/researcher/writer Glen Beadon had preserved much of this TGR history and can tell Lalchan’s family much of their patriarch’s life.
According to Beadon, Lalchan would have belonged to the “Engineering and Maintenance Branch” of Trinidad Government Railways.
This branch (or department, which was one of eight branches on the railway) consisted of: eight Signal Linesmen, 31 Gangers, 260 Platelayers, seven Carpenters, nine Blacksmiths, seven Strikers, three Painters, nine Trolleymen, eight Yardsmen, 35 Sub-Gangers and one Sub-Foreman.
The safe running of trains would have greatly depended on the skill and dedication of these workmen.
To maintain the track, known as the “Permanent way”, there were 30 gangs, each with a Ganger, Sub-Ganger and a total of five Platelayers in charge of an average section length of five miles to each gang. Every morning without fail and regardless of weather conditions, the ganger or sub-ganger, in turn, walked the section before the passage of the first train, which in “crop-time” could be as early as 5 a.m.
At the end of the “walk”, the “all-clear” was telegraphed through to Port of Spain so that trains could begin their journeys.
The railway line to Tabaquite was initiated in 1897 when TGR constructed a new line from Jerningham Junction through Caparo valley. The junction was named after the Governor of the day, Sir Hubert Jerningham.
In January of the following year, 1898, the railway officially opened for public traffic from Jerningham Junction to Brasso, a distance of 12 1/4 miles. This line became known as the “Caparo Valley Line”.
In order to reach the district of Tabaquite, TGR was faced with perhaps the most testing engineering challenge in the history of the railway. A 660-foot-long tunnel was required in order to drive the line under a section of Trinidad’s Central Range, and the centre of the tunnel would reach 400 ½ ft above sea level, the highest elevation on the entire system.
The line was opened through the tunnel to Tabaquite from Brasso, a distance of 2 3/4 miles, on August 20, 1898. The tunnel and railway extension were officially inaugurated by the then-acting colonial Governor of Trinidad and Tobago, Sir Clement Courtney Knollys.
It was an historic moment not only for the agricultural communities in the Tabaquite area, but for the people of Trinidad and Tobago. The tunnel became thereafter known as “Knollys Tunnel” and today it is a national heritage site.
The Tabaquite line had not yet been completed when plans for a further extension to Rio Claro were already under discussion. The estimate for the cost of construction was £123,708 for the section of line from Tabaquite to Rio Claro. On September 29, 1911, the first sod was turned at Tabaquite for the extension of the Caparo Valley line onward to Rio Claro, by Governor Sir George Ruthven Le Hunte. The railway to Rio Claro opened on October 1, 1914. TGR had hoped to open the line a month earlier but were delayed because of administrative setbacks, however, goods traffic did begin on September 1 of that same year.
Stations along the Caparo Valley or Rio Claro Line from Jerningham Junction included the following stops—Enterprise, Depot Halt, Longdenville, Todd’s Road, Caparo, Mamoral Halt, Brasso-Piedra, Flanagin Town, Brasso, Mitchell’s Gap, Tabaquite, T.C.O. (Trinidad Central Oilfield), Brother’s Road, Jeffers Crossing, San Pedro Poole, Dades Trace and Rio Claro.
Trains ran three times a day to Rio Claro from Port of Spain via a connecting train at Jerningham Junction. Monday to Saturday, at 6.36 a.m., noon and 5.04 p.m. and from Rio Claro to Port of Spain at 5.25 a.m., 10.45 a.m. and 3.50 p.m. There were two trains in both directions on Sundays and public holidays.
Said Beadon: “I was told by one ex-resident of Tabaquite, Mr Ken Ramkeesoon, that In Tabaquite, the line ran parallel to the main road for about half a mile and, if one was late and running to get to the station, certain engine drivers would slow down to give you time to get there. The railway was then an integral part of the local community and its absence is still very much lamented to this day.”
NOTE: Lalchan was born the same year that a small locomotive was dispatched from Leeds, England, to work the TGR lines. This engine, unknown to many, is now on display at San Andres Museum in Port of Spain.
Next week, Beadon shares what he knows about Engine “D”.