Rails to Trails – could retired railways provide future trails for Jamaica?

In a perfect world, all cars would be zero emission vehicles; Jamaica would have excellent and efficient public transportation that was cheap, clean, and faster than travelling by car; and there would be inclusive infrastructure that allowed you to ride a bicycle or walk to work or school on a nice cool morning. Unfortunately, none of those things are currently present in Jamaica, so let’s look at future possibilities and a little history about an almost forgotten piece of the island, railways.

jamaica railway

Jamaica’s original railway opened in 1845. It was the first railway outside of Europe and North America. It was constructed to reduce transportation costs from plantations to export sugar since slavery had been abolished a decade earlier and there was no longer free labour. An expansion of the railroad in the late 1800’s led to an increase in farming in Jamaica’s rugged interior and the rise of the United Fruit Company that dominated the north shore in the early 20th century. As of 1925, there is a total number of 331.12 km (205.75 miles) of track built. The passenger train service ceased in 1992 after Hurricane Gilbert (1988) destroyed much of the remaining rail infrastructure, leaving only privately funded Bauxite lines in service. BUT, in 2011 the railway between Spanish Town and Linstead reopened briefly. Only to be closed once more in 2012. In 2016, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the resumption of the passenger and cargo rail service was signed. Unfortunately, restarting service has not panned out in the timeline that was predicated and adjusted, and adjusted once more.

jamaica railway.png

So, what can we do with what remains of an integral part of Jamaica’s history? First, we can preserve the remaining stations and ensure that that part of history is protected for future generations. Next, we could retire the railways all together and convert them into trails for biking and walking, or we could utilise the land around the railways and convert it into “rails-with-trails” space. Either way, we should strongly consider that Jamaica has this gentle sloping land that stretches across the country and is perfect for creating another connection between Kingston, Montego Bay, and Port Antonio. A train ride through Jamaica’s countryside is probably a worthwhile experience but, unfortunately, progress is at a halt for passenger trains currently. A possible resurrection of the service would be good for the country. Not just for the environment and providing another mode of transportation, but because it would give people a front row view to what they need to work towards protecting. Jamaica’s wild and natural beauty.

jamaica railway.png
San Clemente Beach Trail, California

So what is rails-with-trails you ask? Well the term was coined by the Rails to Trails Conservancy in the US, although this practice isn’t unique to the country. They have made it their mission to encourage policy makers and planners to make use of retired railways and make them functioning and friendly green spaces. The idea is that trains can only travel on gently sloping land, they can’t travel on steep hills, and so that makes the land perfect for recreation. It’s also a little like recycling land. In the case of retired railways, a community could cover up and use the pre-existing path from the rails to create new trails. This is called “rails-to-trails”. In Jamaica’s case, with the possibility of a revival of passenger trains, we could instead construct trails adjacent to functioning tracks on unused land belonging to the railroad company. Or “Rails-With-Trails”.

This may sound dangerous and irresponsible, or even useless. But, the truth is that it lowers the occurrence of trespassing on railways and provides easy and safe access to the same destinations the train travels. Most railways don’t have a fence or barrier along the tracks to keep foot traffic out. With a trail running alongside tracks, a fence or barrier is usually present to ensure the safety of people using the trail. Thus, lowering the number of people crossing tracks or walking on the rails outside of designated crossings. As for the trails being useless, that’s simply not true. Greenways and trails are a wonderful initiative to get people active in their communities and safe spaces separate from automobile traffic. Minister of Health, Hon. Dr. Tufton launched Jamaica Moves to get people active to combat preventable diseases and live overall happier and healthier lives. It is almost common knowledge that 30 minutes of daily exercise can help to lower a person’s risk of contracting a whole host of preventable diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes as well as improve mood and mental health.


Providing greenways is just another step towards becoming a more developed nation. One that Jamaica can achieve easily. The most developed nations provide easy access to green spaces for citizens to enjoy. Creating 331 km of trails or more across Jamaica would put the country on the map as having one of the longest greenways in the region and the only greenway in the Caribbean.

Below is the map of Jamaica’s railway network in 1925.

All stops are important areas of business or education. One thing that a greenway should be is convenient. This is important to note because that makes the greenway function as both a recreational path or trail as well as a possible method of commuting for adults and young students alike. But even if the greenway does not, in the long run, encourage commuting by walking or biking, it would still be a great use of space for recreation.

Before concluding, it is important to mention and recognise that this could lead to an increase in employment across the country. Bicycle sales and rental and repair shops could be opened up along the route of greenway. Tours could be offered to tourists interested in taking scenic rides across the country. And maintenance workers could be kept busy keeping the trails clean and beautiful. I won’t pretend to know the potential revenue or number of jobs this could create but (there are many sources that cite monetary benefits of trails) it is just an example of what is possible with the creation of many kilometres of trails. Obviously there is a cost to create something so grand and extensive, and that cost can be great if resources are not allocated correctly, but there are also serious potential benefits in the area of job creation that should not go unnoticed.

All pictures not labeled are from the incredibly informative website: bwiphilately.com. There are more photos and even a video from 1913 with footage of a trip taken on the train in Jamaica that is worth watching.

Sources used in this article and for further reading

Rails with Trails

Types of greenways

For more info and pictures on Jamaica’s railway

Economic benefits of trails

Trail building resources

List of cycleways around the world

Australian study of economic benefits of rails to trails

Disclaimer: The photos included in this article are not the property of Cycle Jamaica.

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