Scrapping the railway a bad decision By Chamanlall Naipaul
Guyana Chronicle
February 17, 2002

When leaders and governments make decisions that are based primarily on political considerations, rather than the scrutiny of scientific analysis, the long-term consequences in most cases are excruciating, especially for the working class.

A case in point is the traffic chaos and the alarming rate of road accidents and deaths that are occurring in Guyana. With less than a million people, the country has a per capita accident rate higher than that of the United States. Incredible, but true!

The traffic crisis that we are now experiencing has its origins in a myopic decision that was implemented three decades ago.

The decision to scrap the railway system in the early 1970s is the origin of our traffic problems today. Of course, one of the arguments used to justify the scrapping of the railways was that it was losing money. But that was due to mismanagement; all that was needed was the implementation of cost effective management.

Railways are economical and a relatively safe means of transportation. And in Guyana, the trains provided the opportunity for people from diverse villages to become acquainted and even become life long friends because of travelling regularly together to and from school and work. It was travelling with fun.

The opposition at that time, along with a significant section of the population, had virtually begged the government of the day not to scrap the railways.

A few years later, the then Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Ptolemy Reid, admitted in Parliament that it was a mistake to have scrapped the railways. But by then it was too late. Even if that government or any other one wanted to reintroduce the railways, the cost would have been prohibitive, because the main structures - the culverts across the trenches - were destroyed, and the lines and other infrastructure had disappeared.

The railways operated mainly along the Georgetown/Rosignol and Parika/Vreed-en-Hoop routes where a substantial movement of people, goods and farmers produce took place. And the cost was cheap and affordable especially for farmers’ produce. One of the reasons why consumers pay high prices for agricultural items is the high cost of transportation which is added on to their production costs. Workers and students also found it very economical especially those families who had several persons travelling long distances on a daily basis.

The disappearance of the railways also contributed to a breakdown of discipline and punctuality. Back then, commuters travelling by railway knew they had to reach at the embarkation point at a fixed time each day to board the train. These days, commuters just come out on to the roads in their own `sweet time’ hoping to catch one of the mini buses that have now become the standard means of transportation.

Apart from these social negatives, the scrapping of the railways contributed to the accelerated decline of the economy between the 1970s and 80s. Scarce foreign exchange was drained to meet the escalating costs of the huge increase in the consumption of fuel as a result of the total dependency on vehicles for road transport. This situation was aggravated by the fuel crisis which resulted from the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

The need for more vehicles and spares also put pressure on the foreign exchange reserves. This resulted in several essential items, including food, being banned. The banning, in turn, triggered a thriving black market. All Guyanese know the rest of the story.

But if one were to examine the traffic situation carefully, it seems that a significant proportion of both serious and fatal road accidents occur along the Georgetown/Rosignol and Parika/Vreed-en-Hoop routes. This may be attributed to the fact that in addition to reckless driving, there is also heavy traffic along these routes. Had there been the railways, there would not have been this volume of traffic, the situation would have been much more manageable, the damage to the roads would have been less, and the strain on the economy would not have been so great. The money that now has to be spent on repairing roads would have been available for the advancement of the housing, education and health programmes.

So we entered an era where land transport was restricted to cars, trucks, buses and the like.

Our road network, incapable of handling such traffic, became heavily congested with the increased vehicular traffic. The result was an increased number of accidents and more serious and fatal ones.

The economy struggled under the weight of the enormous increase in fuel bills and spares for motor vehicles. Lawlessness and recklessness on the roads gradually stepped in because the traffic department was under-prepared and ill-equipped to handle the situation.

The Tata buses departed to various funeral grounds around the country, and we entered the era of the mini-bus culture, with their `boom boom boxes’ (big music boxes). This era provided the perfect soil for the cultivation of lawlessness, recklessness, chaos, corruption and inconsiderate use of the roads which again were inadequate to handle the traffic.

So while most countries were and still are expanding and modernising their railway systems, we chose to scrap ours. And here we are today paying the price for that decision - where innocent lives are being snuffed out on our roads at an alarming rate, causing life long agony and suffering for the affected families.

Perhaps, had we sat down and thought carefully about the consequences of our actions on an entire nation, this excruciating situation might not have been with us.