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By Jack M. Turner
Photos by John C. Turner

    In late December 2013 my family and I journeyed south and enjoyed a 10 night Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard “Emerald Princess”, a member of the Princess Cruises fleet.  The cruise called at six islands where we took part in a number of sightseeing activities.  One of the highlights was the island of St. Kitts where a ride on St. Kitts Scenic Railway awaited.
   Christmas Day in the Caribbean was a nice contrast to the winter weather in the United States and the beautiful clear skies foretold a nice afternoon on the rails.  The narrow gauge railroad was constructed beginning in 1912 to connect the island’s copious sugar cane fields and sugar mills at sugar plantations.  The finished product was then loaded onto ships that transported the sugar to markets around the world.  The St. Kitts sugar industry declined and after 350 years the industry died off.  With sugar cane shipments almost dormant, investors opened the St. Kitts Scenic Railway to offer sightseeing tours of the island beginning on January 28, 2003.  The owners of the railway modeled the tour train after the White Pass & Yukon train operation at Skagway, Alaska.  As with Alaska’s WP&Y, the cruise industry has been a boon for St. Kitts Scenic as cruise ships with a 3,500 passenger capacity such as "Emerald Princess” visit the island and deposit numerous potential train riders.   Today the train ride covers 18 miles as it circles from the northwest coast, along the northern coast, to southeastern St. Kitts.  Along the way the tracks pass sugar cane fields, tropical rain forests whose canopies encircle the tracks, villages of colorful houses and stone churches, and ravines crossed by tall steel trestles.   Ocean views are plentiful during the journey as are friendly locals who enthusiastically wave at the train.

    The trip starts right beside the dock aboard shuttle busses painted and lettered for the St. Kitts Scenic Railway.  The driver narrates scenic highlights as we pass through several villages, a tree filled with egrets, and a scenic spot where we can see Brimstone Hill Fortress high above on a hillside.  The fortress is part of the island’s history which saw it change hands multiple times between the British and French.  We reach the community of Fig Tree, where we board the train, approximately a half hour after leaving the dock at Bassaterre.  Our train consists of five double deck cars, pulled by a petite diesel engine and assisted by a power car that provides electricity to the passenger cars.  The 500 horsepower engine came from Romania while the power car was built in Colorado.  The passenger cars were constructed in Seattle especially for the St. Kitts Scenic.  Passengers can choose to sit in the open air upper level which contains padded bench seats along each side of the car or downstairs in wicker chairs at tables where they can enjoy air-conditioning and large picture windows.

    Our departure point at Fig Tree is located on a balloon track which allows trains to reverse direction without having to run around a wye.  We leave at 2:48pm and note 3,792 foot Mt. Liamuiga, a dormant volcano, to the east.  About 20 minutes later the rails pass through sugar cane fields that once were part of the island’s leading industry.  Soon we pass stands of coconut palms and note various forms of wildlife.  Often passengers spot monkeys roaming the forested terrain as over 40,000 monkeys make St. Kitts their home.   At 3:10pm the tracks come into sight of the coast near Willet’s Bay and pass through the village of Dieppe Bay two minutes later.  This is the northernmost point on our train ride and across a narrow channel the island of St. Eustatius (also known as Statia) is visible.


The train boards at Fig Tree


The island of St. Eustatius stands just over 2 miles away across a channel


Mount Liamuiga, highest point on St. Kitts


Rounding a curve in front of Mt. Liamuiga


Locals wave at our train as it passes behind their home on Christmas Day 2013

    The winding line rail offers many opportunities to watch the diminutive engine with its steam engine-like drivers moving its wheels.  Our car attendant delivers complimentary piņa coladas and rum punch to passengers as we join the Atlantic coast at 3:29 and set a southeasterly course.  Soon she will offer locally produced sugar cakes to everyone.  A trio of local singers entertain the guests on our car’s upper level with a medley of Christmas songs.  They will make two passes through each car by the end of the trip. 

    Soon the tracks pass through a grove of almond trees and emerge near the village of Tabernacle.  As has been the case for most of the journey, the ocean is on the left side of the railway while mountains dominate the view to the right.  A sharp curve reveals a railway track inspection speeder running ahead of us as we approach impressive 300 foot long Christ Church Bridge, one of four steel trestles in the final 50 minutes of the trip.  Each of these towers over a ravine below and the rails navigate around a curve entering and/or leaving each trestle. 


A track inspection speeder crosses the Christ Church Bridge in advance of the train


An abandoned sugar mill


A zoom shot of the engine on the front of our train


Curving along the St. Kitts Scenic Railway

    The second trestle, set among a banana grove, is crossed at 3:51pm and views of a black sand beach appear to the left after exiting the structure.  Grange Bridge is traversed a couple minutes later and we learn that it is 90 feet tall and 200 feet long.  The train travels over the fourth bridge at 4:02pm and soon the sights become more industrial as the rails turn inland.  At 4:24pm we pull to a stop at Needmust, close to the island’s international airport; this stop also is built on a loop.  Within minutes we board the same busses that we rode from the ship to Fig Tree and within five minutes we are back in Basseterre where “Emerald Princess” is docked.


Crossing the second steel trestle off a sharp curve


A black sand beach provides evidence of volcanic activity


Passengers on the upper level enjoy the scenery


Crossing the fourth bridge on the St. Kitts Scenic Railway


Colorful houses in one of the villages along the rail line


The railway navigates around many curves during its 18 mile length

A small mountain in the Canada Hills


The front of our engine at the end of the run in Needsmust


St. Kitts Scenic Railway shops at Needsmust


Old engines parked behind the shop


The rear end of the tour train at Needsmust

    St. Kitts Scenic Railway is a great way to view the island of St. Kitts.  The hospitality of the on board personnel coupled with nice scenery provide a unique Caribbean activity.  There are two trips daily on most days when cruise ships are in port with the morning train starting out at Needsmust and the afternoon run operating in the opposite direction which allows equipment to spend the night at the railway shops for any needed maintenance.  To learn more about the railway and to view a video about the trip around St. Kitts visit the official railway website 

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