The Development of Railways in the South Pacific
TRANSPORTING SUGAR CANE. A Hudswell Clarke 0-
FIJI is the second largest island complex in the south Pacific area and in terms of mineral wealth and agricultural output one of the most prosperous. It also had the distinction of being colonised by the British. In the middle years of last century British rule meant railways, for the heritage of Trevithick and Stephenson hung heavy on our shoulders. Unlike neighbouring New Zealand, Fiji’s was not a government railway but one, or rather several, built by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company which followed the sailors, the soldiers and the administrators to help open up and develop the country.
The Fijian Island complex is made up of over a hundred islands, most of them small, and it is only the two main ones that need concern us: Viti Levu, the largest of the group, and Vanua Levu to the northeast, the second largest. In both islands the land was suitable for growing sugar cane on the northern and western sides where the mountain ranges stopped most of the rain-
The sole function of this network of railways is to haul sugar cane from the plantations into the Colonial Sugar Refining Company’s mill at Lambassa and substances such as fertilisers, much of it the fibres of the cane after the sugar has been extracted, back to the plantations. It appears that until the entire system was worked by three Fowler steam locomotives. One was an 0-
On Viti Levu there are four mills concerned with processing raw sugar cane, the biggest being at Lautoka on the extreme west side of the island. Linked to it by a network of 2 ft gauge railways is a mill at Rarawai near the strangely named town of ‘Mba (pronounced Baa). Some miles to the north-
The railways of Fiji. This map shows the principal lines on the main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.
The Penang system was an isolated section but a very different one from the Rewa Valley lines. The extreme north point of Viti Levu has the reputation of growing the best quality sugar in the islands. It is typical geologically, with a flat alluvial plain along the coast dominated by high, rugged, volcanic hills behind, two spines of which cut the Penang coastal plain off from the rest of the island. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company’s mill at Penang lies in the middle of the system, and the 7 mile line to the east of the mill not only hauls cut cane to the mill but refined products to the port at Ellington. As with all the Colonial Sugar Refining Company’s lines, there are short spurs up some of the more fertile valleys, but unlike most of the lines the Penang section is heavily graded. At various times the line boasted sundry standard Fiji-
One facet of most of the Fiji railways is that they operate extensively for six months of the year during the cane-
The laying of temporary tracks is universal in Fiji, on all the mill systems. During the cutting season over 150 miles of such temporary tracks are used throughout the two islands. All that is but a curtain raiser to the great main line of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, known officially as the Rarawai-
The “main” line from Singatoka to Rarawai Mill at ‘Mba, with all its twists and turns included, is probably 120 miles long, but there are many permanent branches and, at each end of the line, secondary lines, such as those from Singatoka to Kavanangasau in the south and from ‘Mba to Tavua in the north. It is a splendid line, opened in stages. It started with the ‘Mba Valley lines in 1885 and those serving the Lautoka mill in 1903; two years later the two systems were connected, and the final extension up the Singatoka valley in the south was brought into operation about 1914. For all its sinuous length, it tends to follow the coastal plain and so, while curves are frequent, gradients and engineering works are slight, apart from bridges over the great river valleys.
Sugar cane tends to grow best on the flat and that is what dictates the main characteristic of Fijian railways. The most sustained gradient on the main line is immediately west of Singatoka where a spine of basalt runs down to the sea; the railway has to get up and over the spine, turning and twisting as it does so and crossing and re-
One of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company’s free passenger trains as depicted on a Fijian $2 postage stamp issued in 1999.
All round the coast the sugar cane traffic is heavy, as every little creek and the flat land about it grows cane. From the railway operating point of view the two mills have their separate spheres of influence. Anything south of Lautoka, including the rich Nandi basin and the Singatoka valley with its tentacles to Kavanangasau, feed the Lautoka mill; whilst everything to the north goes to the Rarawai mill at ‘Mba. The port for export for export of processed sugar is at Lautoka and so between there and Rarawai at the height of the season there has arisen what are called “express goods”, or bulk loads of refined sugar products coming from Rarawai to Lautoka for shipment. During the cane cutting months there can be two or three such workings in the day and they run very hard indeed; even the passenger train has to get out of their way, but as that does not earn hard cash it does not matter. The Rarawai-
The free trains are not run out of the goodness of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company’s heart but as part of the contract from the Colonial government granting the company rights to lay the rails. It ran from Lautoka to ‘Mba and back two days a week (Mondays and Thursdays). On Tuesdays and Fridays it wandered down to Singatoka, returning the following day. The usual consist was three coaches of typical Anglo-
One feature of the Rarawai-
Civil engineering features on any of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company lines in Fiji are few -
The Rewa Valley lines were always the home of lost causes, both mechanically and agriculturally. There were quite elaborately equipped sheds at both Rarawai and Lautoka mills, with major repairs and overhauls undertaken at the latter place. The Fowler locos were all originally built as tank engines of either 0-
DREWRY RAILCAR used on the Fijian railways.