In this new blog series (of 4 blogs), we will see the different modes of transport used in Mauritius and how they shaped the island’s landscape and postal history. This blog, and the upcoming three ones, will cover the following (i) railway transport; (ii) maritime transport; (iii) air transport and (iv) other modes of inland transport.
PART 1: Rail transport
At the beginning of 1860, the transport of passengers and goods was undertaken by about 2,000 horses, 4,000 donkeys and 4,500 carriages and carts. There is therefore no doubt that the introduction of trains in 1864 was a formidable innovation and revolution in the transport sector in Mauritius. It not only shaped the re- organisation of the colony at the time, but it also helped to dis-enclave rural areas and eased access to education.
Post offices were opened at each station, and on the trains, the travelling postman (as can be seen in the above postage stamp issued in the 1974 Postage Stamp issue) accepted mails from passengers. Although trains ceased to operate in 1956, many post offices are still located in the old railway stations. In some of them, the platforms still remain.
The first main railway line was opened on the island on 23 May 1864. It covered a distance of 50 km between Port Louis and Grand River South East, and passed through the districts of Pamplemousses, Rivière du Rempart and Flacq.
A second main line, the Midlands line, was opened on 22 October 1865, covering 56 km. It linked Port-Louis to Mahébourg. This line contributed to the development of urban agglomerations by passing through the Beau Bassin, Rose Hill, Quatre Bornes, Phoenix, Vacoas, Curepipe and Rose-Belle.
As rural areas developed, the railway network was gradually extended. Secondary lines were therefore introduced in particular for commercial exchange and transportation of passengers as well as agricultural products such as tobacco, sugar cane and aloes, which mainly grew there.
Four secondary lines were constructed:
- The 42-km Moka-Flacq line, was inaugurated on 11 December 1876, joining Midlands and Rose Hill. It went through Plaines Wilhems, Moka and Flacq to Rivière Sèche, where it formed a junction with the North line.
- The Savanne line (18 km) joined the Midlands branch at Rose-Belle and ran through the Savanne District to Souillac.
- The Black-River line, 21 km long, and operational since 27 August 1904ran from Port-Louis to Tamarin;.
- The Long Mountain branch, 6.5 km long, was opened on 21 September 1903.
Railways were mainly used for the transport of sugar cane, but they were of course very important to trade in general and enabled the movement of passengers and general freight. From 1880 to 1910, it is estimated that approximately 100,000 tons of sugar cane was carried by trains. This was made possible because Mauritius had a vast network of narrow-gauge industrial railway lines, each connecting a sugar mill with nearby sugar cane plantations. Some of the steam locomotives used on these lines are still preserved, mostly at various sugar mills around Mauritius.
By the early 20th century, the railway network of was about 200 km, and connected most districts and large villages of the island. At the peak of its development, the Mauritius Government Railways had a fleet of 52 steam locomotives, all including a total of 200 passenger coaches and 750 goods wagons.
Following the Second World War traffic declined in the face of road competition and passenger services (lorries and busses were introduced in 1920). Railway services ceased in 1956. The last passenger train made its journey on 31 March 1956, between Port-Louis and Curepipe.
Carrying of sugar, but heavy goods and general merchandise continued until 1964. Industrial railways for the transportation of cane from field to factory knew the same fate and most of them closed about the same time. Today, a number of locomotives can still be found for display various locations.