The time was 14.55 on Monday, 31st December 1951. The last train of the Cyprus Government Railway (CGR) left the railway station in Nicosia. At 16.38 it arrived in Famagusta. This marked the end of an era – the CGR was no more.
A part of Cyprus` modern history, that is hardly remembered, is now on display at the Cyprus Railways Museum, housed at the railway`s southern terminal in Evrychou village in the Troodos mountains. Completely renovated, the museum brings to life an era which was a landmark in the island`s transport history and a revolution in the people`s daily lives. The only one of its kind on the island, it displays documents, drawings, photos and various objects related to the Cyprus Railways
as well as scale models of the main stations and rolling stock. A hand pump track used for the inspection of the line and a freight wagon are exhibited under a shed in the museum`s yard.
In the early 20th century, Cyprus, then under British colonial rule, was going through an economic decline as the people were struggling to pay the heavy taxes imposed by the British to cover the compensation which London had to pay to the Ottoman Sultan for having conceded Cyprus to them.
The road network was almost non-existent and the only roads connecting towns and villages were used by carriages. In the remaining areas, there were paths and people used donkeys or carriages to transport goods or move around. To give trade a boost and to make their movement easier, the British went ahead with the construction of the Cyprus Government Railways in 1905 which was an innovative project to upgrade the transport section and road network and encourage trade.
According to the Director of the Antiquities Department, Dr. Maria Solomidou – Ieronimidou, “the CGR was constructed when Cyprus was under British colonial rule and it was the policy of the United Kingdom to create railway networks in their colonies. The British administration was hoping that the construction of the railway would lead to increased trade and improve transport which until 1878 was almost non-existent”.
It operated from 1905 until 1951 and it was a 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) narrow gauge railway network.
The first part connected Famagusta with Nicosia and was completed in October 1905 and in the same month the official opening took place in the presence of the British High Commissioner Sir Charles Anthony King-Harman. Crowds of people gathered at the Famagusta Station to watch the first journey of the carriage.
The first section heading from Famagusta to Nicosia was 57 km long, running through the Mesaoria. By December 1907, a further 38 km had been added, from Nicosia to Morfou, on the west. By June 14 1915, a second 23m long extension from Morfou to Evrychou was added, completing the CGR.
Dr. Ieronimidou said that with a total length of 122 km, there were 10 stations and 27 stops. The most prominent of which served Famagusta, Prastio Mesaoria, Angastina, Trachoni, Nicosia, Kokkinotrimithia, Morphou, Kalo Chorio and Evrychou.
There were other railway installations on the island, she said, mainly mineral railways. In 1915 the Cyprus Mines Cooperation constructed a railway to transport ore from the mine at Skouriotissa to a jetty at Karavostasi on Morfou Bay. This linked with the GCR at the Karkotis River Junction. There was also a mineral railway linking the mines at Kalavasos and Drapia to the processing plant at Vasiliko. This railway was in service until 1977.
Major accidents that occurred during the railway era were relatively few and were due to derailing or vehicles stopped on crossing points, she explained.
Asked if the railway was popular, Dr. Ieronimidou said that it connected rural areas with towns, carried the post and telegraphs to remote villages and was responsible for the transport of a total of 7,348,643 passengers and 3,199,934 tonnes of cargo.
The trains carried the mail to and from the Khedivial Line ships which called at Famagusta harbour and carried mail overseas. It was also used for the distribution of mail throughout the island, where stations such as Angastina, Trachoni, Kalo Chorio and others also served as postal offices or agencies.
Dr. Ieronimidou said that special coaches known as the “Bathing Specials” ran every Sunday in the summer season as well as special trains for the annual Orange Festival in Famagusta.
One of the passengers who travelled regularly on the train, Androula Patsalidου from Famagusta, remembers using the CGR to go to Nicosia.
“I remember once we took the train from Famagusta for Peristerona. We paid a visit to our landlord`s house there. It was a big occasion for us to travel on the train. I was around 12 years old and what I distinctly remember is the steam engine. We would also visit Nicosia and my mother would take me as I was the oldest of my siblings. It was a special moment”, she recalls.
Dr. Ieronimidou said that even those who did not travel by train would still visit the stations to either collect their mail or just sit around and watch the carriages go by.
During World War II and post war years, the CGR played a significant role as a prime mover of troops, stores and ammunition from Famagusta harbour to the Royal Air Force airfield in Nicosia.
As the years went by, the improvement of the Cyprus road network led to the gradual decline of the CGR. A number of studies were made over the years to see viability options for the continued existence of the railway but in the end, the issue had to be dealt with.
“The continued operation posed a great strain on the steam engines and the tracks and the government did not intend on spending the large amounts of money required to replace the fleet and the tracks. The CGR was becoming uneconomical to maintain because it could not compete with the developed road transport”, said Dr. Ieronimidou.
On November 10th, 1951, the British Government issued an official notice, stating that the Cyprus Railway would be closing down at the end of the year. The last train was scheduled to depart from Nicosia Station at 14.55 on Monday, 31 December 1951 with locomotive No. 1, which had hauled the first train back on 21st October, 1905. It is still preserved as a monument outside Famagusta Station in the Turkish occupied areas.
The rails were dismantled and sold for scrap; the same fate befell on the train engines.
Part of the rails were taken to the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation grounds and used in the perimeter where they still stand.
Some wagons were bought by locals, while the equipment was distributed amongst seven governmental departments. The stations were either demolished or turned into police stations or Public Works Department warehouses. Morphou Station became a grain storehouse, while in Evrychou it operated as a health centre and a forest worker dormitory but then abandoned to the elements after the EOKA liberation struggle against British colonial rule in the mid 1950s.
The museum at Evrychou was declared by the Antiquities Department an ancient monument in 2002. The Museum includes exhibits provided by the former Popular Bank Cultural Centre. It was officially inaugurated by Communications and Works Minister Marios Demetriades on 9 September.
The ground floor displays the history of the construction and route of the CGR, a presentation of the stations, locomotives and a museum shop. The first floor includes rolling stock and passenger services items, pictures of the staff and documents depicting the end of the CGR. A freight wagon and hand pump track are on display as well as tracks. All work at the museum was undertaken by the Antiquities Department under Dr. Ieronimidou and Museum Curator Dr. D. Pilidou
“The museum was created to awaken memories over a part of history that has been forgotten, which nonetheless is significant”, Dr. Ieronimidou said. Through various exhibits and audio-visual displays, the Museum, she said, tries to make visitors understand that the railway was not only a means of transport but also a milestone in Cyprus` technological, economic and social history.
During a visit to the museum, CNA was welcomed by its Metaxas Stylianou, guard for the Antiquities Department who spoke with great love and zeal about the site being turned into a museum.
“We have reconstructed this building that was closed down since 1932”. When we came here to restore the building, it was in ruins, full of weeds that reached the top. The building was burnt down by the EOKA liberation struggle fighters because it was erected by the British. But gradually we cleaned the area that was also used for cultivation by local farmers”, said Stylianou.
He told CNA that back in the early days, Evrychou station was the last terminal and when the Governor was using it to visit the Presidential retreat at Troodos, he would make a stop there. Carriages would arrive and animals brought over to carry his luggage to Troodos.
However, on one occasion, when Sir Ronald Storrs, the Governor came to Evrychou to head for the Presidential retreat, the Cypriots, angry at his presence, caused a commotion using tins to show their displeasure. This, said Stylianou, angered the Governor who retaliated by closing down the Evrychou station, leaving the Kalo Chorio station five miles away to take its place until services were halted.
Stylianou also took pride at the two wagons that were carefully renovated by carpenters and placed under a metal shed. “These are original”, he said, and carried the mail and cargo. The mail cargo contain boxes with mock letters bearing copies of stamps depicting the colonial era are placed and handwritten addresses by children who visit the museum. The cargo wagon contains traditional Cypriot baskets that were used by farmers to carry produce from village to village.
He also pointed out the hand pump track that was used for inspecting the lines. “When it rained, stones and dirt would cover the tracks. This hand pump was used to inspect the lines and clean them so that the trains would run on the rails safely,” Stylianou added.