More than 100 years after the first locomotive brought rail travel to Cyprus, a new museum is recreating a slice of forgotten history
The shrilling scream of a locomotive whistle was first heard on the island on the October 21, 1905, when the High Commissioner Sir Charles Anthony King-Harman opened the Cyprus Government Railway.
Even though the tiny narrow-gauge system handled fewer passengers than most others in the world, it made fast commercial trade and passenger travel from one coast to another a reality.
The railway was planned by the British colonial authorities in 1878, but was not opened until three-decades later.
The idea was to serve the government, army and the local population, whilst making a profit – but much to the dismay of the British – it became more of an intriguing spectacle for locals than a form of transport and consistently lost money.
“The reason it was abolished was because it was not financially viable, but that does not mean that it was not useful,” Dr Despo Pilidou from Department of Antiquities told the Sunday Mail.
“It was useful because it served a number of functions, especially economic. Apart from transferring materials to Famagusta – and from the mines – and being used for the economy it was also a passenger train and it carried the mail. There was a lot of everyday functions being serviced by these trains.
At first, the steam engines – with their creaky wooden carriages – crept on tracks slowly along the Mesaoria plain between Famagusta and Nicosia. This route was followed by an extension from the capital to Morphou in 1907 – then a section to Evrychou was added in 1915.
In all, around 120 kilometres of track was laid along with ten stations and 27 stops.
Pilidou says that the public nowadays are generally not aware that Cyprus once boasted a railway network and some ways it has become a quaint historical oddity.
“That’s not to say that nobody knows about it,” she adds. “Because some people come and point out parts of it which are preserved in some areas, some even remember travelling on it. However, the younger generation don’t know enough about the railway – those that do, don’t tend to know what it was actually functioning for, or the routes.”
Unlike many European and American stations of the period which were designed to make a big impression, Nicosia looked poor in comparison. There was no huge clock, grand hall or marble floors. Just a typical sandstone colonial administration building with a small platform, goods sheds and ticket office.
The railway became the workhorse of the local mining industry with the first consignment of ore from Skouriotissa to Pendayia being shunted along the tacks in 1921. Overall, 3,199,934 tons of goods and freight and 7,348,643 passengers were transported during its history.
A 2004 exhibition organised by the Laiki Bank Cultural Centre sparked renewed interest in the railway – which lead to the publication a much praised 430-page book The Railways of Cyprus by Michael Radford.
Soon after the exhibition, the idea of converting the old train station at Evrychou gained traction and now after years of planning the public can take a glimpse of the long forgotten network at the new Cyprus Railways Museum which was opened last month.
There you’ll find original documents, drawings, photos and various objects related to the railway on show, as well as scale models of the main stations and rolling stock.
Communications Minister Marios Demetriades said the museum was a “reminder and a part of our history”.
Behind the museum the platform and part of the track have been reconstructed with original tracks and a hand pump car used for the inspection of the line and a freight wagon are also on show.
“The museum is proving popular. The railways are a favourite hobby of people in the United Kingdom, Canada, America and other places. There is an interest worldwide about trains; there is also a community with interest in the manufacture of railways, the way in which they were designed and the mechanics,” Pilidou added.
The construction of a new road from Famagusta to Nicosia in 1941 set alarms bells ringing for the railways 200 workers.
Soon after, colonial authorities looked at sections of track which could be closed, despite protests from the Cyprus Mines Corporation, but with the ramshackle equipment and competition from the improved road network the termination of rail services was imminent.
“During the period of British rule things had to be profitable so they could be maintained,” Pilidou adds. “By 1951 after a report and a study was made, it was decided it was not profitable and had to be shut down. And that is what happened.”
The decision prompted outrage and a protest strike, but to no avail. The last train puffed out of Nicosia Station just before 3pm on New Year’s Eve in 1951. It rumbled down the tracks into Famagusta at 4.38pm and the railway closed for business.
Train enthusiasts continue to seek evidence of surviving infrastructure from the network that escaped the wrecking ball. The century-old station and goods yard still exists in Famagusta, as do several small bridges and sidings used to service the line.
Much of the valuable railway land became the Famagusta-Nicosia motorway after the final pieces of rusting track were removed in the early sixties.
In 1972, ‘Locomotive Number One’ – the first locomotive to be imported to Cyprus – was restored by Major Barry Turner and placed outside the former Famagusta station, which nowadays serves as a municipal building.
The Cyprus Railway Museum is open 08.30 – 16.00 Monday – Sunday. Admission is free