Welcome to the "Big Island" of Hawaii, where railroads continue to serve the industries of this Pacific paradise, thanks to the imagination of Joseph Kreiss. The North Hilo Transfer shuttles freight cars between the main yard in Hilo and the smaller Kuhio Yard to the south along Hilo Bay. The morning run crosses the Reeds Bay Inlet swing bridge with a BIRR Geep in the lead.
Aloha! Welcome to the Big Island!
by Joseph Kreiss/photos by the author
Big Island & Pacific Rail serves the Big Island of Hawaii's agricultural, intermodal shipping and military customers with fast, friendly service. BIRR links the Port of Hilo and South Hilo Bay Terminal with the southeastern and northwestern regions of this beautiful tropical island. The shortline also connects with tran-ocean shipping lines at two international ports and with inter-island carriers for an Hawai'ian Island chain-wide system of rail, sea, highway and air connections. If you are wondering why you didn't see any tracks or trains on the "Big Island" during your last vacation trip to Hawaii, it's because Big Island Rail is an HO scale model railroad depicting "just what may have been" if the railroads still were a viable mode of transportation on the Islands.
Hawaii was home to an extensive web of both standard gauge and narrow gauge tracks during the early to mid-1900s. The Hawaii Consolidated Railway moved freight, pineapples, sugar cane and passengers from Hilo north to Hamakua and south to Puna along the eastern side of Hawai'i until the devastating tsunami hit on April 1,1946. The wave wiped out much of the Hilo area railroad bridges, and pier trackage, making repairs beyond the financial reach of the railroad's management.
The HCR still lives on, if only in memory. The state highway department took over much of the railroad's right-of-way. The Hawaii Belt Highway 19 and 11 were built where steam-powered trains used to chug along. Some remnants of the railroad are still visible. With family roots on the Big Island of Hawaii, my model railroad layout captures the "Spirit of Aloha," modeling a small portion of the former railway as it runs through this Pacific paradise. My railroad is based on the premise that the 1946 tsunami didn't wipe out the old railroad and the railroad operation continued to grow and prosper through the 1950s, '60s,'70s and into the present day. Gone are steam engines and passenger service. But the modern regional railroad, using EMD and Alco diesels, keeps the rails shiny by hauling intermodal containers and piggyback trailers to and from various port terminals. Join us on this brief tour of the Big Island...
A vintage view from the turn of the last century, A steam-powered sugar cane train pulls a string of loaded sugar cane cars across a low bridge en route to the mill.
BIRR MP-15 No. 15 crosses one of many “rural” dirt sugar cane roads through the cane fields. The Big Island of Hawaii is known for it’s red volcanic soil.
During the sugar cane harvest, sugar cane must be processed within 17 hours after it is cut. Big Island & Pacific's MP-15 road switcher is called into duty hauling a long string of empty cane cars north to the cane fields to be reloaded.
A BIRR bay window caboose emerges from a tunnel and crosses over a gulch as it brings up the rear of a southbound freight headed to Hilo on the Big Island & Pacific Rail layout. The scenic waterfall in the distance is actually cut from a photograph and mounted to the backdrop!
This well-worn second-hand CF-7 continues its work as the plant switcher for the Puna Sugar Mill Company in Pahoa. The crews drifts past the mill buildings to pull a cut of covered hoppers loaded with bulk sugar bound for California. The industrial and isolated nature of the railroad lends itself to "colorful" equipment acquisitions such as these.
Puna Sugar Mill in Pahoa on the Big Island has it’s own fleet of second-hand locomotives, like this Alco FA, to haul sugar cane and bulk sugar. The Puna Sugar Mill trains have trackage rights over limited sections of the Big Island & Pacific Rail. These additional trains add operational interest to this small railroad.
Much of the rail traffic on the Big Island & Pacific Rail line is bulk sugar from the large Puna Sugar Mill. The sugar travels from the mill to Hilo Harbor's Pier 2 bulk transload facility where the raw sugar is transfered from covered hopper cars onto ships headed to Crocket, California's C&H Sugar processing plant.
The Hilo Harbor industrial area keeps the local Big Island & Pacific switch crew busy. Numerous businesses here utilize rail service to ship their products across the island to the western port of Kawaihae for inter-island delivery.
The Kuhio Yard on the Big Island & Pacific Rail is a busy place. Rail cars arrive from the main freight yard in Hilo as well as from the south part of the Big Island and are classified into the various turns, locals and bulk sugar unit trains that traverse the route.
Seeing centerbeam flat cars loaded with lumber is not just limited to the Pacific Northwest. Continued construction on the Big Island brings lumber to the Hilo harbor for rail shipment to building supply companies and construction projects throughout the island. The brakeman guides BIRR No. 15 in to pull a car just loaded at the port's Island Lumber Distributors.
Small surf shops dot the coast, each with its loyal clientele. This shot was captured from a train passing through Hilo, where we find the these folks enjoying a cool afternoon breeze from the back deck. The surf boards were made by reducing photos of actual boards to scale and mounting the images on cardstock cutouts! We hope you enjoyed your visit to the fiftieth state! Mahalo and aloha!
Check out the Big Island Rail web site for more great photos and information about Joseph Kreiss' unique HO scale model railroad.