Cuba was the first country in Latin America and the sixth in the world to have a railroad system. The National Railway Company of Cuba, Ferrocarriles de Cuba, opened its first 17-mile long route in 1837. The Spanish built the railway in the Island to transport sugarcane to the ports even before tracks were laid down in Spain. It’s the only railway operating in the Caribbean , and it provides passenger and freight services for Cuba.One of the few lines still active in the Island covers more than 2,600 miles, stretching from Havana in the west to Santiago de Cuba on the eastern coast.
For Cubans, the rail road is the cheapest way to travel across the country, it is also the slowest, the trip from Havana to Santiago de Cuba can take 20 hours, while driving would take about half the time. Tourists are discouraged from making the trip and many Cubans choose not to take the train because of its unreliability: It often breaks down or is delayed, sometimes for days on end.
Rail-cars are a potpourri of relics coming from various countries such as the former Soviet Union, China, Canada, Spain, Yugoslavia, France and Germany. After the fall of the Soviet Union, makeshift measures were adopted to maintain the fleet and now the raged and refurbished cars are all but falling to pieces.
There are strong interconnections between the co construction of the Cuban railway system and sugar production. The cost savings of rail transport permitted non-subsidized Cuban cane sugar to compete successfully on the world market with subsidized European beet sugar. Direct foreign domination of the railroads came later, towards the final third of the nineteenth century, when the pressure of domestic political conflict and global economic crisis provoked severe financial strain in the early Cuban-controlled railroad companies. By the 1870s and 1880s, British creditors began to exchange their credit to these firms for equity in them, and eventually took control of several of the competing western Cuban railway lines.
Cuba's eastern railroads also underwent a process of foreign acquisition and monopolization, though a different one from what had taken place in the west. Eastern Cuba was still relatively undeveloped when the United States occupied Cuba in 1898, and the most important eastern railroads were built following the U.S. takeover. Almost all the new roads were financed by U.S. capital: several of them, including the path-breaking Ferrocarril Central, were directly built by U.S. firms. Monopolization occurred in the 1920s, under the pressure of the severe crisis affecting sugar prices at that time.
By the start of the 1950s, Cuban railroads had entered into crisis. On one hand, stagnation in the sugar industry combined with stiff competition from trucks and buses to provoke a sharp decline in revenue. On the other, a combative labor movement in alliance with a populist state had won significant wage increases that sharply increased labor costs. Wage cuts, however, led to an increasing combativeness among railway workers, who in large numbers actively supported the 26th of July Movement's efforts to overthrow Batista. About a year after the revolutionary takeover in late 1959, the railways were fully nationalized.
After the revolution in 1959, the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Cuba was created by nationalizing the private and public railway systems. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, it became harder for Cuba to buy new railway equipment because of the United States embargo against Cuba. Purchase of new trains and parts to Cuba with the Western Bloc, stopped from the late 1960s, and was replaced through trade with the Eastern Bloc. This trade link collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union. After the 1990s, China became the new supplier of railway cars for Cuba. Starting in 2000, the Cuban railway network was improved by more second hand equipment. More used vehicles were coming from Canada, Mexico and Europe.
In early 2015 the UVZ-Logistik subsidiary of Russia’s Uralvagonzavod started making plans to establish a transport logistics joint venture in Cuba, in partnership with Cuban metallurgy and engineering firm GESIME and national operator Unión Ferrocarriles de Cuba. The joint venture aims to modernize and re-equip the Planta Mecánica forging and fabrication factory near Santa Clara in order to build and maintain freight wagons for the national railway. Whether these efforts will bring significant changes to Cuba’s outdated and decrepit railway system remains to be seen.
© Daniel Botelho