The International Steam Pages
The End of the Line (Central American Version) - Guatemala and El Salvador
Robert Hall writes an appendix to his main piece "Thirty- Six Inches Apart", there is a map at the bottom of the page. There is also a separate article on the public railways of Colombia.
Concerning Guatemala and El Salvador’s splendid “914mm gauge kingdom” -- the first lines in the former country were inaugurated around the beginning of the 1880s. Further openings in the two countries – uniformly 914mm gauge -- followed: early in the twentieth century, the various concerns were amalgamated by degrees, into the US-based undertaking of the International Railways of Central America. Deeply involved from the start with the IRCA’s affairs, was the US’s United Fruit Company, with great fruit-plantation holdings in Central America – especially for bananas; Guatemala was one of the original and archetypal “banana republics”. United Fruit’s involvement, and often control, increased over the decades – the company’s holdings represented the rail system’s biggest single source of freight traffic. Approval of the foregoing, in the political dimension, not implied: but it did lead to what was a narrow-gauge wonderland -- even if, in less-blinkered terms, often part of an ugly scene; with contributions to that state of affairs, both local, and “from up north”.
The IRCA continued to inaugurate lines; including, in 1929, a (mountainous and circuitous) cross-border link joining the lines in Guatemala and El Salvador, into one system. This network comprised at its peak some 1300km, connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea via Guatemala City, and for long “sort-of” linking with the Mexican rail system at Tecún Umán on the Guatemala / Mexico border. The Mexican route to the border was 1435mm gauge, and there was for a long while, no physical rail connection; a ferry across the river which marks the border, was involved. Considerations to do with World War II prompted the building at last, of a bridge bringing the 1435mm gauge physically into Guatemala, with break-of-gauge facilities just within the country.
Post-1929, and for some decades thereafter, the longest possible rail journey in the northern half of the Americas was rhapsodised on, now and again – 8000km or so – from whatever city in the north or extreme east of Canada, to (give or take the odd border-crossing by ferry -- to say nothing of several changes of train, sometimes involving crossings of a city from one terminal to another) La Unión / Cutuco at the south-eastern tip of El Salvador, only a ferry ride across an inlet of the sea, from Nicaragua. One has to wonder whether anyone actually accomplished this northern-American odyssey, when it was possible in the mid-twentieth-century. Gerald M. Best, in his book on the railways in these parts around 1960, mentions that per the rail passenger timetables at that time, one could “easily” get from Guatemala City to Veracruz, Mexico, in two and a half days. The feeling is got, that the time required for the entire Canada-to-Salvador exploit would have way exceeded the usual maximum period of holiday from one’s job...
Guatemala had – for a time of truly ephemeral brevity – an interurban-type electric railway, in the south-west of the country, running from San Felipe on the IRCA system, 44km basically uphill to Quetzaltenango; highly steeply-graded and spectacular; and -- uniquely in the country -- of 1435mm gauge. This line ran for a mere three and a half years, in the early 1930s; was inaugurated too far into the road motor era, for its coming into being to make any sense. Read more here - http://www.tramz.com/gt/q.html.
Guatemala was always, railway-wise, an alluring destination – the rail-served parts of the country being excitingly mountainous: threaded by the rail system, with many steep grades, and – a local speciality – frighteningly flimsy-looking viaducts spanning vertiginous depths (the often-photographed Puente de las Vacas a little way east of Guatemala City , was an outstanding example of this trend).
The IRCA hit troubled times in the 1950s, with competition from burgeoning road motor transport playing a large part in their difficulties. In Guatemala particularly, internal political strife, including contentious labour relations, increased the grief – the system’s operating financial deficit progressively worsened. Diesel locomotives entered service in the 1950s, with their numbers modestly increasing from then into the early ‘60s; however, shortage of money, and labour troubles, meant that dieselisation went ahead far more slowly than the IRCA management had hoped – good news for steam buffs, but bad for a railway struggling to stay in business. Things so worked out that the majority of diesel locos were put into traffic on the system’s El Salvador lines, with its Guatemala part remaining predominantly steam.
In the late 1960s / early ‘70s; the IRCA’s essentially becoming bankrupt especially re Guatemala, was instrumental in bringing the company to an end. IRCA’s Guatemalan lines were nationalised in 1968; those in El Salvador remained in IRCA hands until their nationalisation in 1975. It seems that post-1968, “status quo” was observed in the matter of motive power: the diesels in El Salvador stayed there, with all the country’s IRCA lines thus being able to be diesel-worked – in the neighbouring land, steam largely ruled.
For a very few years at the turn of the decade, the steam position got yet better in Guatemala: with the railways being basically broke, it was difficult to afford spare parts for the relatively few diesel locos which they had – whereas with steam being easier to keep going in a rough-and-ready fashion, and with the system’s steam workshops being well-equipped; steam took over for a while, most of what diesel duties there had been. This added up to a brief period of delight for North American railfans, who came to Guatemala and made the most of it; especially with Mexican steam – which had outlived that of the US and Canada for most of a decade – having lately, virtually finished. Guatemalan steam remaining in service, was pretty much confined to modern 2-8-0s and 2-8-2s; but “in those parts in those times”, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
As always, this slice of heaven was too good to last. The condition of the railways was shambolic; the steam locos were run-down and operating “on a wing and a prayer” -- the state railway administration scraped together the money to order eighteen new diesel locos (from General Electric, built under licence in Spain). Further diesels followed later. From the early ‘70s, use of steam progressively declined; a report from 1980 told of all regular workings being diesel; but a couple of steam locomotives were in good condition, hireable to haul “for-fun” specials -- and some steam locos were serviceable east of the capital, on the line to the Caribbean coast, for rainy-season emergencies which diesel locos had trouble coping with.
In the later 20th century, and continuing into the 21st, Guatemala was a popular venue for organised tours for enthusiasts, with chartered specials hauled by the still-operable steam locos. The spectacular mountain scenery -- with steep grades -- traversed by much of the rail system, made this an enticing proposition. Organised tours with steam charters continued to happen – albeit with much political unrest in Guatemala, and the country reckoned overall none too safe for visitors – over some decades.
In the meantime, the country’s “real” railway scene continued on the downward slope. The Guatemala – El Salvador rail link – running southward from Zacapa junction, midway between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios on the Caribbean – fell out of use, assumably in the late 1970s / early 80s. Passenger / mixed train services dwindled; were found to have ceased completely as at 1994 – freight use also, declined. The by then freight-only system withdrew all services early in 1996. The government sought potential operators via whom a revival of the railway might be implemented; eventually such an operator was found, in the shape of the undertaking Railroad Development Corporation, who recommenced operations in 1999 – solely for freight, and only between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios. During the years in which services were suspended, some steam specials were run for visiting enthusiast groups – a similar situation to that which has obtained in Eritrea in recent years. Such specials continued to run during the period in the early years of the present century, in which RDC operated the sector of the system which they did work.
Tentative projects and thoughts were entertained during those years, of further parts of Guatemala’s railways being put back into traffic – including the idea being mooted, of converting some of the system on the Pacific-coast side of the country, to 1435mm gauge to match the connecting Mexican rail network – but none of this was acted on. Sadly, RDC’s regime lasted not for very long, and ended in bitter and distasteful circumstances. In 2006, a dispute between RDC and the Guatemalan government over administrative and financial issues, escalated to what have been generally regarded as completely draconian and unreasonable measures on the government’s part; which moves led to greatly-diminished use of the railway, and to RDC thus suspending rail services in September 2007. No trains have run in Guatemala since then. The dispute continued in the courts, under the arbitrational aegis of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Association, until settlement in 2012/13 in favour of RDC, with substantial compensation being paid by the Guatemalan authorities. During the six-year legal wrangle, the modern (or perhaps, not solely modern) scourge of rail operations in many parts of the world, illegal removal of railway material, went beyond-berserk in Guatemala: per one authority, “since  the railway has literally disappeared, with even steel bridges being stolen for scrap in broad daylight”. A miserable and ignominious end to this part of one-time “three-foot heaven, in glorious surroundings”. It would seem totally certain that should any future railways be inaugurated from “Ground or Year Zero” in Guatemala, they will not be of 914mm gauge.
El Salvador had in addition to the IRCA’s line from end to end of the country, via the capital San Salvador; the independent Ferrocarril De El Salvador, total length some 130km, running basically westward from the capital – the first 15km-odd from San Salvador to Apopa being on a different but parallel route to the IRCA’s line, with the independent railway thence turning sharply to the west: its main line ending at Acajutla on the coast, with a branch diverging en route to Santa Ana. This undertaking was nationalised in 1962, and merged administratively in the mid-1970s, with the nationalised ex-IRCA lines in El Salvador; the whole being known thenceforth, as FENADESAL. Certainly before this merger, and seemingly also after, the Ferrocarril de El Salvador was a wonderful working museum: all-steam except for a few railmotors in eccentric forms, and with some decidedly primitive operating practices. A visitor circa 1970 found the majority of its steam power to be Baldwin 2-8-0s acquired second-hand from the IRCA, but with older types in action too – some of the ex-Oahu Railway 2-8-0s lasted until about that time.
It is understood that the Ferrocarril de El Salvador’s lines continued busily in action – still mostly steam-worked, even after the above-mentioned formation of FENADESAL – throughout the 1970s and well into the ‘80s. El Salvador might well have played host to hordes of foreign railfans going there to delight in this splendid anachronism; except that – as with others of the world’s potential “steam paradises” as at three-quarters of the way through the 20th century – the country was mostly “taken out of play” in this context, because of unhappy matters of politics and Cold-War-related manoeuvrings. From about 1980 to 1992, El Salvador was convulsed by a very ugly civil war between basically, left-wing and right-wing elements. The violence was so all-pervasive that any visitor took some risk of becoming “collateral damage”; and, if going there for pleasure and interest, needed a thick skin and tunnel vision, if they were not to find the experience highly distressing. A few hardy (foolhardy?) souls did visit El Salvador during its war, and duly “valued” the Ferrocarril de... but most gricers reckoned it a no-go area.
Oddly, during the same period, rather more enthusiasts visited neighbouring Guatemala, and enjoyed railtours there with chartered steam specials; although Guatemala was undergoing a civil-war situation not much different from that in its smaller neighbour. One can only speculate that the doings in Guatemala, while extremely nasty, were at a lower level of intensity than “next door”; and perhaps Guatemala proved, in various ways, such an enticing destination that tourists of all kinds figured the risk to be worth taking. El Salvador is generally reckoned, in comparison, a backwater and not outstandingly attractive in its own right – thus, less risk-running incentive?
By the end of the civil war in 1992, El Salvador’s railway scene was at a low ebb; though this may well not have been entirely a matter of cause and effect. The relatively few reporting visitors since, have found the majority of the country’s rail system inactive; with assorted, almost random-seeming, incidences of freight and passenger operation on assorted parts of it, at different times. Matters were certainly not helped by damage caused by a severe earthquake in 2001. As in Guatemala, there have been plans and “feasibility studies”, some quite extravagant-sounding, concerning revival of the rail system; but seemingly almost nothing has been translated into action.
It is understood that from 2007 to mid-2012, a reinstated regular passenger service – diesel -loco-worked – ran on working days, for commuters, on the 15km-odd ex-IRCA route between San Salvador and Apopa; with two return trains daily. This service was suspended, ostensibly because of the extremely bad condition of the track, last day of operation being August 17th 2012. Any rail action in the country since then, will have been irregular and small-scale freight movements, if that; prospects for any improvement in the situation, seem poor.
Since 1992, a few chartered steam specials have been run in El Salvador, using the couple of steam locos which have been kept in operational condition; but there has apparently been no systematic attempt to develop Salvadoran “steam tourism” . In all: the whole once rather splendid two-nation 914mm gauge system, with at its peak a route kilometrage very well over the thousand mark, has fallen very low indeed: totally and forever defunct in one country, and minimally active – if even that – in the other.
Long ago, El Salvador had another public rail undertaking of sorts, based on the capital. This line grew up, to some extent in conjunction with the – gauge indeterminate, but reckoned more than 1435mm – wide-gauge animal-hauled tram system which served San Salvador from the 1870s to the 1920s. (Guatemala City, the sister nation’s capital, essentially never had urban trams.) San Salvador’s anomalous line ran some 18km westward from the capital, to Santa Tecla aka Nueva San Salvador. On this route, animal-hauled trams were replaced in 1894 by a 914mm gauge steam-worked line. In 1920, steam was mostly supplanted by battery-electric trams / railmotors. Plans a few years later for “proper” overhead electrification of the line, were not acted on; it was abandoned in 1929, replaced by a new motor road – the wide-gauge animal-hauled city trams, had already gone. The full “tangled tale” can be found by logging on to http://www.tramz.com/sv/sv00.html, in which the erudite Mr. Allen Morrison tells it in detail, copiously accompanied with photographs.
James Waite provided valuable information and feedback in the preparation of this article.