The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - Cuba 1
Havana and the West

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

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Other Cuban tales:

In 1997 I spent a month in Cuba, mostly with a tour group and returned in 1999 for six and a half weeks travelling with friends, the lure was a chance to see old American locomotives at work on 3 different gauges. Some locomotives had worked previously on American railways, others were cast offs from the Cuban Railways (FCC). Most had been purchased new to work the Cuban sugar field lines which expanded as the European sugar industry had been largely destroyed in WW1. 

We saw plenty of action, but I was unimpressed with group touring. One fan in his haste to get a shot left our car unlocked which cost me stolen cameras and more importantly exposed film. I was left with only a video that still worked. Whilst the Cuban Mills provided interesting backdrops I found the video did far better covering action in the fields.

Rob Dickinson had joined the tour and was carrying a laptop to upload his reports to the internet; this was innovative in 1997! (Editor's note - in 1997, there was digital photography of steam trains was a dream as was uploading reports from Cuba! My laptop was used to keep notes of our trip and more importantly it carried reports of other visitors who had come earlier in the Zafra season. RD)

What follows is a compilation of some of the action seen on the two trips. It follows a rough west to east traverse of the island.

Havana provided a good base to see some action with mills both to the west and east. Sundays tended to be quiet so on 14the February 1999 we decided to check out Parque Lenin, which included a pleasure railway. The line is 3 foot gauge, steam locomotives had been sourced from Minaz (the Sugar Ministry). The large park was open once a week for the residents of the city to relax in rural surroundings.

At the shed we found no 2 being steamed up (Baldwin 56920 built in 1923). In 1997 Mill 105, was responsible for the maintenance of the Parque locos (it was the nearest mill of the same gauge), however in 1999 we saw some heavy repairs being done on site. We rode behind no 2 on a leisurely circuit of the Park, where people were out horse riding and washing their cars in the lake. The car park looked like a veteran car rally was in progress! A snack bar of sorts was on the train from which passengers could get a drink and some food, remembering that the latter was still rationed.

Augusta Sandino Mill 105 (3 foot gauge).

Located some 60km from Havana on the north coast near Cabanas, it had been closed for re-building for several years, in 1997 work was still continuing on the north line which we saw in operation in 1999. This was one of the Mills that featured early morning workings. On 15/2/99 we found 1382 (Baldwin 1915) and 1350 (Baldwin 1916) busy working loads to the mill where Henschel 1405, (built in 1913) was ineffectually wheezing away as yard pilot. Oops, a palm tree seems to be growing out of 1405’s funnel. 15th February 1999.

Loads had to be worked up grade to the mill and engines were worked flat out racing over un-guarded road crossing prior to entering the mill yard. Most engines in Cuba have loud exhausts and often handled heavy loads, audio was often heavy duty! 

1350 storms upgrade on fulls, 17th February 1999. (PS I never asked crews to put on a show.)

1350 approaches the junction as it brings a load off the north line, 17th February 1999

1382 shunts a load in the yard. 28th February 1997

Mill 107 Pablo de la Torriente Brau (Standard gauge)

This was only 30 minutes drive from mill 105 so we usually covered them on the same day. 1662, (Vulcan 1920) a medium size 2-6-0 was a regular performer and in my opinion was one of the noisest engines on the island. There were several steeply graded sections, including a section of street running before the loads entered the mill yard.

The mill yard would see the smaller 2-6-0s at work, the oldest being a Rogers, built in 1894. A good lookout was needed here as engines could be towing trucks on an adjacent track using a cable, or wagons could be positioned by a winch, commonly used in mill yards and LPs (loading points).

2-6-0 1703 (Henschel 1920) was the line engine on 12th March 1999.

In January 2003, both Sandino and Torriente Brau were closed in a round of efficiency cuts; it appeared the railways were also closed at this time.

Mill 207 Gregorio Arlee Manalich

Standard gauge pilot 1402 (Baldwin 1918) with narrow gauge 1306 (Baldwin 1912). 21st February 1997

This was one of the most pleasant mills to spend time yet it was off-limits to fans only 2 years before. It was a Minaz regional standard gauge diesel depot, but had two standard gauge steam pilots. All line work to the fields was 3 foot gauge with a dedicated steam fleet of 2-8-0s and 2-6-0s, some of which had been painted in a neat black livery for the 1997 Zafra. During the “Emergency” period imports had to be brutally reduced. Following years of severe austerity after the Russian withdrawal and the collapse of the Communist trading block many Cubans survived on near starvation rations. The driver of 1402 looked painfully thin. By 1999 people were recovering whilst there was a little more food available rationing remained in force. 

The departure sidings and the mill patio area were quite attractive with trees and plenty of open space. Also of note was the flat crossing with the FCC on which Russian built diesels hauled passenger trains. Locomotives worked hard on the lines from the fields, but the scenery was devoid of interest. As if to compensate in 1999 the steam engines sported a light blue livery, which took a bit of getting used to, all these pictures were taken on 16th February 1999

Immaculate 1351 (Baldwin 1917) at work in the fields.

Standard gauge pilot 1403 (Rogers 1892) at work in its new livery

2-6-0 1338 (Baldwin 1920) shunts the patio.

Behind the shed was the remains of a 2-6-0, 'Industrial Steam in Cuba' shows this as 1109 a Baldwin of 1898 vintage. It was covered with vegetation and seemed forgotten, but did it remain so? A steel plant had resumed production in Havana and scrap was being collected from all over the island to be sent there in trains hauled by blue liveried Acinox diesels.

Rob Dickinson