The International Steam Pages

Where the Three-Foot Ruled - Colombia

Robert Hall writes - se also his introduction and article on Guatemala and El Salvador.

As mentioned in an earlier article: it worked out that the world’s largest nation with an all-914mm gauge railway system, came to be Colombia. A country and people which many find engaging in a number of ways, despite being beset with some hideous problems. “Locombia” (the mad country),as the place’s inhabitants, indulging in Spanish wordplay, are wont to call it. Grateful acknowledgements for information are due, to Christopher Walker’s book on the history of Colombia’s railways and motive power; and to James Waite and Thomas Kautzor.

One can only speculate that Colombia’s espousing the 914mm gauge was as a result of US influence, and / or of railways choosing voluntarily to model US practice. A small minority of lines in various regions – above all around the capital Bogotá – were inaugurated on metre gauge, not 914mm; but eventual standardisation on the 914mm won out. Conversions from the metre gauge began in the 1920s, but the majority of the process took place in the mid-1950s.

Colombia, at the northern end of the Andes mountain chain, is – like its fellow-Andean nations – a potential nightmare for the building and development of rail networks. A large country, it basically “comes in two halves”:  the majority of Colombia’s development and habitation has always been in its more north-westerly half, coinciding with the Andean mountains a little way inland from the Pacific and Caribbean coasts; the interior, more low-lying south-eastern half – merging into the Amazonian tropical forest – has always been near-empty in comparison. Colombia’s railways developed in, and have always been restricted to, the north-western half of the country.

For a very long time from the inception of public railways in Colombia at the beginning of the 1870s, the country’s railways were basically “discontinuous”. Two bunches of routes gradually grew up – one north-eastward out of the Pacific port of Buenaventura; the other further east from the Pacific, focusing on Bogotá the capital, and the city of Girardot; but for very long, with no physical rail connection between the two. Other, isolated, public lines existed elsewhere in Colombia’s north-western half.  It was only after the mid-point of the twentieth century, that the abovementioned two sub-systems were at last physically united, and the country’s rail system otherwise significantly enlarged. Sadly the fine 914mm gauge realm which came about, clocking up well over 3,000 operational kilometres, held sway for  only about a couple of decades – after which (as has been the general way of things in Latin America in the late 20th century and after) the railways fell steeply into decline, eclipsed by preferred other means of transport. Unlike in some other countries “south of the USA”, rail activity in Colombia has never totally ceased, and on one or two restricted scenes, is thriving today – but it is understandable to feel that in assorted ways, things in this particular milieu yielded more joy for the enthusiast in the past, than they do in the present.

Flowing from south to north through the north-west of the country, and finally joining the Caribbean Sea, is the mighty Magdalena River, its valley splitting the Colombian Andes into two diverging sub-chains. The Magdalena was a vital transport artery before, and far into, railway days; with the two “clusters” of railways told of above, long playing a part as feeders to boat traffic on the river. With the railways fallen upon very lean times in recent decades, it would seem imaginable that the river takes a role in moving freight, even today. The subject of the Magdalena prompts mention of one of Colombia’s  “isolated lifelong” rail routes: the Ferrocarril Bolivar’s short line (first in the country to open for traffic, in 1870) from Barranquilla hard by the river’s mouth, to Puerto Colombia actually on the coast. Colombia’s only 1067mm gauge line, abandoned in – according to one source, 1941; or per another, 1946.

All of Colombia’s always- physically-isolated lines ceased operation before the rest of the country’s railways took fully interconnected shape in 1961. One such, the Ferrocarril Cucuta, was Colombia’s only public line with a rail connection into a neighbouring nation – namely, Venezuela (which on the whole was never a big “railway” country). The FC Cucuta linked at the border-point of Bocas de la Grita, with Venezuela’s Gran Ferrocarril del Tachira. The whole made up a metre-gauge system of about 120km, isolated from other railways, and located to the south-west of Lake Maracaibo. The FC Cucuta in Colombia was abandoned in 1951: its Venezuelan opposite number lasted for about another decade.

Colombia’s railways began life as multiple different entities under different ownerships; and their growing up as a network happened raggedly, over a very long period.  Despite no doubt the best of intentions, many decades often elapsed between a rail undertaking’s opening its first sections, and reaching its ultimate extent. A number of concerns inaugurated their first services in the nineteenth century, and opened their final sections to traffic only in the 1920s or 30s or even 40s. More than a dozen different undertakings (over and above the always-isolated railways) made up what ultimately became the interlinked, under-one-management, network.

Varying as regards different times and venues, rail undertakings were assortedly under the administration of private companies / concession-holders, of the relevant Departments (province-equivalents), or of the Colombian state. Many lines were state property long before the basic state rail nationalisation, and forming of the Ferrocarriles Nacionales (henceforth “FCN”), in 1953; some remained outside of the FCN for some while after 1953: with the last “holdout” – the Antioquia system based on Medellín -- not joining the fold until 1962. Colombians – like Britons -- are proud of their idiosyncratic and sometimes contrary ways of doing things, and of not being slaves to excessive tidiness or logicality.

After FCN’s formation in 1953, the last metre-gauge sections were converted to 914mm, and construction was undertaken of the long-contemplated new main line (the “Ferocarril del Atlantico”) northward from La Dorada north-west of Bogotá, through Puerto Berrio (giving connection for the first time, between the “Pacific” and “Bogotá” sub-systems) to the port of Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast . The “Atlantic” route – mostly through low country skirting the Andes’ northernmost reaches -- was completed and opened in 1961; commencement thus, of the Colombian railways’ unhappily brief “golden age”, before road and air competition – as everywhere in Latin America – wrought havoc upon the rail scene.

It is understood that as at about 1970, passenger services ran over virtually the whole of the national rail network, albeit with basically one working each way per day – and overwhelmingly, in a mixed-train context. During the 1970s, things began to decline from this base; this applied on the freight scene too -- by the late 1980s, Colombia’s railways were at a low ebb, with many sections completely out of use: some passenger and freight action continued, with varying degrees of intensity. The Atlantico route between Bogotá and Santa Marta, continued in regular use. Things worsened subsequently, to the point that the FCN was formally put into liquidation, with plans of starting over again in a rail-privatisation context. For a while in the early 1990s, the state railways – with some traffic continuing throughout, to run -- bore the formal title of “FCN de Colombia en Liquidación”: “Continental Railway Journal” ‘s comment was to the effect of, “well, at least that’s being honest”.

(All serious traction from the early ‘90s on, and most of it from long before, has of course been diesel.) The privatisation venture would seem to have brought Colombia’s railways a little way up at least, from early-1990s rock-bottom. Nonetheless, the past quarter-century’s history has been on this scene, a chequered one, with assorted concessionaries / franchises coming and going, some with more success than others – and with a variety of lines reopening / closing again. In the main – with a very few, usually fragile and short-lived exceptions – “real” , as opposed to “tourist”, passenger workings, ceased to exist as from the early ‘90s: the privatisation era has essentially been about freight traffic.  In an interesting “crossover” between widely-separated Western Hemisphere 914mm gauge undertakings, one of the new franchise-holders bought in 1992 from the White Pass & Yukon Route in Alaska / Canada, five diesel locomotives and 176 wagons. Boom conditions hoped for by this operator, failed to materialise, and the locos were repurchased by the WP&YR in 1999.

The picture generally seen is that at the time of writing, Colombian railways are active for freight on parts of the Pacific coast lines around Buenaventura and Cali; at best at a low level and spasmodically, on some of the routes radiating from Bogotá; and on the Atlantico trunk route: especially on its northernmost 200-odd kilometres, very busy hauling coal mined around Chiriguana, to specialised coal-shipping ports near Santa Marta. It is believed that this action was augmented a few years ago by a Brazilian coal-mining concern active in this part of Colombia, which for its shipments to the coast, switched from road to 914mm gauge rail. The just-aforesaid means a big-time, efficient rail scene involving well-maintained permanent way, and long and heavy trains of coal hopper wagons – 20-plus each way per day – including the implementing of conversion to double track. A reporter in a railway journal marvelled: “All this is on the 914mm gauge – or the same as the Isle of Man Railway”. As remarked in a previous article re “914mm”: once even slightly above the borderline-miniature-rail scene, what railways can accomplish is determined by loading gauge, not by the width between the rails...

This author does not usually include industrial railways in his remit: making a mention here, however, of a coal-hauling line in the extreme north of Colombia, inaugurated at least a quarter-century ago on 1435mm gauge, running some 150km from open-cast coal mines at Cerrejon, to a coal-shipping port at Puerto Bolivar – operating long trains of 100 tonnes-plus hoppers, several times each way per day. Underlining that pretty well the only truly heartening stories of rail prosperity in Colombia nowadays, involve the coal industry in the far north of the country. Some rail action also continues – as mentioned -- further south in Colombia, but is pallid and feeble, and ramshackle, in comparison; however, overall a less doleful scene, than in the other one-time 914mm paradise of Guatemala / El Salvador.

Motive power in Colombia – as essentially worldwide – began with relatively small steam locomotives, with size and power of later orders increasing over the decades. From the 1870s beginnings, to the mid-1920s, locos were basically from builders in the UK, and the United States. In this in many ways “maverick” country, there came to be a degree of standardisation on motive power, long before the setting-up of an all-embracing state-railways system. This process began under the auspices of a British gentleman: P.C. Dewhurst, the Technical Director to the Colombian State Railways (such as they were at the time) over the period 1923 – 29. Dewhurst initiated the agreeing-on and production, of an all-purpose  4-8-0 tender loco design; supplied in large quantity – with no doubt minor modifications / improvements as the decades went on --  by various builders in the UK, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and the USA, initially in the 1920s, and ongoingly-on-and-off, until the delivery of a final batch from Tubize in Belgium in 1951. The 4-8-0s went to both State-operated, and independent; and to both 914mm, and metre-gauge; undertakings.  They were designed specifically to cope with the steep, sharply curved and lightly-laid Colombian tracks: Cartazzi slides on the rear axles, and the locos as a whole with high adhesion and a low axle loading. These machines were greatly liked by loco crews for their “go-anywhere-do-anything” qualities, and literal flexibility (the enginemen nicknamed them “snakes”) – they lasted right up to the effective end of steam in Colombia. A number of them still exist in Colombia, in varying conditions, today:  no. 76, built by Baldwin in 1947, is in working order, and sees frequent use on tourist trains / enthusiasts’ specials.

From the later 1920s onward, largely following Dewhurst’s lead – increasingly modern, and in the main progressively larger, steam types came into use on Colombia’s railways; and mostly, UK builders left the picture, and locos were ordered from continental Europe (largely Belgium and Germany) or the USA. Dewhurst’s direct influence brought in, from European builders, a few Pacifics, and 2-6-2 and 2-8-2 tank locos, for shunting and lighter duties. Subsequently, the assorted rail administrations acquired from the 1930s to the mid-1950s – with varying designs – from US and European makers, numerous  4-8-2s and 2-8-2s. The more-modern tender-loco types predominated, until the end of “real steam” in Colombia – a fair handful of them preserved today, a minority of same in working order.

Colombia was for a while, quite a haven for articulated steam locomotives – it could be said, “they had everything except Fairlies”. The Kitson-Meyer type (rather a favourite in South America generally) was well-represented: the Ferrocarril Girardot being an especially prominent Kitson-Meyer user. The K-Ms were British-built, and ranged from wheel arrangement 0-6-6-0T (of which the Girardot had a total of nineteen, delivered over the period generally bracketing World War I) through 2-6-6-2T to 2-8-8-2T. The “double-eight-couplers” were not altogether a success, being found a little too heavy for the conditions which obtained. (This seems an issue which tended to crop up, regarding Colombian steam. Some 4-8-2 types of the latter stages of same, mentioned just above, were – though magnificent-looking in photographs – huge machines which were found nonetheless to perform rather feebly, and to have a tendency to damage the system’s essentially light-ish track.)

Mallets – US-built, of various configurations -- also served on some of Colombia’s rail undertakings, though not in immense numbers (the abovementioned FC Girardot had a couple). The same applied to the Beyer-Garratt type, a total of four of which ran in Colombia. The Ferrocarril Pacifico had two unusual Garratts, outside-framed double- 4-6-0s by Armstrong Whitworth, which entered service in 1924. A decade-plus later, the FC Dorada took delivery of a pair of Beyer Peacock double- 4-6-2 Garratts.

Yet another, and especially odd, kind of “articulated” which briefly ran in Colombia; three locos by Sentinel of Shrewsbury, supplied to the FC Nordeste, running to the north-east of Bogotá and metre-gauge until the 1950s. These machines were an articulated variation on Sentinel’s tried-and-trusted geared-locomotive type. They were 0-6-6-0Ts, with a compound steam engine supplied from a high-pressure water-tube boiler; they also sported an exterior curved, quasi-streamlining-type, casing, which led the late A.E. Durrant memorably to liken their appearance to that of a pregnant hippopotamus. No photographs are known to exist, of these locos in action in Colombia: there is one, however, showing a member of the class, newly built, on trial on Belgium’s  Vicinaux metre-gauge system. Viewing of this picture prompts sentiments of seeing where Durrant  was coming from. The Sentinels entered service on the FC Nordeste in 1934; to best of knowledge, they were set aside during World War II, when the necessary specialised spare parts were unobtainable;  and never ran again.  The lines on which they operated were converted to 914mm gauge in the mid-1950s; and with the way things went motive-power-wise at that time, it would have been most unlikely for the Sentinels – even if still active – to have been converted correspondingly. O.K., Mr. Hitler, it seems you’re mostly off the hook for this one...

It is generally understood that all articulated steam locos in Colombia had been withdrawn by the beginning of the 1960s, after which “penny-plain” conventional and relatively modern steam types, were what remained. Making a wildly-broad generalisation: in nations of the overall “Pacific basin”, it seems to have worked out that diesel locomotives showed up relatively early in the twentieth century; but – at least in comparison with how things went in North America – it took a long time for the new power to totally, or mostly, supplant steam. Colombia’s first diesel locos entered service in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and continued thereafter, to come on stream; nonetheless, a great deal of steam remained in regular use in the country, for many years after. (Internal-combustion railmotors had – as in much of the Americas – arrived on the scene early on, and come to play a big part as regards local passenger traffic.) The picture is got that the FC del Atlantico, completed in 1961, has been mostly diesel-worked from the outset – nonetheless, modern steam locos of various kinds remained in intensive use in much of the country – certainly at any rate, on the Bogotá-centred corner of the network – for some while after. It is generally understood that this state of affairs went on until the early 1970s; post-which a great influx of new diesel locos rapidly made a near-end of steam in commercial service.

Frustratingly few railfans got to Colombia even at the end of its intensive-steam era, to record and document what there was to enjoy. Most of half a century ago, few European enthusiasts had the wherewithal to travel to South America; North American gricers were geographically closer-to, and a small handful of them did go to Colombia to explore and photograph in the last years of significant steam: but said steam dwindled rapidly, and rather early. Plus the factor of Colombia having being seen, from way back, as a violence-prone, dangerous place – to the point of, even given its being affordable, many people making discretion the better part of valour. Understandable, what with often greatly “physical” political strife, and also a very high level of – “both big and little” -- civilian crime. Nothing is all of a piece; and a general picture is got, that on the whole Colombians are lovely people, very kind and hospitable toward the stranger – except when they aren’t... it is undeniable that much of the country is mountainously spectacular, with the railways tackling the hills, giving wondrous photographic opportunities – one has to feel, if only real steam had lasted in strength for a few more years...

For reasons seemingly beyond much making of sense, genuine “bread-and-butter” steam continued in Colombia on a minuscule scale, long after its being mostly wiped out in the early 1970s. Colombia’s “Steam Central” as at about 1980, featured Girardot a little way south-west of the capital; and Flandes, with its loco works, just the other side of the Magdalena River from Girardot (linked by a magnificent bridge opened in 1930). The country’s last regular in any way “real” steam passenger operation, was the “staff dido” between Girardot and Flandes – running, over the years, in fluctuating variety of one / two / three times in each direction daily, worked by a Baldwin 2-8-2 on a couple of coaches – an operation which is believed to have continued until 1990. Girardot-based steam locos (chiefly Baldwin Mikados of assorted vintages, plus a couple of 1940s 4-8-2s) also performed minor freight / shunting / piloting duties in the immediate area, and were at times out-stationed for similar work around Bogotá.  All this is reckoned to have come to an end as at the very early 1990s.

Since at least the mid-1980s, there have been as pretty much of a constant on the Colombian rail scene – save for a couple of years out of action, at that scene’s early 1990s nadir --  regular year-round weekend tourist steam trains on the route (reportedly nowadays otherwise moribund) north-eastward out of Bogotá.  “Circus” rather than “real” activity; but nonetheless impressive. Usually titled “El Tren de la Sabana”, these workings have consistently made a return run, through fine scenery, between the capital and the (conventional) tourist venues of Zipaquirá – not quite 50km from Bogotá -- and Nemocón – a little way further out: the tourist interest of these towns, revolving around the underground salt-mining activity there. Zipaquirá is famous for having a church (marketed, with theologically-inaccurate hyperbole, as the “salt cathedral”), rather beautifully converted out of a former salt-mine cavern.  In recent years, Zipaquirá has been the outer limit for these steam runs:  they seem, however, well-patronised by locals and visitors from further afield – standard rake for the workings, appears to be fourteen coaches. Motive power for these workings, run at the time of writing by the undertaking “Turistren”, is provided by a small steam fleet: three of the faithful US-built 2-8-2s, plus 4-8-0 no. 76, mentioned earlier. It so happens that all four locos are Baldwin products of 1947. Chiefly in the Bogotá area, steam specials have run and continue to run at times, chartered by railway enthusiast groups; hauled by Turistren’s stud, and by other preserved locos which have at various times been in going order.

At various times in Colombia, coal, and oil, firing have been used for steam locos; oil being understood to be the fuel which predominated in more recent times – though it is understood that the Zipaquirá / Nemocón tourist trains’ motive power has been at any rate mostly, coal-burning.

In other than strictly national-rail-system realms: Colombia’s first and second cities, Bogotá and Medellín, would seem to have a tradition of local services of their own, on rails. “Reverse order”, because of which Metro was achieved first: Medellín has had since 1995, a 1435mm gauge electric Metro system serving its urban area.  Bogotá is seeking to do likewise; its lavishly-planned 1435mm gauge Metro network, in early stages of construction, is thought at present to be likely to open to traffic some time in the latter half of the 2010s. In a past-decades version of the above: Bogotá and Medellín are the only two cities of Colombia to have been served by electric trams. As appropriate to the areas’ long-preferred respective conventional-rail gauges: Bogotá’s electric tram system, active 1907 – 1951, was metre-gauge; that of Medellín (part-electric, part-internal-combustion), active 1921 – 1951, was 914mm.

Internet Sources

Photographic and Text

James Waite's 2011 visit as reported on this site, parts of which have been used for the text above.

List of preserved steam locomotives (German language) - (Link broken by December 2023. RD)

Proposals to revive the railways as a freight carrier -

Keeping a disused railway out of Medellin alive - (link dead 25th October 2016)

Googling “Ferrocarril de Colombia” under Images will bring up a variety of old images, often appearing in pages with tales of yore. It will also produce images of several of the many steam locomotives which are 'stuffed and mounted' around the country. “Trenes de Colombia” on the other hand brings up mainly more contemporary images.

The tramways of Bogota - 

The tramways of Medellin - 


See a series of YouTube films on this channel -, look for titles which start ""MEMORIAS DEL TREN" covering different areas, of course they are all in Spanish. These were a series of programmes made for local TV in 2013. 

Short Introduction -

Puerto Colombia -

Santa Marta -

Aracataca -

San Alberto -

Puerto Wilces - 

This channel has a large number of videos (currently 65) "Trenes de Colombia”, seemingly post end-of-steam, browse with care to find something that tickles your fancy.

Promotional film concerning possible revival of “Ferrocarril de Puerto Wilches” with much archive material - 

Contemporary big coal train on the 3ft -

Contemporary tourist steam - 

There are many more, you just need patience!


For an excellent introduction, see the late Christopher Walker's 'Narrow Gauge in Colombia', Trackside Publications, 2005, ISBN 1.900095.23.8.

The definitive work on the country's locomotives is Gustavo de Greiff's Spanish language "La Mula de Hierro" 1986, ISBN-10: 9589044263, ISBN-13: 978-9589044261, 

Railway Map of Colombia:

Rob Dickinson