The International Steam Pages

Cuba 2008

Alan Pearce and Alan Murray-Rust got back to Cuba earlier this year, basically for the Hershey but also to keep up with friends. This is their report, it makes depressing reading as it seems very few lessons are being learned, the time when Uncle Sam's ridiculous boycott could be blamed for the country's social and economic woes is long over.  It is also ironic that Cuba destroyed much of its sugar industry just before Bush's current mad rush to biofuels would probably have returned it to profitability.

We did manage a little in the way of side excursions, but only relatively close to Havana, just in case there was anything to see.

We visited the following 5 locations where steam locomotives in one state or another are to be found. The only operational one of these is Jose Smith Comas. This was our first visit since it had been made a display site. Like so many Cuban ventures it is disappointing in that little is done to make the most of the potentialities. The steam operation is confined to a single journey from the mill at 1030 on Wednesdays; having displayed several locomotives in quite reasonable order, nothing has been done to provide information to visitors about the exhibits, yet Varadero is less than one hour away. The current live loco at the time of the visit (29 Feb) was 1610, with 1410, 1614 and 1531 being the others on shed in various states of repair. 1531 appears to be the other nominally usable one.

The same day took us past Granma and Victoria, neither of which we explored for traces of steam, both now being reduced to the mill chimney, then to Fructuoso Rodrigues, similarly denuded of buildings, but remarkably with 1849 still stood on an isolated piece of track looking almost cared for.

On to Boris Luis, still milling but with no immediately visible locomotives (not an in depth exploration, but the shed was clearly full of diesels and there was nothing immediately visible in the patio area).
Via Roble to Villena. Here again the mill is reduced to the chimney, with the exception of the fine admin building, but this now looks forlornly unused. Nothing visible form the accessible areas, until a chap came up and offered to take us down to the former shed area to see the locos. Much frowning from the dragon-lady, but he was insistent. Here we found 1702, 1605 and 1411 gradually succumbing to vegetation.

On a different day we were in Havana and visited the display near Central Station, as well as Cristina. The former is a classic example of an ill-considered (not to mention underfunded) approach to preservation, although they are I suppose at least at one remove from the scrap torch. The Cristina collection, at least with respect to the more open air collection, is also showing signs of neglect and some vandalism (the Hershey electric loco has lost all its wooden cab window frames), although we were interested to see one new arrival since 2 years back. This is Bolivia fireless 1171 which is sitting on a flat truck completely unrepainted.

The Hershey railway struggles manfully on. A major problem is a dwindling workforce with a number of trains being cancelled due to there being no crew. This is onto of the almost daily disruptions due to overhead snagging on the pantographs. To no small degree this is due to the worsening state of the track. The American practice of staggered rail joints means that dropped joints emphasise the propensity for the stock to roll. What we had not appreciated until this visit is that the responsibility for the trackwork lies with the Ministry of Transport, not with the local divisional management and whilst local management is clearly trying hard, there was little sign of work on the track.

The three remaining Brill cars soldier on - 3006, 3008 and 3009. Of these 3006 is the only one currently with motors, and this normally runs with 3008 acting as a driving trailer as the tourist train. 3009 is nominally standby for 3006 but is currently without motors. On our last visit in 2006, the tourist train was usually hauled by the last remaining serviceable steeple cab loco, 20808, so this time was a bit better for photography of real Brill operation. If required, 3006 can be commandeered for normal passenger service, but there have been adjustments to the timetable which mean that it is not needed under normal circumstances.

Unlike JSComas, the tourist operation goes from strength to strength here with an average of 3-4 charters per week. Customers are well looked after, with on board refreshments, a band, and this year an additional attraction of a stop mid-way for some 'impromptu' cane pressing and a ride in an ox-cart. The organisation all seems to be entirely due to the work of our contact (and now good friend) Alberto Hernandez, who has put in a lot of work to make a success of it. It clearly, however, makes good money for the Division in hard currency. We just keep our fingers crossed that the infrastructure doesn't get to the stage where it is no longer possible to operate.

Rob Dickinson