The International Steam Pages

Steam in Ecuador 2003

Ecuador has attracted some attention in recent months, I have had two reports so far, but I am so short of time I cannot check them against each other but reproduce exactly as they came to me! And I have now added a commentary from a third.

John West adds a slightly different perspective (added 3rd October 2003)

I was on the Trains Unlimited tour of the G&Q and came away with a very different feeling about the tour. The G&Q is a ghost railway, and chasing steam there is more like an industrial archeology experience that one of real steam railroading.

The TUT tour itself was well run and we had fun, but the state of the railway left me with very negative feelings. In terms of the details, engine numbers, track conditions, etc. there is little I can add to the two prior reports...our experience differed only in detail. One of the highlights was having Dr. Roy Christian along, whose books on South American railways were our bibles when chasing trains down there thirty years ago.

But the G&Q can hardly be called an operating steam railway. It is a sad shadow of its former self. It is little more than a few pieces of what used to be that can still be made to work....barely. The engines are in no condition to pull anything resembling a real train, much less really "work". And even if they could, the track wouldn't allow it. You can experience more hard working steam at any number of preserved railways in the U.K. or the U.S.....if hard working steam is what is important to you. And the pieces of the railway that you can count on riding are a fraction of the whole.

It is also worth mentioning that the G&Q management has a bad habit of promising (and charging for) far more than they can deliver. All the recent tours seem to have suffered from unkept promises.

All that being said, what remains is still interesting in a historical sense. And the scenery is no less spectacular. Clearly carefully staged photographic vignettes can be created that approximate the G&Q of old, and Devil's Nose remains as spectacular as ever.

I may actually go back.

Ian Wright reports on the Top Link Tours August trip

There were 3 locos available.

2-6-0 No. 11 based at Duran. Appeared to be in quite good condition but had to take a water bowser with it for the return trip to Yaguachi.

No.17 2-8-0 was basically "shagged". It attempted to run from Alausi to Sibambe and back with 2 coaches but the return (uphill) was abandoned and it had to return, hauled by a diesel. It was then towed to Riobambe for repairs. It had no apparent "beat" suggesting that it needed valve and piston rings.

No 53 was in better fettle and ran with 2 box cars and 2 coaches from Sibambe to Urbina and performed a fair number of run pasts. Its beat "was a bit woolly" and its oil/water consumption appeared rather heavy, suggesting the need for attention to its piston/valve rings.

We were told that another 2-8-0 was available at Quito and a 2-6-0 at Atbarra but we did not see either of these. No. 58 was marooned in Bucay shed but we were told is also steamable.

The line was open from Duran to Yaguachi (the line through Milagro has been paved over, preventing through running).

Bucay depot is now ringed with a 6 foot high chain link fence but you can crawl under the gate if you want to have a look round. The station has been "tarted up" and through line has a row of ornamental trees planted alongside it. Most of the yard has been lifted.

The line between Bucay and Huigra is closed, due to the state of the track, following a derailment of an autoferro in which there were several fatalities.

The line from Huigra to Sibambe is closed due to a washout/landslip.

The line is open from Sibambe, through Alausi and Riobambe to Urbina. There is still a "mixto" from Riobambe to Sibambe 3 days a week although it really is a tourist train. Most of the tourists travel on the roofs of the vehicles. It is hauled by a French box. I don't think any freight was carried even though there were box cars in the consist. There are also several quite modern Auotferros that are privately chartered.

North of Urbina the line is officially closed but we were told that an Alsthom diesel traversed that section, from Quito, whilst we were there.

On our charter 53 regularly derailed just north of the water tank below Alausi. The track here was worse than elsewhere, probably due to some ill advised work on the drainage. The crew managed to rerail it quite quickly each time. It also derailed on the Devil's Nose (which was a little worrying).

There's a good hotel at Huigra, much better than in Alausi. Just south of the station, up a very steep hill.

Beware. If you try to take a shot of the gate keeper's pet monkey at Riobambe works entrance. The monkey is on a chain but the gate keeper's dogs aren't and were only deterred from tasting my leg when one of them received my well aimed railway boot in its teeth.

We had a good tour but I am not optmistic about the future.

Chris Lewis reports on the Railway Touring Company September trip:

The RTC trip to Ecuador (and the Galapagos) was very successful and all taking part enjoyed it immensely. It was led by Hugh Ballantyne. I will keep to the railway side! Will you please acknowledge receipt. I think I have used the correct e-mail address. I have tried to get the facts straight and have put where it is rumoured, etc.

The party started at Duran on September 6th. There was a 0-4-0 tank plinthed in a playground near the disused station. The line from this station has been dug up for much of the first mile. However this then joined the line from the works/shed. There would be little difference in distance whether the train departs from the works or from the closed station. We then went to the works. 55 was dumped with no wheels or boiler. 7 and 18 were inside the shed looking generally intact. No 11 was in steam to haul our train. As for all the steam trains we had a railcar to go in front of the steam train for picture taking from the roof.

11 derailed while shunting in the works but was rerailed within 10 minutes. We left to travel to Yuguachi some 21 kms with run pasts on the way. There 11 turned and went back to Duran. We were to proceed to Valdes by railcar but we were late and did not. We bussed to Bucay. On the way we saw a plinthed engine with train by a sugar mill. Then we passed through, I think, Milagro. While we did not stop we passed by the area with the tracks covered over/removed. The rails finished by the road. Looking the other way there was no evidence the rail would ever be restored through the town. We were told there was a turntable suitable for a railcar only on the outskirts of the town. I assume this was Valdez.

At Bucay while all the engines were out of use 58 looked reasonable but 44 and 46 had no wheels.

The line from Bucay was in operation northwards until two years ago, probably to Huigra. There was a massive landslide north of Huigra (nearer Sibambe) five years ago and this effectively isolated this section. (We saw the landslide - a tunnel through the landslide, costed at multiple millions of dollars, is required.) Two years ago the only available railcar on this section had brake failure, crashed and killed several passengers. Hence no further train service. It was said the track would still take a railcar.

On September 7 we bussed to Alausi. It was a particularly busy day on the Devils Nose. First of all a chartered railcar went down. Our party consisted of first 17 with one coach, and then 53 had a water tank, two boxcars and a coach. Both these trains reversed down with the engines in the rear. 17 was allowed to run far in advance of 53. Following close to 53 was a railcar. These met at the passing loop. While there the chartered railcar passed on its return journey and the three times a week "service train" overtook us (one coach, two boxcars and an Alstom diesel). Our three train assembly then proceeded down the Nose.

At the bottom 17 was obviously in a bad way and was under repair for several hours (fuel supply problems). When repaired it joined 53 on the nose for photos. 53 then returned to Sibambe to pick up passengers but then found it was short of fuel. Some was siphoned from 17 but then 17 failed again. It had to be rescued by an Alston diesel making the sixth working down the nose that day. 53 made a magnificent climb back to Alausi in the dark.

It appeared there was not room on the wye at Sibambe to turn the steam engines, hence the reverse down the hill.

On September 8 we travelled from Aluisi to Guamote then on the 9th from Guamote to Riobamba. We started with a convoy of railcar, 53 plus two boxcars and a coach, and 17 with one coach. 17 failed later on the 8th and was left behind.

It was announced on the 9th that the minister of transport and tourism were joining the train for the journey into Riobamba. Only the minister of tourism arrived and many hours late. However several of our party appeared on the front page of the local paper next morning.

On the 10th we visited the shed/works and found 17 there. We travelled from Riobamba to Urbina with 53 plus water cart, two boxcars and two carriages. (The train reversed out of Riobamba station until it was able to go forward onto the Urbina line.) It worked well until derailed while reversing for a run past. We had lunch while it was rerailed and several sleepers replaced. Urbina is 11,841 feet above sea level and is probably the highest point in the world that can still be reached by steam train. It was certainly the highest point 3ft 6in gauge reached according to the Guinness book of records. 53 again derailed when turning.

On the 11th we should have proceeded by bus to Lasso then railcar to Quito. However the railway company allowed a railcar to work throughout from Urbina to Quito, a distance of 189 kms. (This was perhaps for the help we had given publicising the railway to the minister of tourism.) This line reached 11,638 feet and had not been used in its entirety for five years we were told. Previous attempts from both ends had failed. We had to remove rubbish, building materials, pipes, trees, cables, telephone wires (by cutting on occasions), dead animals, tethered animals (to the track) and remove some of a concrete wall. But after ten hours we arrived at Quito, quite a triumph.

Next day we visited Quito works/shed. 45 was in a reasonable condition. We observed the wye that was tarmacced over for a few feet. The line to the northwest was visible and intact in many places. There was a rumour the mayor wanted to reopen this for a distance of 70 kms but terminating in an area not previously served by this line.

On the 13th we visited Ibarra depot and works. 14 was in steam and worked for perhaps two kilometers and back (to Las Palmas I think). A railcar followed/preceded for picture taking. The railcar then took us to Salinas but then to our surprise continued to Primerpaso. This was an extremely scenic line.

To sum up it is difficult to see a commercial future for these lines. We had covered 354 km of the 464 km of the Guayaquil and Quito, much more than we were expecting. The scenery is exceptional. The "service train" for tourists from Riobamba to the Devil's Nose and back was very well used with some 100 people in the coach and perhaps 150 on the roofs (but diesel hauled). This operated three days a week. There is also a weekly service from Quito to Cotopaxi National Park again diesel. It may be the railway should concentrate its resources on these two sections. However, it would be a great pity if the other usable sections fall into disuse. A visit as soon as possible is certainly recommended.

Rob Dickinson