The International Steam Pages

Steam in El Salvador, 2012

James Waite reports on an April 2012 visit to a country where 3ft gauge is 'standard' together with neighbouring Guatemala with which it was once connected through the International Railways of Central America (IRCA)..

Thomas Kautzor adds (6th November 2015):

"El Salvador seems to have been become jealous of being the only Central American country (with Panama) not to have its railway museum and is currently turning parts of the San Salvador workshops into one:

In 2012, you might have been one of the last persons to witness No. 12 in steam for a long time. It will now be on display in the new museum (without its tender). At least some of the rail items are being preserved that way, a large part of the station yard has been cleared of tracks and is used as a bus garage for San Salvador's new SITRAMSS BRT system, which has a stop right in front of the station.

I also came across pictures of 2-8-0 No. 112 (Baldwin 59165 4/1926) at the Tin Marín Children's Museum in San Salvador. At first I thought this might have been relocated No. 101, but looking at pictures on the museum's Facebook page it was already there prior to your visit in January 2012."

The museum opened in December 2015 and is open Tuesday to Sunday from 09.00 to 17.00.

Tim Mills has kindly informed us (10th May 2012) that the 1925 batch of Baldwin 2-8-0s (101 -106) were originally supplied with slide valve cylinders. Some time later the IRCA procured conversion kits that replaced the slide valves with bolt on piston valves on some locomotives as shown in the photos of No. 12. Even later the IRCA procured complete replacement cylinder assemblies for other locomotives that incorporated piston valves as shown in the photos of No. 101.

This was basically a business trip. When it first came into view round about last Christmas I wrote to the El Salvador railways to ask if either of their locos was still capable of being steamed and, anyway, whether I could visit the shed at San Salvador. A courteous and prompt response arrived from Ing. Salvador Sanabria, the railway's general manager, saying that both their locos were out of order but that I would be very welcome to visit at any time. I wrote to him last week again just before I set off to say that I would like to go on Thursday, the only day I was in the country. Back came another prompt reply saying how much the railway was looking forward to my visit.

I arrived soon after 8.00am and was shown round by Mrs. Ingrid de Ceseña as Mr. Sanabria was away for the day. You can imagine my surprise and delight to find that the depot staff were busily raising steam in one of the locos (no. 12 which actually turns out to be no. 102 renumbered). It turned out that several of their depot staff are steam enthusiasts and devote some of their time to maintaining no. 12 which is the only loco to have worked in recent years. What a treat!! I really enjoyed El Salvador. I think that without exception everyone I met at the railway, and indeed elsewhere in the country, was genuinely kind and helpful and in fact can't think of anywhere else I've ever been to where this was so much the case.

Note from the photos that the two 2-8-0 locos, 12 (ex-102) and 101, have exchanged tenders which makes identification a little confusing! I don't know why no. 12 was renumbered. It is Baldwin 58224/1925, no. 95 until the 1928 renumbering scheme There used to be an elderly 4-6-0 numbered 12 which saw use on specials for visiting US enthusiasts in the early 1970's and I wondered whether the numberplate was the same but in fact it's different. Note also that 101 has piston valves whereas 12/102 appears to have slide valves which makes the numbering sequence odd. 101 carries a Baldwin plate 58441/1925 (it was 94 until the 1928 renumbering scheme) and no. 8 carries Baldwin/Burnham Williams plate 14824/1896. The roundhouse, a magnificent building, also contained an elderly railcar no. 17, quite different in style from no. 20 at Sonsonate and diesel loco no. 790 which I've read is German-built and may have come from Colombia. It's marked as reserved for a future museum. Next to the roundhouse is the workshop, a two-bay building served by an electric traverser.

In addition to some of the coaches used on the service trains and diesels under repair the works building also contains the president's car, a magnificent wooden clerestory vehicle. I was also shown round a large building, perhaps an ex-goods shed or warehouse, which contains numerous old station clocks, pieces of wooden furniture and other old equipment salvaged from outlying stations and set aside for display in a future museum and also around the print shop, a fully functioning establishment with machinery which must date from the early years of the 20th century. There is more historic equipment and documents displayed in Mr. Sanabria's office. In the depot yard is a memorial celebrating the railway's centenary in 1982. This incorporates an ALCO (Rogers) plate no. 53446/1913 (this is from one of 4 locomotives bought from the Oahu Railway in Hawaii in 1950) and mounted on display on the outside wall of the office building is a Lancaster (England) Carriage & Wagon Works axle cover dated 1895 from the FC Santa Ana, a constituent of the Ferrocarril del Salvador (FES). This is clearly a railway which values its heritage.

Later in the day I visited the old works and yard at Sonsonate, about 40km to the west of San Salvador. The premises are kept securely locked and guarded but Mrs. de Ceseña kindly phoned ahead to make sure I was able to look around. Two more of these 2-8-0's dumped, no. 110 (Baldwin 59163/1926, no. 115 until the 1928 renumbering scheme) with slide valves and no. 117 (117 Baldwin 58226/1925, no. 103 until the 1928 renumbering scheme) with piston valves. All four are ex-International Railways of Central America engines bought by the FES when IRCA was dieselised. In one of the sheds is an old railcar numbered 20. Also at Sonsonate in the town centre is 4-6-0 no. 8 which forms the centrepiece of a monument to the railway workers of the city between 1882 and 1974 which I think must be when the works there were closed. Fenadesal, the state railway concern, took over the FES in 1962 and the IRCA lines in El Salvador in 1975. The only line open now is the ex-FES one to Apopa, 12km away in the suburbs of San Salvador. There's one morning rush hour train which arrives in the city at 7.30am and one evening one which leaves at 4.30pm. The working locos are all GM diesels originally built for the IRCA. 

I'm immensely grateful to Mr. Sanabria, Mrs de Ceseña and all the railway staff who were so kind and helpful and for making this such a memorable visit.

'Situation normal' in the shed where the two steam locomotives are stored, with a contrast in front ends:

And here is 12 in steam and out in the open air:

The presidential coach and railcar 17:

The following pictures were taken at Sonsonate:

This is preserved 8:

This is railcar 20:

This is 110

This is 117:


Rob Dickinson