The International Steam Pages

Back from the Grave - Steam Revival in Paraguay

Below is a slightly edited version of an illustrated article (including a map) which appeared in Latin Tracks #14, reproduced by permission. For more information on the magazine please contact the editor Danny Thomas, email

Ferrocarriles del Paraguay SA. (Fepasa) launches an ambitious plan to reinstate regular steam powered tourist train services between Asunción and Sapucai.

In 2000, a two car steam powered tourist train carrying around 150 weekenders derailed in the vicinity of Luque. This unfortunate accident caused two fatal casualties. The ensuing negative press campaign did the rest, and effectively sealed the lid on the coffin of Paraguay’s last regular steam powered passenger train operation. Dwindling freight operations were limited almost exclusively to cross border terminal operations at Encarnación, on the Argentine-Paraguayan border. Paraguay‘s Ferrocarril Carlos Antonio Lopez (FCALP) was virtually dead; it had survived longer than expected. Its antiquity and uniqueness, resulting from decades of neglect and lack of investment, made it a South American Mecca for railfans from all over the world. Nobody entertained any serious hopes regarding the railway’s future and government officials even talked about turning the disused roadbed between Asunción and Ypacarai into a highway.

When Dr. Lauro Ramirez Lopez, Fepasa’s current President, took control of the railway’s helm everyone thought that he would simply wrap-up the deficit-generating railway and scrap it. Nobody thought it would be possible to revive any part of the railway without a massive injection of funds and nobody seemed willing to sink that kind of cash into a project, which in the best of cases would have generated a very low ROI. The cash strapped and heavily indebted Paraguayan government was in no position to help fund the railway’s modernization either. With privatization out of the question and no government funding available, the railway’s future looked grim indeed.

Surprisingly, since then, things have changed and Lauro Ramirez has steered a totally different course, effectively making a complete U-turn in what had until then been the government’s railway policy. The railway’s President, a lawyer with no political ties, restructured the company and created Ferrocarriles del Paraguay SA (Paraguayan Railways – Fepasa), an independent commercial company, free of all the extremely bureaucratic rules and regulations that govern state owned enterprises. This major change allowed Fepasa to adopt a much more dynamic business structure, more akin to the private sector than to state bureaucracy. As an independent public company, Fepasa could now no longer appeal to public handouts to cover operating or administrative shortfalls and simply had to rely on income generated by its own business ventures, like the railway’s cross-border terminal operations at Encarnación.

To fund these changes, revamp rail operations at Encarnación and fund laying off of around 480 redundant railway employees still on the state payroll, Fepasa sold off, at public auction, 8.6 thousand tons of rail which were the result of scrapping 80 kilometers of the disused railway’s main line between Encarnación and General Artigas and 50 kilometers of the branch line linking San Salvador with Abaí. The main line between Encarnación and General Artigas will eventually be totally flooded by the rising waters of the joint Argentine / Paraguayan Yacyretá Dam Project. Most of the scrapped rail was exported to Chile and generated PYG 1500 million (around USD 250 thousand) for the railway. With the monies generated by the sale, Fepasa was able to repair four wood burning steam locos and start moving international freight across the Paraná River. The gamble paid-off and the railway company wrapped up 2003 moving around 330 thousand tons of freight and generating sales for more than PYG 2000 million (around USD 340 thousand).

“This year (2004) we will be moving much more tonnage. We have a contract to handle around 400 thousand tons of agricultural products, which will move from Encarnación to the Brazilian Port of Rio Grande do Sul,” said Lauro Ramirez, who added that “last year we handled 130 thousand tons of soy and this year we will be handling more than twice this amount”. The Paraguayan grain will be loaded at Encarnación’s international rail terminal, where it arrives from other regions by road. From Encarnación, the crop rides over 1.5 thousand kilometers of track, operated by Brazilian owned rail freight carrier America Latina Logistica (ALL), to the Port of Rio Grande. Backhaul traffic will consist of around 200 thousand tons of fertilizer for Paraguayan farmers. Paraguay has access to three major bulk export facilities: the Ports of Paranaguá and Rio Grande, in Brazil, and Nueva Palmira, in Uruguay. Today, Paraguayan exporters seem to have chosen the route through the Port of Rio Grande. This route has seen traffic volumes grow steadily since 2002. In 2003, ALL handled nearly 200 thousand tons of Paraguayan exports, 130 thousand tons of this total was soy. “We have upgraded the road-to-rail transshipment facilities, which has improved turnaround and reduced waiting time. This has allowed us to handle considerably more tonnage”, said Ramirez.

The Lake Train

On February 13, 2004, coinciding with the 200th. anniversary of the first ever run of a locomotive, Fepasa launched its very much advertised steam train service to Luque. The train departed from Botánico Station, the railway’s new terminus located about 7 kilometers east of Asuncion’s central station and right in front of the city’s botanical gardens. The new terminal’s location is the direct result of major road improvements, which have virtually obliterated 1.4 kilometers of track between Central (Asunción) and Central Cargas. From Central Cargas onwards, the track is still complete although somewhat overgrown. The train’s revival has met with instant success and the weekends only train service is usually patronized by around 200 fare paying passengers who fill-up the two solitary serviceable wooden bodied passenger cars dating back to the early 1900’s. The train is hauled by one of the original Paraguayan Central Railway steam locos, No.54, a 2-6-0 built by North British in 1911. Ex-Urquiza Railway 2-8-0 No. 521, another North British product of 1912, provides the backup motive power. These locos had remained stranded at Asuncion’s main station when roadwork began and had to be extracted by means of cranes and low loaders. For the time being the train’s operation is quite basic. There are no passing sidings for the loco to run around the train, nor a turntable to turn the loco. Most of the auxiliary tracks at Botánico station are buried under tons of dirt and undergrowth. On the outward journey the train is pulled and simply run backwards on the return. This is quite an eye raising experience considering the quantity of busy grade crossings in the area. “We are going to clean up the area with the help of the Paraguayan Armed Forces,” explained Lauro Ramirez, who also added that the railway would soon be installing a turntable, which currently is at San Salvador, the junction for the now scrapped Abaí branch.

“The government of President Nicanor Duarte is transmitting a new image of the country. An image of safety, security and firm leadership, which is promoting investment and this will inevitably lead to a growth in the tourist business. Tourism is one of the industries that will grow substantially over the next few years”, said Ramirez. Today, the train traverses 7.5 kilometers of quite unremarkable semi-urban scenery on its journey and is greeted at all grade crossings with horns blaring and people waving. Besides the usual brush cutting exercise, the track has been checked, adjusted and some sections have also been repacked. Lauro Ramirez claims that the company has so far replaced around 800 ties between Botánico and Luque, and that track rehabilitation on this section of the line is ongoing and far from complete. Train crews that operate the tourist train over the weekends work on the track during the week. Rehabilitation of this section of the railway and its rolling stock was funded by profits made in 2003 by the freight terminal business at Encarnación. The railway operates two types of service: the VIP “Expreso Sapucai”, which runs on Saturday mornings, and the “Expreso Tatá Pirirí” on Saturday afternoons and on Sundays. The VIP service costs PYG 180 thousand (around USD 30) and includes a guided tour of the railway museum at Asunción’s main station, return transportation in an air-conditioned minibus, multilingual guides, snacks and drinks, and a tour of the historical section of the city of Luque. The other less expensive no-frills service sells for PYG 20 thousand (around USD 3.50) and only includes a soft drink. “The quality of both services is totally different. We don’t want to discriminate between foreign tourists and locals, even though the substantial difference in fare values may give some people that impression,” said Ramirez.

Around 15 people staff the train, many of them are security guards and performers providing onboard live entertainment. A drawback, from the railway enthusiast’s point of view, are the strict safety rules; which amongst other things prohibit passengers from riding the passenger car’s open platforms and sticking heads out of windows. Once all passengers have been seated, tickets are laboriously checked on a one-by-one basis and once this lengthy process has been completed the train finally departs on its 25-minute journey, never doing more than around 15 kilometers and hour. On arrival at Luque station, all passengers are invited to detrain and are welcomed by local musicians and artisans who have set-up handicrafts stalls on the other side of the station. Luque is well known for its silver and gold handicrafts. Once everyone has got off, the train reverses a few hundred meters back to the water tank and sits in the generous shade provided by a couple of large trees. The three track yard is home to two semi-gutted Fiat/Materfer coaches which were part of the consist of the last tourist train that derailed back in 2000. Also in the yard is the steam powered breakdown crane and its associated vehicles that rescued the derailed equipment and later were simply abandoned, once the job was done. Inexplicably, four steel and wooden bodied boxcars also lie scattered around, off the tracks, within the station’s limits. There is no turntable at Luque. The only turntable available is located at Ypacarai station, which is today the ultimate destination for the first stage of the rehabilitation project. “Originally, our objective was to reach Aregua, but as Ypacarai is equipped with a turntable, we decided to extend the service and terminate the train there”, explained Ramirez. 

Beyond Luque, the track is overgrown and has not seen the passage of a train for more than six years, when the railway abandoned the suburban service linking Asuncion with Ypacarai. Reports state that Patiño station, at one time the junction for the 1.5-kilometer long spur to Kendall on Lake Ypacarai, is now completely abandoned and overgrown. Once the train service is extended to Ypacarai, the tour will be a whole day outing as the train will continue stopping at both Luque and Aregua. Fepasa expects to have the tourist train to Ypacarai up and running within the next six months. The cost of rehabilitating the tourist train service to Ypacarai has been budgeted at around USD 500 thousand. Half this amount will be provided by Paraguay’s Ministry of Tourism and the other half will have to funded by the railway. In order to raise the necessary cash, the railway will soon launch two international public tenders aimed at selling-off the 290 kilometers of track, still remaining between Sapucai and General Artigas, for scrap. Proceeds from the sale will be channeled into rehabilitating the stretch up to Ypacarai station only. Rehabilitation of the line beyond Ypacarai and ultimately to Sapucai will take place at a later date. On March 11, 2004 and in order to capitalize the new railway company, Paraguay’s President, Nicanor Duarte, signed a Presidential Decree transferring all the assets of the old Ferrocarril Carlos Antonio Lopez to the new railway company, Ferrocarriles del Paraguay SA. The decree also opened the door to scrapping the remaining 290 kilometers of track between Sapucai and General Artigas. Fepasa will retain all rights and permits concerning the railway’s Real Estate and right of way. 

Sapucai, located 84 kilometers east of Botánico station was (and still is) the railway’s main backshop. The shops were built in 1894 by the then British owned Paraguay Central Railway and have changed very little since. Their antiquity has effectively turned the facilities into a real museum of industrial archeology. Besides their historical value, the shops are located in an idyllic spot surrounded by hills, forests and streams, which make it an ideal destination for people who want to take a step back in time and un-plug. “If we manage to extend the service up to Sapucai, we will most probably get thousands of tourists wanting to ride on our train. This will really equate to taking the “time machine”. Arriving in Sapucai, hauled by a wood burning steam locomotive will be a very attractive option for foreign tourists,” said Lauro Ramirez, who also explained that Fepasa, with the help of the Asociación Latinoamericana de Ferrocarriles (Latin-American Rail way Association – ALAF) and Spain’s State Railway Company (RENFE), were preparing a financial feasibility study to help the railway obtain loans and grants from international lending institutions, and help finance the railway’s extension towards Sapucai, which Mr. Ramirez would like to inaugurate by the end of 2004. The ambitious project includes restoring the railway shops, rehabilitating the track between Paraguari and Sapucai, and reconverting several of the historical buildings in Villa Inglesa into small hotels and restaurants. “Today, Sapucai is not prepared for tourists,” added Lauro Ramirez.

Contact: Dr. Lauro Ramírez Lopez, President 
Lauro J. Bernal Peña, Administrative and Technical Manager.
Eduardo Benítez Haedo, Financial Manager.
Mexico 145 c/Mcal. Lopez, Casilla de Correo 453, Asunción, Paraguay
Tel: +595 21 443273 or 447848
Fax: +595 21 443273
e-mail: - link dead by 26th April 2014

Rob Dickinson