Bitter Sweet Cuba

Dave Stallard – 13th February 2007

Dave Stallard had worked all his life on the railways, and in retirement is a committed “Rail fan”. In 2002, together with 40 other “Fans” he went on a specially commissioned package tour of the Cuban railways. This tour was trom Havana, in the North, to Santiago de Cuba in the South East of the island, was the subject of his taJk. It was illustrated by a series of coloured, multiple, photographs shown on an overhead screen.

The speaker gave a brief overview of the dcmographics of Cuba, which is about half the size of the U.K., and has a mixed race population some 18% that of the U.K.

There are two Railway systems in Cuba, the national railway, and the railways associated with the sugar industry, these were both standard and narrow gauge. The sugar industry rail stock is allowed to run over the national railway lines. As it requires 10 tons of sugar cane to produce 1 ton of sugar, so the railway system was fundamental to the sugar industry .

Cuba was once the world’s most important sugar producer and exporter. Production has now fallen, due to a series of hurricanes and droughts, and competition trom across the world. In addition there has been a lack of investment in the infrastructure has forced the closing of many mills. We were shown examples of unfinished Russian civil engineering projects.

The 1963 complete commercial embargo of Cuba by the USA. followed by the loss of support trom the USSR, after the break up of Russia. has lead to the inability to obtain spares. This in turn had driven the Cubans to develop a high degree of improvisation and ingenuity. so as to keep much of the old equipment maintained and operating. The impression gained by Dave Stallard was that of “being in a museum.”

Some of the oil burning steam locos. usually emitting clouds of black smoke. had originally been built in 1902, and subsequently refurbished. There was a mix of sources for the remaining, decrepit. locomotivees. They had come from Russia. Hungary and Canada – and were short of spares. As well as steam, locos were also driven by diesel, and in one area on excess electricity trom a sugar mill.

Examples of the Cuban ingenuity was the conversion of a box car. by cutting windows in the side and fitting wooden benches, made it into a passenger ‘coach’. An ambulance, with a diesel engine, had been converted to run on rails, whilst a small shunting engine could also carry passengers.

The decline in the sugar industry had lead to an inevitable decline in the rail system. The Cuban Government is now investing in the Tourist Industry. In the opinion of the speaker “the days of the steam loco were nearly over”.

John Pound