The train is back

Though the repair and construction of railways is marching slower than previewed in some points of the Cuban geography, its development continues among the strategic priorities in order to absorb the main amount of freight transportation.

The government plans aim to give back to the trains the space they ceded to trucks in freight transportation.

Cuba’s aim to expand freight transportation by railway, to reduce the fuel it uses on trucks, has been able to make more moderate progress than what had been planned four years ago. Recent reports by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) indicate that the transfer of merchandise and material resources continues to mainly fall on road transport.

For several years the government has been making imports and millions of dollars’ worth of investments to strengthen the capacity of the railway system. To the repair of the tracks that cross the island of Cuba from one tip to the other it added the purchase of 112 locomotives from China and some 500 wagons from Iran. It also signed cooperation agreements with Russia for the remodelling of workshops and machinery, while it is expanding in the local industry the production of wagons for bulk sugar, silos for the transport of cement, dumper trucks, gondolas for construction materials, container platforms and other towing means.

In August 2010 the daily Granma announced the government’s intention of transporting 50 percent of the country’s freight by railway. At that time it transported a fourth – not counting sugar production – by railway. The bad state of around 6,000 kilometres of tracks was one of the factors that was delaying the traffic of locomotives and wagons or prevented the access to ports and important cities, in one of the countries that first had a railway – the first in Latin America and the seventh in the world.

In view of such a situation, the Railway Union of Cuba prioritised the rehabilitation of tracks and bridges and the expansion of branch lines. One of the aims was to repair more than 800 kilometres of the central railway line, from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, making it possible for the trains to reach up to 90 kilometres per hour.

Ever since then the country has replaced hundreds of kilometres. Only last year, the Union repaired more than 220 kilometres until the close of September. But executives from the Transport Ministry recognised that they still hadn’t been able to reduce the trips’ duration, as well as other limitations in the case of passenger transport. The reason they gave was the deficient technical state of the wagons.The government plans aim to give back to the trains the space they ceded to trucks in freight transportation.

Neither has freight transportation by railway experienced all the dreamed-of benefits. In 2013, it grew a meagre 1.6 percent as compared to the previous year, to round off 16,879,400 tons, according to the ONEI. That volume represented 16.9 percent of the total freight transported by different means. Trucks continue in first place, with three quarters of all the merchandise and materials moved from one place to another: almost 75 million tons by specialised and non-specialised enterprises.

But compared to 2010, when the government decided to benefit the use of trains, the improvement is more evident: freight transportation by railway increased 32 percent since then, and in relation to 2009 it grew around 70 percent, according to the Statistical Yearbook of Cuba.

In any case, there’s still a long road to travel to achieve the goal of transporting half of the freight in Cuba by railway. Trucks, in addition to bearing the majority of the weight, show a tendency toward a more accentuated growth in recent years. In 2013, the freight moved on this means of transport increased 6.8 percent as compared to the previous year.

Another side of the strategy is displaying a better development: replacing the transport by trucks of non-specialised enterprises with enterprises dedicated only to that activity, equipped, therefore, with more efficient equipment. Freight transportation carried out by the latter increased 8.2 percent, as compared to 5.2 by the former, ONEI reported.

The plans for the recovery or construction of railway tracks have been delayed in some points of the island. This is the case of the works underway for freight trains to have access to the provincial capital of Las Tunas. On the other hand, they are advancing at a good pace in the most expensive investment project undertaken by Cuba, the Mariel Special Development Zone. The link between the country and the modern Container Terminal of that zone is betting on the trains. The economy that since early 1837 was centred on the railway for the sugar production that dominated for a few centuries is again turning more forcefully its head toward the most efficient transport formula.

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