Guatemala - On a freight train to El Rancho
September 3, 2004
The first day of my vacations and the most interesting part of my stay starts. A few days before, I got a confirmation from Mr Giron, the operations manager of Ferrovias Guatemala, that my freight train to Puerto Barrios would leave Guatemala City on Friday September 3 at 12:00 noon. And because train enthusiasts will read these pages, I will first write a few words about Guatemalan railroads in general. If you do not care about trains, but look for tips for a convenient transport to the East, take a look at Litegua bus schedules.
Rail transport in Guatemala has 120 years. The first line - from Guatemala City to Puerto San José on the Pacific coast - was opened in 1884. The first train towards the Atlantic, to Puerto Barrios, ran in 1908. A significant shareholder and customer of the eastern section was United Fruit Corporation (nowadays Chiquita), a banana grower. They managed to create a network of narrow-gauge railroads (914 mm), called IRCA (International Rail of Central America), which operated all over Guatemala and El Salvador. IRCA prospered until about the 1950s, but very often by abusing its monopoly power. United Fruit as the main shareholder took advantage and cross-subsidized its banana transport with high prices charged to other customers. In the 1950s, these abuses turned against the company. Minority shareholders sued United Fruit for siphoned-out profits, antimonopoly office requested the sale of the railroad, government tried to weaken the monopoly by building a parallel road and trade unions refused to drive modern diesel engines for fear of losing jobs. The financial situation of IRCA gradually deteriorated. The company was losing money and needed to be propped-up by governmental credits. In 1968, it defaulted, was taken over by the government and renamed to FEGUA. Losses however continued. Passenger transport was suspended in 1994 and freight in 1996. The railroad property was immediately attacked by thieves, vandals and squatters.
In the meantime, however, an unexpected thing happened. An American investor, Railroad Development Corporation (RDC), noticed the opportunity. It is a small dynamic company, specialized in reviving and operating railroads in developing countries. Nowadays it runs railroads in seven countries (Iowa, Argentina, Guatemala, Peru, Malawi, Mozambique, Estonia). Their business approach is cautious and sophisticated - find a local partner, do not overspend (do not install new technology if the traditional works), start small and gradually develop. In Guatemala, they encountered several difficulties. First, they had to move out illegal squatters, who built their "houses" on the tracks. Then, using manual tools and wooden ties, repaired the worst parts of the line. And when they were almost done, the Mitch hurricane came in Fall 1998. They had to rebuild the line at some places afterwards. However, it was a success and the first freight train departed on April 15, 1999 towards El Chile cement plant. Later on, the line was extended to the Atlantic coast, to Puerto Barrios and Puerto Santo Tomás.
Officially, there are 497 miles (= 800 km; even though Guatemala generally uses the metric system, railroads as an "American import" measure distances and speed in miles) of tracks, of which 200 miles (322 km) in operation. The rest may be reactivated in the coming years, if there is demand for transport to Mexico, the Pacific or El Salvador. Nothing is however sure and the unused lines are currently unable to operate. There are no other railroads or trams (streetcars) in Guatemala. Some older sources mention about 16 000 km of railroads, which I cannot confirm if there ever were. All lines are narrow-gauge. If you want to know more, look at an extensive collection of links and photographs on the official site of Ferrovias Guatemala, which was a basis for this article.
But let's get back to my trip. The main station in Guatemala City, currently used for freight transport only, is located in downtown, in Zona 1. As it would be hazardous to travel around the city alone in buses, and moreover I did not know where the station was located, I asked my colleagues to take me there by car. They agreed, but arranged among themselves, that the one with the oldest and worst car will take me there. If they had parked a new one in the area, they may not have seen it again. The ride through the city streets was an experience of its own - we traveled around a huge market place surrounded by piles of trash, around houses of the lower classes, under a beautiful railroad bridge and finally arrived at a small square with the main bus and train terminal. We met Mr Giron (I was not the first train traveler), he showed us several steam and diesel engines - and then we just had to wait for the train. I did not know then, that about 2 miles of the Pacific line are in use, connecting the terminal with a container park. This is where my train was coming from.
The train arrived in about a quarter. I said good-bye to my colleagues, entered the engine and we set out for the trip. There were two railroaders - engineer (drives the engine) and conductor (communicates with the dispatcher). The main station in Guatemala City (198 miles from Puerto Barrios) has a unique layout - a train going towards the Atlantic has to back up, turn the switch and continue on the right besides the station. At the end of the station, there are closed gates. We have to stop, the guard checks that we have a permission to leave and opens the gate. I immediately realize why such measures are in place - there is a neighbourhood of poor inhabitants in the outside, trash is everywhere and no reasonable enterprise can afford to leave its property unprotected.
We run through the city streets, along small houses. All crossings are unprotected, without signals, and visibility round the corner is about 3 meters. We go slowly, honking all the time. People in the area must already be deaf. Luckily it works, cars and buses stop, there was no dangerous situation. We still go through various poor neighbourhoods. I do not take pictures - people do not like it and we run so slowly, that somebody could make troubles. A group of teenagers cooks "something" in a pot on a fireplace on the ramp of an old warehouse. A school is round the corner behind a high wall. We go on. In La Ermitia suburb it seems to me, that something stands on the track in a distance ahead of us. We come closer - and see a salesman, who opened his stand right on the track and now is busy disassembling it and moving goods aside. We go slowly and he managed it. We still honk. The city comes to an end and a wonderful landscape opens in front of us. We cross a high bridge over the Las Vacas river and enter an area of cuts, bridges and tunnels. The line has the steepest slope here and the landscape is the most beautiful from the whole route. Railroad tourists come here every year. The driver tells me, that the average speed is 10 mph (16 km/h) and the maximum permitted speed 15 mph (24 km/h). We pass through several sidings. In some of them, the side track can be entered only from one side, others are apparently unoperable. One of such was being restored as we passed by. We pass through several small cities and around many stand-alone farms. Local people wave at us at one of them. We stop and the driver talks to them. It turned out that they need to see a doctor with their child. They get on an empty flat car and we go on.
We enter Sanarate station (158 miles), where we meet an opposite freight train. Traffic control is simple - there are no signals and the American system called TWC (Track Warrant Control) is used. You can learn more on a special page.
After Sanarate, mountains with tropical vegetation continue. Around 6 pm we arrive at El Rancho (136 miles), a major station in a valley. The steepest slope is over, the landscape will be flat all the way to the sea (see gradient profile). The station is protected by a security guard with a machine gun. He notices me on the engine and shows his disagreement. The driver gives him some documents and tells that I have a permission. This satisfies him. The engine turns on a triangle. El Rancho is a transfer station for me. The engine, that I arrived with, comes back with the crew on a different train to Guatemala. It is because there are sharp curves in the mountains and bigger engines, used in the valley, cannot pass. I get off, wait on the platform and buy some food in a local store.
The opposite train came in about an hour. At about 8 pm, we go further East. It is dark, we can only see the shapes of mountains in a distance and the tracks in front of us. There are lightnings in the sky, but most of the time no rain. Luckily, there are also no mosquitos (we are relatively low, malaria could be a problem). The driver turns the head light on and off in front of every road crossing as a warning to drivers. He honks sometimes, but not too often, respecting the local inhabitants. Even though the visibility is low, I want to stay awake to see the layout of Zacapa station (103 miles). It used to be a hub in the past - a line to Salvador branched from here. Shortly before midnight we get here. I can see a new red bridge (rebuilt after Hurricane Mitch - see RDC photo gallery ) and a triangle (direct lines El Salvador - Zacapa - Puerto Barrios, Guatemala City - Zacapa - Puerto Barrios and Guatemala City - El Salvador avoiding Zacapa). There is no traffic towards El Salvador, but no one can tell how far the tracks are operable. Zacapa is another important station on the line. The crew changes here, but the engine does not. Shortly after departure, it becomes apparent that I will not see anything interesting any more, and I ask the conductor if I can sleep somewhere. He opens a cardboard (former box) and puts it on the ground, so that I can lay on it. I would have never believed that it could be so soft and comfortable. I fall asleep almost instantly.
To be continued the following day.
© Jan Peula, 2004