The Central Railway Station
Cuba is a fascinating travel destination in every way – culture, music, architecture, art, nature and bird life. And the people are friendly, gracious, and welcoming.
I borrowed my title from Graham Greene’s 1958 novel, Our Man In Havana, which was set in Cuba before the 1959 Revolution. It is about a vacuum cleaner salesman, who may be a Mi6 British spy, or maybe he isn’t. Who can be sure? It’s a great read, like most of Graham Greene’s novels.
When I visit new cities, I like to check out the railroad station and train infrastructure.
The main railway terminal in Havana is the Havana Central Station (Estación Central de Ferrocarriles) in the southern part of Habana Viejo. This handsome building was built in 1912 by the Frederick Snare Company of New York. Recall that in that era, big American companies dominated the Cuban economy and were improving the infrastructure to allow efficient movement of sugar cane and sugar products. After the 1958 revolution, the rail system was nationalized, and little or no funding was provided for upkeep or improvements to the system. In recent years, ridership has dropped rapidly, especially once new air-conditioned long distance buses started running on rural routes. The train is infamous for delays or breakdowns.
As of January 2017, the Central Station was undergoing massive rebuilding. I was not able to find out how this is being funded—perhaps by the Cuban government, the UN, or by a grant from the Chinese government? Regardless, it was a closed construction site and I was disappointed not to see the interior.
I tried to enter and take pictures, but a lady security guard tossed me out. Once I was outside the fence, she did not seem to care, or didn’t pay any more attention (she was doing something with her phone).
The platforms are in the back (the west side of the building) and are still in use.
The Hershey Train
The Hershey Train was built in 1922 by the US Hershey Corporation to service its sugar mills and farms in central Cuba. The line runs from the east side of Havana Harbor, the area known as Casa Blanca, to the city of Matanzas, about 57 miles to the east. This is the only electric line in Cuba and now mostly serves commuters. According the the World Tram and Trolleybus web page, The Hershey train is one of the few interurban rail systems still in operation.
Because of Cuba’s lack of infrastructure investment since the Revolution almost 6 decades ago, the line is essentially unchanged since it opened in 1922. The current rolling stock may be Spanish, replacing the 1920s American Brill electric cars. According to Lonely Planet, all rail service in Cuba is erratic because of frequent breakdowns and track bed failures. The trip to Matanzas takes at least four hours, and the return may or may not be possible on the same day. The day this picture was taken, January 21, 2017, this author was pleased to see the green car slowly trundle out of the Casa Blanca station, with chickens and pedestrians slowly moving off the track to make way.
The Casa Blanca Station is located on the east side of the harbor channel, not in Habana Vieja (Old Town Havana). It can be accessed by the harbor ferry. The Hershey train did not run into the main part of Havana because United Railways, the British company that ran Cuba’s trains in the first part of the 20th century, did not allow the Hershey train to use its rails into the city. The ferry boat is a fun ride across the harbor. Two tickets cost only 0.50 CUC, or about 50 cents US. There was surprising security presence and X-ray inspection because many years ago, someone commandeered the ferry and tried to sail it to Florida.
We saw some rail infrastructure in rural area of Cuba. These tracks were in the village of Guasimal. The rails were not completely rusted, suggesting occasional use.
Andrew Morang – Photographs and text Copyright 2017
All photographs were taken in January, 2017. See more of Andrew’s work at his blog, Urban Decay