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Point of View: Cuba rolls out modern Chinese train as overhaul of ageing rail system begins

Point of View: Cuba rolls out modern Chinese train as overhaul of ageing rail system begins

Photo: Cuban Minister of Transportation/Cubadebate

South China Morning Post 

The first train using new equipment from China pulled out of Havana Saturday, hauling excited passengers on the start of a 915km (516-mile) journey to the eastern end of the island as the government tries to overhaul the country’s ageing and decrepit rail system.

The 14 gleaming Chinese cars and a locomotive departed the city’s central railway station, passing through nine cities before ending in Guantanamo 15 hours later.

It has four air-conditioned wagons and a rolling restaurant car. Previously the trip could take days because of equipment breakdowns and track erosion.

It marks a first step of an overhaul Cuba’s communist government started early last year, repairing some 4,200km of ageing tracks and dozens of tumble-down stations scattered around the island.

Cuba’s first new train passenger cars in more than four decades set off on their maiden journey across the island.

The first train using new equipment from China pulled out of Havana Saturday, hauling excited passengers on the start of a 915km (516-mile) journey to the eastern end of the island as the government tries to overhaul the country’s ageing and decrepit rail system.

The 14 gleaming Chinese cars and a locomotive departed the city’s central railway station, passing through nine cities before ending in Guantanamo 15 hours later.

It has four air-conditioned wagons and a rolling restaurant car. Previously the trip could take days because of equipment breakdowns and track erosion.

It marks a first step of an overhaul Cuba’s communist government started early last year, repairing some 4,200km of ageing tracks and dozens of tumble-down stations scattered around the island.

“It’s a blessing from God because we had to take this trip and private cars are very expensive, but we got a very good low fare and we are proud to be taking this train,” said 69-year-old passenger Virginia Pardo.

But much remains to be done to bring Cuba’s ailing train system up to acceptable standards with miles of rusting tracks and just a handful of reliably equipped trains.

Cuba received a shipment of 80 new Chinese-made train carriages and locomotives in early May, part of a promised consignment of 250 pieces of new equipment by the end of 2019.

Cuba also signed a deal worth almost US$1 billion with Russia to modernise its railways, according to Interfax news agency, although details have not yet been released.

In 2017, state-owned monopoly Russian Railways (RZD) told Reuters it was also negotiating to install a high-speed link between Havana and the beach resort of Varadero.

The government hopes a revamp of the system will restore one of the region’s first countrywide rail services, heavily used to move goods and people around the island. It is part of a plan that runs until 2030, when the government hopes the system will be fully functional.

“Cuba has not received new rail-cars since the 1970s,” Transport Minister Eduardo Rodriguez was quoted as saying by Cubadebate last month.

According to the Cuban Transportation Ministry, trains carried 6.7 million passengers in 2018, a sharp drop from almost 11 million passengers in 2004.

The government hopes to increase ridership by 1 million in 2019 on long distance routes.

Train service to the far-eastern cities of Santiago, Holguin, Camaguey and Guantanamo are heavily used by locals.

The Havana-Guantanamo trip costs from 200 Cuban pesos (US$8) round trip, to as little as 20 Cuban pesos between Havana-Matanzas, the first stop on the island-wide circuit.

The low costs are still challenging for many Cubans who only earn on average US$40 a month, but are far cheaper than bus, plane or car travel.

Cuba is the only country in the Caribbean that offers island-wide rail service and once boasted the first countrywide rail line in Latin America, which started service in 1837 with a 27km long line built to transport sugar cane.

Associated Press and Reuters

(This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Cuban train overhaul gets help from China)

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