The Empty Platform / Yoani Sanchez

Trains Havana-Bejucal 1835. Image taken from lacomunidad.elpais.com

Trains Havana-Bejucal 1835. Image taken from lacomunidad.elpais.com

The small train station bustles with life starting early. Students in the tightest uniforms pass by, and a newspaper seller announces the boring Granma every day. There are paper cones of peanuts, workers selling soft drinks, and several people who have slept all night on cardboard on the floor. The place — despite its insignificant architecture — could be a train station in any city in the world. There is only one thing missing from the scene, something that stands out by its absence: there isn’t a train in sight. The rails are empty and no locomotive can be made out, not even the sound of a whistle in the distance. At mid-morning a lone coach limps in, with the initials DB (Deutsche Bahn) still painted on the side. Passengers board with reluctance, although the odd child still greets them smiling from the window.

Cuba had the first railroad in Latin America, inaugurated in a November like this one 175 years ago. The Havana-Bejucel section was created a decade before Spain — then a metropolis — began operating trains in its own territory. But it is not just a question of dates, but that on this Island the rail lines spread out across the country like a backbone from which sprouted infinite branches. Life in many small towns began to be measured between the coming of one car and another, between the arrivals and departures that appeared on the notice board in each station. The everyday smell came from the “aroma” that arises from the friction of the metal of the wheels on that of the rails. But little remains today of that prominent railroad. One day we said goodbye from the platform to the last train where we felt comfortable, and from that moment climbed aboard another that was an uncomfortable, difficult and distressing experience.

Although in the past year repair work has been carried out on the routes, and the cargo moved along them has more than doubled, the damage suffered by the Cuban railroad system is of a seriousness that cannot be quantified in numbers. The main problem is not the lack of punctuality in the departures, nor the deteriorated cars, nor even the bathrooms so filthy they can’t be called sanitary services. Nor is it the systematic theft of the passengers’ belongings, the mistreatment of the clients by many of the employees, the constant cancellations of departures, or the alarming lack of safety reflected in frequent accidents. The greatest deterioration has occurred in the minds of Cubans, for whom the railroad has ceased to be the inter-provincial mode of transport par excellence. Those millions of people who no long measure the rhythm of their lives by the whistle of the locomotive, who no longer proudly salute from the window of a car. The hackneyed scene of the goodbye kiss in the station, the handkerchief waving from the empty platform, the decades long absence of the principal protagonist: a train about to leave, a long iron snake ready to travel the backbone of this Island.

20 November 2012