The Economic Debacle Accelerates the Decline of Rail Transport in Cuba

Interprovincial rail transport will also experience the price increase expected for the entire sector. / Sierra Maestra

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Madrid, 7 March 2024 — The rail industry in Cuba is also at a standstill. The lack of investment, especially due to a shortage of foreign exchange, deepens the crisis of trains and infrastructure, causing the transport of goods to decrease, which is also the result of fewer goods to transport. With the economic debacle there is less to mobilize. In short: another disaster.

Some 67% of tracks and 40% of infrastructure need maintenance, as explained this Wednesday on State TV’s Round Table program by Lisvany Fernández Rivero, acting general director of the Railway Transport Administration, who began his speech by boasting that the Cuban railway was the first in Latin America and seventh in the world, decades before independence.

Returning to the 21st century, there is little joy. The official put the needs of the railway at 900 million pesos per year, of which a large part is in foreign currency, specifically 25 million dollars “for materials, supplies and parts.”

The official put the needs of the railroad at 900 million pesos per year, a large part of which is in foreign currency, specifically 25 million dollars “for materials, supplies and parts”

It was enough to look at the graphs to check the status of the infrastructure and its rapid decay. For the maintenance of the railway, between 60,000 and 80,000 concrete ties are needed annually, but in 2023 funding was obtained for only 15,000, which will be provided this year. In 2018, 51,600 were manufactured, and in 2019 it was increased to 61,600, quantities that, without covering the needs, today are splendid, since in 2020 and 2021 there 45,000, while in 2022 it fell to 12,000, and last year only 7,200 were produced. In other words, a catastrophe.

Fernández Rivero said that the wooden ties are made mostly in the country, and compared to 3,500 in 2020, in 2021 there only 270 made. He concluded by saying that there are problems with bridges and railways “in general.”

Then, Luis Roberto Rosés Hernández, general director of the UFC (Union of Railways of Cuba), took over. He provided figures for the entire fleet and summarized the consequences left by the situation, since cargo transport works both to distribute through the rationing system the – ever fewer – products from the basic family basket and the sugar harvest, and provide cement and aggregates to the Port of Mariel. And, worst of all, it transfers the fuel. “Of the locomotives, only 12 are large enough; we really need 34. This is the biggest difficulty we face today,” he said.

Thus, “cargo transport has shown a downward trend, mainly due to the reduction in economic activity,” and – although he did not say it – the reduction in economic activity burdens the improvement of the railway network. The official said that last year the state company achieved a participation of 24.5% in cargo transport, and this year it expects to contribute 26%, but for this it will need to repair 335 railcars, in addition to solving issues of logistics technology, scales, lighting, prevention of occupational risks and too many other things, since, he admitted, there are problems that range from the lack of parts to obsolescence, lack of tools and equipment, fuel and lubricants.

“The railway system needs approximately 34 million in foreign currency to be maintained, so alternatives must be sought to generate additional income,” said Rosés Hernández, who aims to increase the transport of cargo destined for export to receive payments in foreign currency.

Passenger transport affects the economy less, but it does affect people’s lives. “In relation to the problems of delay in domestic trains, these are well known to the population,” said the manager. He indicated that the demands of passengers must be addressed, and he mentioned the difficulty of reconciling their needs. At the moment, he specified, there are requests to add 15 additional stops, which would increase the travel time of each long-stretch train by four hours, such as those from Havana to the eastern provinces. The decision will be in the hands of the provincial authorities.

There are requests to add 15 additional stops, which would increase by four hours the travel time of each train for long stretches, such as those from Havana to the eastern provinces

Rosés Hernández praised his boss, the Minister of Transport, Eduardo Rodríguez Dávila, for his active Facebook profile that “not only provides news and information, but also receives opinions to work together to find solutions to the problems that arise.” The official explained that the main “dissatisfactions” pointed out by the passengers are the lack of discipline – he did not specify, although it is supposed, of the workers – and the lack of attention to and information for the traveler.

The manager stated that they expect support from Cuba’s allies, China and Russia, which have helped in recent years – along with French collaboration – to upate the workshops, locomotives, trains and infrastructure. In addition, they plan to continue building ferrobuses, a hybrid remedy between the bus and the train originating in the 70s. It was attempted during the Special Period, but it doesn’t work for transporting large numbers of people.

Interprovincial rail transport will also experience the price increase expected for the entire sector. “The service without air conditioning to Santiago de Cuba, which is one of the longest trips, [previously] cost 95 pesos and now will cost 670 pesos. Before, the air-conditioned car from Havana to Santiago de Cuba cost 132 pesos; now it will cost 820,” Rodríguez Dávila said on the day of the fare increase. Quite an expense for a 14-hour journey.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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