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Cuba debuts modern Chinese train as rail overhaul begins

Published:Wednesday | July 17, 2019 | 12:21 AM

The first train using new equipment from China pulled out of Havana on Saturday, hauling excited passengers on the start of a 915-kilometre (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 train station, and traversed 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 that Cuba’s government started early last year, repairing some 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometres) of ageing tracks and dozens of tumble-down stations scattered around the island.

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 train carriages and locomotives in early May, part of a promised consignment of 250 pieces of new equipment by the end of 2019.

“We have more work to do because there needs to be better organisation to travel on the train, so people don’t get so overworked and desperate to travel on it,” said 57-year-old passenger Angel Matamoros.

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.

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 one 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 (80 US cents) between Havana-Matanzas, the first stop on the islandwide 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 islandwide rail service and once boasted the first countrywide rail line in Latin America, which started service in 1837 with a 17-mile (27km)-long line built to transport sugar cane.

– AP