Sunday 24 March 2013

The Hershey train

I will be meeting my guide this morning at 11am and hopefully I'll be able to catch the 12.31pm service to the town of Hershey on the famous Hershey Train. While waiting for her to arrive, here are some facts about the service. If you are not a train buff as I am, I suggest scrolling down second photograph.

The Hershey Electric Railway is a railroad network that spans between Havana and the city of Matanzas, located 90 km to the east of the Cuban capital. The town of Hershey (officially called Camilo Cienfuegos, named after the Cuban revolutionary hero) is located mid-route between Havana and Matanzas. The Hershey Station (that still retains it’s old name) is the focal point and the main hub of the railroad.

The Hershey Train
(The only electric train in all of Cuba)
The Hershey Electric Railway is one of the last few surviving passenger interurban operations in the world in its original form. The railroad’s main claim to fame is the fact that it remains practically unchanged since the day it opened in 1922, thanks to Cuban Communist regime’s natural preservationist policies due to the country’s permanent state of economic hardship. As it comes to ergonomics and operations the railroad is remarkably reminiscent of the Great American interurbans of the late 19th, early 20th centuries.

Initially the railroad was a part of the American Hershey Corporation chocolate empire’s subsidiary property in Cuba. The Hershey Sugar Mill and the corporate town of Hershey (according to a Cuban tradition, collectively referred to as the Hershey Central) were conceived and newly built by Milton Hershey between 1916 and 1918. The Hershey Central became a centerpiece of Hershey Corporation’s Cuban holdings, but the company’s properties also included vast sugar cane fields and a number of newly acquired sugar processing mills dispersed over towns in the vast valley to the east of Havana. A new railroad network was built in order to connect various properties of the company, as well as to provide access to the seaports in Havana and Matanzas. The railroad was constructed and equipped on par with the American railroad industry standards of the times, and boasted American-built rolling stock. To keep up with the latest technology of the day, the entire railroad was electrified. Passenger service was started to transport workers from the surrounding towns to the Hershey Central, however, the railroad quickly evolved into a vital passenger transportation entity of the entire region.

The Hershey line consists of the main line between Havana (Casablanca) and Matanzas via Hershey. The Casablanca Station is located across a narrow strait from the Havana city centre, and can be accessed from the city by a ferry service. This arrangement is a leftover from the times when the United Railways, the English company that operated railroads in the Havana Province during the first half of the 20th century, did not allow Hershey trains into Havana. In 1999 Hershey trains finally reached Havana directly by way of being towed by a diesel locomotive around the bay via the National Railway tracks - to the La Coubre Station. However, these days the diesel service between these points no longer run. Therefore, the Casablanca Station still remains the main terminal for the Hershey Line in Havana.
Despite the fact that the Hershey Sugar Mill was closed in July 2002, the railroad is still operated with the town of Hershey being the focal service hub, as if it was still the main passenger generator.

There are three daily through trains that cover the entire main line between Havana and Matanzas. All eastbound and westbound through trains traditionally meet at Hershey.
The timetable does make an attempt to provide for some connections between branches, however, it is clearly not written with convenient transfers in mind. The service is highly unpredictable due to the old and failing infrastructure, not to mention poor maintenance. Overhead vs. pantograph snagging, loose track, and equipment break downs are daily occurrences. Equipment and personnel shortages are a norm. Scheduled trips are often cancelled. Service is often patched up by way of altering departure times.

Prolonged suspensions of service over sections of the line due to substation or bridge failures are common. These could last for weeks and even months, with the only official explanation given to the public being: “No train service until further notice”.

On rare occasions when trains do run as scheduled, the operation is executed with a general laid back approach to a protocol. Many locals would say that the timetable is to be treated as a mere suggestion. Unofficial stops are readily honored. Train crews maintain an on-the-side semi-official goods’ delivery service along the route. Doors are rarely operated and most loadings are done not via high platforms, but rather through a cab door equipped with vertical exterior steps - directly onto a trackbed. The operator’s cab itself acts as social gathering club. There is excessive running time embedded into the timetable, with even more additional time being added every year due to the dilapidated trackage and slow speeds. This gives crews room for deliberate lingering around stations and endless socialising. The only time points operators seem to go by are terminals and the hub station at Hershey. However, late departures and early arrivals at those stations are a norm. Thus, at stations located within the proximity of time points, one could reliably expect a train to be up to 30 minutes late for trips originating out of the time point, and up to 15 minutes early for trips destined for the time point.

Moreover, the service is being scaled down consistently year after year. The official explanation is being personnel shortages. The most severe service cuts took place in about 2007. Prior to the cuts there were five daily through trips operated via the main line between Havana (Casablanca) and Matanzas, while after the cuts only three daily through trips remain. All of the above provides for the service being highly unpredictable and user unfriendly. Passenger patronage is retained only since very few transportation alternatives are available to the riding public as per chronic shortages of transportation services in Cuba, as well as due to a seen-it-all attitude and overall restraint of the Cubans.

The Hershey train uses the 1435 mm gauge which is standard in the US where the trains came from originally. Length of remaining lines are 143 kilometres, out of which 124 kilometres to Matanza are electrified.

Maximum track length ever built or owned by Hershey Corporation was 404 kilometres, most were electrified. The entire system is single track. Most tracks are on a reserved right-of-way. The entire trackage is in a dire state of disrepair. In some cases the appearance of the track is such, that it seems outright inconceivable any train service is possible over it at all. Most stations on the system are on-request stops.

One-door-wide high platforms were installed at every station with the arrival of the high floor Sarria trains from 1998 on. Thus, officially, the front door is usually the sole door that is used for passenger boardings at most stations. The Casablaca and the Talleres Calle 7 Terminals have a few single-door high platforms, one per car. The Matanzas Terminal and the Hershey Station are the only stations with continuous high platforms.

Practically every station is equipped with a small shelter made of concrete. These come especially handy during the rainy season, from April to June. Considering total unpredictability of the train service, the shelters could also literally become temporary homes for stranded passengers - for hours and days at a time.

In addition, the following equipment was observed in 2002: a heavily rebuilt Brill dormitory car, and a diesel locomotive 50925 of an unidentified type. Brill cars from the 1920s were gradually pushed out of operation between 1998-2003, as “newer” Sarria cars were arriving from Spain. The last Brill car to operate in regular service was car 3006, observed working the secondary branches as late as in 2007. Even though the car 3006 is still operable, the use of this car is no longer warranted after the service cuts that took place around 2007. The cars 3008 and 3009 are maintained in a fair condition and are operated as a tourist train for foreign tourists. The tourist train is usually towed by an electric locomotive.

Most Sarria cars boast electric equipment by Brill, and were often referred to as “Brill” cars back in Spain. Thus, in terms of maintenance, these cars are very similar to their predecessors, the original US-built Brill cars, used on the Hershey system since 1922.
Sarria cars were acquired second-hand from Ferrocarriles de la Generalitat de Catalunya, the Spanish suburban rail carrier out of Barcelona. These cars were generally known is FGC’s 400 series, despite the fact that there were two subseries, and the fleet numbers varied between 400, 500 and 900, depending on sunseries’ technical specifications. The first subseries consisted of 14 motor and 7 trailer cars built between 1944-1952 out of the original 400/500 series cars, initially delivered in 1923/1924. These cars were extensively rebuilt in the 1970s. The second subseries consisted of 14 motor and 7 trailer cars built new between 1967-1977. Cuba received a mix of cars from both subseries.

In addition, FGC operated the 400 series look-a-likes, the cars numbered 601-628. These cars had four single leaf doors to cope with high passenger flow and a single head light, but were generally similar to the 400 series. They were built between 1952-1975, but were never refurbished and were taken out of service in 1992. Cars of this type never made to Cuba.
There are different patterns in Sarria’s 400 series car design. At least six cars currently operating in Cuba represent the older design trend from the 1940s. These cars are notable for single leaf doors and two windows between the doors. At least fourteen cars represent the newer design trend from the 1970s that allows for higher passenger capacity turnover. These cars have double leaf doors and one window between the doors.

The car 707 is of the unique design. It has controls at both ends, allowing for a double-ended solo operation. Furthermore, the headlights are positioned under the windshield, rather than on the top of the roof. It is speculated that this car was rebuilt from a trailer. Sarria trailers lack headlights as they are operated sandwiched between motor cars.
At least two trailers, including the 813 and one unidentified trailer, are quipped with a cargo compartment with separate external doors.

Sarria cars are operated either in three-car consists motor+trailer+motor, or two-car consists motor+motor. The car 707 is operated as a single unit. While three-car trains are usually assigned to the mainline Havana to Matanzas service, with two-car trains or the car 707 working the branches, there is no rule, and any type of a consist could be found on any of the branches at any time.

As bus services continue to expend all over Cuba, buses can now easily adsorb most of the Hershey train’s ridership. Thus, neither reduced train service, nor prolonged train service suspensions create any notable problems. The Hershey train, when it is running, seems to become rather an added convenience for a lucky few who happened to live within the line’s proximity, rather then a necessity.

The timetable or suggested time of travel
Knowing all this, my guide and I rode the bus to the ferry terminal to Casablanca. We crossed the bay and reached the station to buy our tickets. The station master told us what I didn't want to hear. the 12.31pm train was not running today due to a mechanical failure. There goes my dream of coming all the way here to ride the Hershey train. But the station master said I could ride the 6pm train which will be arriving later in the day. I asked if we could somehow get to Hershey and then ride the train back to Casablanca? He said it was possible if we got there by 2pm. My guide said she will get me to Hershey by 2pm, fingers and toes crossed because the transportation outside of Havana is unreliable at best. So I said, let's go and that's when my incredible adventure began.

My guide discussing options with the staff
We went across to the local bus stand, which didn't resemble a bus stand at all. Just because there was somebody there waiting, we assumed that it was it. It was 11.30am and if everything goes well, we should be there in an hour and a half at the most. We were waiting for the local bus which apparently was supposed to be there half an hour ago so should be arriving anytime soon. It was already 1pm and there was no sign of a bus. My guide started to panic and started hailing down any passing car in the hope of getting a ride. No such luck and finally at 1.15pm the bus pulls in.

Being a local bus, it stopped at every stop along the way and sometimes the driver got into some sort of conversation with someone by the road instead of driving on. I was anxiously looking at my watch. It is amazing to see local Cubans being extremely friendly and sociable. Everybody seems to know everybody. They get into the bus and after a smack on both cheeks they get into a deep conversation of something or rather. Even my guide who knows no one there joins in. I ask her and she says that it is the Cuban culture to be sociable. The guy who sat next to me on the bus started a conversation in Spanish with me but all I could do in response was say "Si" and smile. That didn't deter him and on he went in Spanish. Finally, we get to the Military Hospital where we were supposed to change busses to Guanabo, a seaside town. 

Again, the bus no.400 we were supposed to catch took forever to arrive. So we went to the motor way to flag down a passing car. Hoping that someone will be kind enough to give us a ride. My guide assured me that hitch hiking in Cuba was very safe. In the days of communism, everybody provided a lift if they saw someone wanting a lift. This is apparently common in the country side, even till today.

Trying to hitch a ride
After 15 minutes, the bus arrived, so we abandoned the flagging of cars and ran across to the bus stand. I was struggling as I couldn't run but made it in time. It was choker. I had to hold by the door like everyone else and my guide was behind me. A bus that was to fit about 40 or 50 passengers max was taking in at least 150 people. Again, like everywhere else in Cuba, people did not rush but waited in line to get in, and no one complained. The driver collected the fare as you went in and people just squeezed in and let everyone in. It was an experience to ride in a local bus.

It took about 20 minutes to get to Guanabo. The scenery was beautiful. The beach was absolutely inviting. Blue, turquoise and green. From afar, it looked very clean. On the other side of the road, there were oil rigs, and quite a few of them. When we got down, I thought it was almost the end but apparently not. We had to get another transport to Santa Cruz. My guide went to ask some of the taxis there but no one wanted to take us. Finally a tourist bus arrived and decided to take everyone. So we got onto that one for the next leg. 

We got to Santa Cruz at 2.10pm and my guide was saying that the train may be late so we might just make it. This time, getting a ride to Hershey looked almost impossible as there was nothing in sight. Not a vehicle on the road. My guide went to make some enquiries and someone told her to walk to the other side of the town and catch a truck. So we went walking and running. When she said truck, I didn't for a second think it was an actual truck, but it was. The back was covered with metal sheeting and two roll cages. A bench on each side of the truck and standing space for everyone else. There was no ventilation and I almost felt like fainting. I have no idea how everyone else in there could endure it. There were locals with babies and children. One lady was carrying a puppy in there. And this was not the warmest month of the year. I wonder what it will be like in July/August? 

Thankfully, the truck ride was a short one. We finally arrived at Hershey but the train station is about another 100 meters or so. We passed the Hershey sugar mill which has since been closed as it is in a dilapidated condition.

The closed Hershey sugar factory
We saw some trains at the station, so I was hoping the Hershey was delayed and I was finally going to get on it. Luck was unfortunately not on my side. The station master there told us it left at 2.10pm and we were half an hour late. My guide explained to him what we did and why. He suggested that we take a ride to a station in between and try and get on it as the Hershey is usually slower than a bus.

So, off we went again looking for a ride in the middle of no where! The same truck that brought us here came back and he allowed us to sit up front with him. It was much more comfortable than being at the back. He dropped us as the junction and we now had to look for another ride to the next destination.

Every car she flagged down refused to give us a lift. Then we saw a mini truck like a tuk tuk that was willing to give us a ride. I got into the back and I realised how big I was or how stiff my body was as I just could not get in. The locals there helped push me in and finally got in. He went one stop and decided to get out and started a conversation with somebody totally unrelated (I was told) and forgot about the truck. Everyone in there was politely waiting but not us. We had somewhere to go and were in a hurry. My guide paid him the fare and got out looking for another ride. By now, it was clear that we were never going to make it no matter how fast we went. So we decided to look for a place to have lunch.

There was a shop across the street where the truck stopped, that sold food. We went over but they only had buns with salami or some sort of meat. It was rather small so we took two buns each and a can of local cola. After the short lunch break, we went across and caught a local taxi which was a American classic converted. On the outside it was nice and shining but on the inside, it was tattered, no handles, roof completely gone only the metal bit there, none of the dials were working, even the gear knob was missing but the car ran like it was new. Obviously a new engine installed. That was the most comfortable ride of the day. We finally got to Guanabo where we needed to catch the 400 bus to Havana. 

It wasn't a long wait this time. The bus came and it was almost empty so we all got a seat. The noise in the bus was just overpowering. The bus was playing some sort of Spanish reggae music, the kids in the bus were blaring their mobile phones with some sort of music (instead of using their head phones) and everyone else was continuously chatting. It became so bad, I zoned out for while. As we progressed into Havana, the bus got more and more crowded. This time we decided to bypass the ferry and ride all the way into town. We went through the underground tunnel built by the French in 1958. It ran the breath of the bay and was quick and easy.

We stopped near where my casa was so wasn't a long walk. I asked my guide what the day cost us and I almost fell when I heard what it amounted to. I gave her CUC3 this morning when we got on the ferry. That CUC3 was enough to take us to Hershey, covered our lunch and back to Havana and we had a few Pesos left!!! So, Cuba is a very expensive country for a foreigner but is extremely cheap for an ordinary Cuban. It is incredible how much the State subsidises it's people. The 50 odd kilometre ride from Havana to Guanabo cost 5 Peso for the two of us. And it cost me CUC25 to get to the casa from the airport which was about half that distance. That's about 625 Pesos. Now I see how the dual economy works to oil the Cuban economy.

As we walked back, my guide took me to the ration shop where Cubans with a ration card go to get supplies. The board shows what you can get per month per person free with a card and what everything else costs. Even if you had to pay, a bar of soap costs 1 Peso, a cigar costs 1 Peso and a pack of cigarettes costs 7 Pesos. To put things into perspective, a bar of soap is less than NZ$0.05 and a pack of cigarettes is NZ$0.30.

Since I spent so little today, I decided to go and splurge on a some nice food for dinner. So I went walking slowly into the alleys and this time I took photos of every corner so that I can refer back to them on my way back if I got lost. I stopped by a bar that had live music. Was really nice so I went inside and found a local who spoke English, so as all Cubans do, we struck a limited conversation and I was invited to stay and watch the band without having to buy a drink. It was really fun and everyone was dancing with a drink in their hand. After they finished one song, I said goodbye and began to leave. The guy asked me to come over to another bar in the other side of town for a salsa session at 10pm. He gave me the address and I said thank you and left.

I walked further around the cathedral and saw this quiet little restaurant with many locals so I decided to head that way. This place had everything on the menu in Spanish so that was no good but the waiter spoke reasonable English which was fine. I ordered grilled chicken which was CUC8 and I thought that wasn't too bad. But as I was waiting, I saw the table next to me had a whole lobster cooked in garlic. It smelled really nice. So I called the waiter and asked him if I could change my order. He said yes, so I asked him how much the lobster cost and he said it was CUC12. That wasn't too bad, so I ordered the lobster. He asked me if I wanted rice with it, I said yes. When it finally came, it was served in 3 huge plates. One with the lobster, another for fresh assorted vegetables and another for the rice cooked in garlic and black beans!

Today I felt like I really saw Cuba despite not getting anywhere and yet went everywhere the whole day. All I did was travel, in all modes of transport from a ferry, to a local bus, and express bus, a tourist bus, a truck, a tuk tuk and a private car. And I ate what the locals eat, hard crusty bread filled with nothing but two slices of meat.

Tomorrow I check out from this casa and head to Victoria hotel for the start of another adventure to the West of Cuba. 

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