The Ecuadorian Railway: The Most Difficult Train in the World

The Ecuadorian Railway: The Most Difficult Train in the World

By: Christopher Sacco

Volcanic cones jut forth from the rich tapestry of cultivated fields and high-altitude grassland spread across Ecuador’s 400-kilometer long Central Valley, aptly christened “The Avenue of the Volcanoes” in 1802 by the German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt. Two hundred years later, present-day explorers perched atop antique locomotives chugging through this rugged terrain have no problem imagining why Humboldt chose this name or why Ecuadorians refer to their railway as “the most difficult train in the world”.

Current Rail Service

Current Rail Service

Today, as a result of near equal measures of nature and politics, just three sections of Ecuador’s once vast rail network remain in operation. Currently running are a 100-kilometer section from Riobamba to Sibambe, a 60-kilometer segment connecting Quito and Cotopaxi National Park, and a 44-kilometer section joining Ibarra and Primer Paso.

The country’s most popular rail trip begins in the picturesque city of Riobamba. Like many cities in the Ecuadorian Andes, Riobamba sits in shadow of a giant volcano. At 6,310 meters, the volcano Chimborazo enjoys the distinctions of being Ecuador’s highest peak and the furthest point from the center of the earth, thanks to the bulge at the equator. The train travels south from Riobamba through a few small towns and large expanses of open country before arriving at Alausi, where it begins a hair-raising descent of the Devil’s Nose. Most travelers sit on top of the rail cars to take advantage of the spectacular vistas. The train leaves Riobamba on Saturday and Sunday at 8am.

The Quito-Cotopaxi excursion is a full day trip, offering fantastic scenery that culminates with the towering, perfectly symmetrical Cotopaxi volcano. On clear days travelers can see Cotopaxi looming in the distance from the moment they leave Quito, Ecuador’s capital. Covering 33,000 hectares of craggy green countryside and centered by 5,897-meter volcano, the highest active volcano in the world by some accounts, Cotopaxi National Park represents all the best of the Ecuadorian Andes and is the showpiece of Ecuador’s 26 national parks and ecological reserves. Tickets are available at the Quito train station (La Estación de Ferrocarril Chimbacalle) located at Avenida Sincholagua and Avenida Vicente Moldonado, two kilometers south of the Old City center. The train departs Saturdays and Sundays at 8am. This information For more information on this route, you may contact the railroad companies at 1800 TRENES (873637) (all lines being primarily for Spanish speakers only).

Until the devastating storms driven by the 1997-1998 El Niño, thousands of travelers launched their rail trips to the coast from Ibarra, a tranquil but entertaining city a few hours north of Quito. Though the train no longer travels all the way to San Lorenzo, the remaining stretch of track from Ibarra to the village Primer Paso is well worth a ride. The trip boasts 23 tunnels, a dizzying 120-meter bridge over the River Ambi, and sojourns at several Andean villages. Tickets are available at the train station at the intersection of Avenida Mariano Acosta and Avenida Eugenio Espejo. The train leaves every Saturday and Sunday at 8am. . For more information on this route, you may contact the railroad companies at 1800 TRENES (873637) (all lines being primarily for Spanish speakers only).

A Brief History

In the middle of the 19th century, international trade, and particularly cacao exportation, became increasingly important to the Ecuadorian economy, necessitating a power shift from regional oligarchies to a central oligarchy capable of developing a nation-wide infrastructure. García Moreno, a traditional elite and landholder from Ecuador’s highlands, consolidated power by espousing a program favoring centralization and modernization. A central railroad connecting Guayaquil, the country’s largest port, and Quito was the backbone of Moreno’s plan. This stretch of the rail system became known as the “Southern Railway”.

Political wrangling and deceit tainted the promise of the central railroad throughout its tumultuous history. The vicissitudes of the 36-year campaign to build the Southern Railway began in earnest with the death of the man who conceived it. In August 1875, less than three years after the start of construction, political opponents assassinated Moreno on the steps of the presidential palace. Over the next four decades, the Southern Railway claimed many more lives, including Eloy Alfaro, the president credited with completing it. Rightist thugs sent by the opposition captured Alfaro and a group of his supporters, transported them to Quito on the train, and turned them over to an angry mob. Aside from the deaths of two presidents, the arduous task of linking the coast with the capital killed at least two thousand indigenous and Jamaican workers.

The completion of the Southern Railway did not accelerate the building of the rest of the railroad as many had hoped. In fact, the construction of the 373-kilometer Northern Railway between Quito and San Lorenzo and the 110-kilometers of track from Sibambe to Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city, took almost twice as long to build, 57 years, as the 464-kilometer line from Guayaquil to Quito. Continued political rancor and a mounting external debt were the principal causes of the construction delays. The Sibambe-Cuenca section was the last to be inaugurated in 1965.

The complete rail system survived less than 10 years. Throughout the 1970s the government discontinued most of the secondary lines because it lacked the funds necessary for repairing them. Flooding and mudslides regularly consumed many branches of the railroad and, eventually, even closed the main southern and northern lines. Trains ran the Guayaquil-Quito and Quito-San Lorenzo routes until 1998, when El Niño destroyed large sections of the tracks.

The Future of Ecuador’s Rails

According to Sergio Coellar, the General Manager of the Ecuadorian National Train Company (known by the Spanish acronym ENFE), “The vision of ENFE is to see a railway system rehabilitated, bettered, and expanded that permits the transportation of freight and that promotes tourism.”

Mr. Coellar recognizes that the rehabilitation, not to mention the improvement and expansion, of the whole system would be a massive undertaking. The restoration of passenger service from Guayaquil to Quito alone, which represents about half of the original system, would cost 175 million dollars. The rehabilitation of the entire railroad would cost at least double that, and the extensive improvements needed to permit the higher speeds and heavier loads necessary for efficient freight service would cost several hundred million dollars more.

On November 29, 2001, the Ecuadorian Congress passed legislation that envisions rebuilding the country’s principal lines. The 2002 budget appropriated 4.5 million dollars for the renovation of track from Guayaquil to Riobamba and from Ibarra to San Lorenzo. Unfortunately, the resources allocated in 2002 are 5.5 million dollars short of what ENFE requested.

Because of insufficient action on the part of the federal government, the ENFE is increasingly placing their hopes on private enterprise and municipal-private partnerships. The forward-thinking municipalities of Riobamba and Manta are two examples of what Mr. Coellar hopes is a trend that will save the railway without the help of the Congress.

Municipal leaders and businessmen in Riobamba have invested over 4 million dollars in the renovation of the city’s colonial train station. The revamped facility will include a train museum, restaurants, shops, and a theatre. The Riobamba-Sibambe train generates over a million dollars annually in ticket sales and millions more for local businesses. Riobamba hopes the new station will attract even more tourist dollars.

The Port Authority of Manta is studying the possibility of building a train to transport cargo to Guayaquil. Manta is Ecuador’s largest port after Guayaquil and is growing quickly because of its exceptional harbor. The train would transport 50 freight cars, each holding two 40-foot cargo containers, directly from Manta to Guayaquil at speeds of 120 to 130 km/hour. The proposed train would make the trip in half the time and at a sixth of the price per container that trucks currently charge. Several U.S. and European companies have shown interest in the 60 million-dollar project.

Political discord and an empty treasury have offered as much resistance to Ecuador’s railway as the sheer rock walls and vast chasms of the Andes. The best hope for renovation rests with private enterprise and progressive local officials. Working together they can breath new life into Ecuador’s rails and create, through examples of prosperity, such as Riobamba, the political will necessary for a complete rehabilitation of the railroad.

The Devil’s Nose

Thirty kilometers into the ascent of the towering western range, 130 kilometers east of Guayaquil, the railway snakes up a mountain known as El Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose). This nearly vertical wall of rock was the greatest natural obstacle engineers encountered during construction of the Southern Railway, and one of a string of blunders that nearly smothered the dream of connecting Guayaquil and Quito by rail.

In retrospect, the mistake of going over instead of around the Devil’s Nose has become a point of engineering pride. A team of engineers lead by the North Americans William Shunck and brothers Archer and John Harman, came up with an ingenious solution of carving a series of tight zigzags into the side of the mountain, which allowed the train to climb a gradient of 1-in-18 from 1800 to 2600 meters, by going forwards then backwards up the tracks.

Today, a one-percent grade, or an incline rising one meter in 100 meters of horizontal distance, is considered steep. Moreover, inclines and curves in the track, especially ones as dramatic as those of the Devil’s Nose, limit the speed of trains and the size of the loads they can carry. Whenever possible tracks follow topographical contours or the contours are smoothed out or tunneled through. At the Devil’s Nose, engineers ruled out tunneling through the mountain and decided that they must either go up it or around. They chose up. This decision made sense in 1900 but unfortunately it has precluded the use of the Southern Railway for use as a freight or efficient passenger line.

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