The railway track from Havana to Santiago is the main transport line stretching all along the largest of the Caribbean islands, Cuba. When you board the train in the capital at six in the afternoon, you are informed that you should reach your destination (the important eastern city) 16 hours later.
Supposing the train really arrived on time, it would have travelled about 900 kilometres at the speed of a real railroad turtle, which is 60 kilometres per hour (less than 40 miles per hour). Yet, if a passenger, in search of encouragement, asks an assistant from the information office about the arrival time, he is informed that “we don’t know exactly what might happen in Camaguey, where there’s always much delay.”
If there are no other difficulties (and commonly there are), it’s considered normal to arrive at Santiago in 20 hours. Quite fortunately, a major part of this odyssey takes part at night when sleep can mitigate some of the inconveniences faced by passengers.
Although luggage is stored in the designated compartments (i.e., separately from passengers), people usually board the train loaded with numerous plastic bags (which are now very popular) filled with all necessary supplies that every far-sighted person takes for a journey: frozen water in plastic bottles called “pepinos” (“cucumbers”) and plastic containers with food for the journey.
For those who have lacked the foresight or consumed all their supplies before the end of the long journey there’s only one option – to buy something from street vendors, who are waiting at any and all of the numerous train stations where the railway caravan stops, usually in provincial capitals. These vendors are known as “merolicos” and they offer all kinds of snacks, sweets and, most importantly, the greatest treasure of all travellers, so called “balas” (“bullets”). Now, don’t get it wrong, those are not parts of arms but the already mentioned “pepinos”, bottles filled with cold water and sold for ten dollars per piece.
The Havana-Santiago train usually consists of ten cars, each of which has about 76 to 82 seats. There’s no air conditioning, the windows are small and the running water in toilets runs dry within the first few hours of the journey, while the heat is on the rise and waste gets accumulated – waste produced by some 800 people whose anguish grows with every unexpected delay of the train.
Frequently, almost all the time, the train stops at a crossing with another railway vehicle, waiting for clear track to be able to continue the journey. Taking into account the shape of the country – a long, flat and narrow island, it’s quite inexplicable that the government didn’t invest almost any funds in expanding and modernizing the railway infrastructure. It should also be remembered that Cuba used to be proud of its status of the first Latin American country with a railway system.
Years ago, Cuba purchased some second-hand train cars from France and with much fanfare it introduced “special train service” called Express, which was quite comfortable and was scheduled to cover the distance between Havana and Santiago in 12 hours. The then Vice-President Carlos Lage stated that “each passenger will be returned the full fare if the train fails to stick to the time-table and the delay exceeds one hour.”
The government ordinance was complied with for several months, until the railway company “Ferrocarriles de Cuba” rejected it when its bank accounts went into permanent deficit. At present, this special service is no longer offered and the notice at the main train station in Havana says that there is only “regular service” on the track.
Although the fare is 30 Cuban pesos from one terminal station to the other, the travellers are sure to spend much more at their Havana-Santiago odyssey.