Cuba’s Long-Distance Trains Losing Ground To Buses
For tourists, Cuba’s national rail service is a luxury not enjoyed by any other country or destination in the Caribbean. But, travel on Cuba’s railroads can also be an excruciatingly painful experience. In particular, the local trains tend to be overcrowded, late or early and can make an inordinate number of stops to reach relatively short destinations.
La Habana Central or Havana Central Station is one of Cuba’s most noticeable architectural wonders. The station serves as home to the National Railway, Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Cuba (FFCC), the only intercity railway in the Caribbean.
The station is the hub of Cuba’s fairly extensive railway system. All national departures and arrivals as well as all the local runs around Havana are based in the Havana Central Station. As you might expect, Havana Central is a busy place filled with tourists, incoming and outgoing cargo and Cuban nationals.
Habana Central was opened in 1912. The train has always played an important role in Cuba’s history but the Havana station is a remarkable architectural achievement and many tourists spend hours touring the station even if they do not intend to use the train.
In recent years, the number of passengers has decreased significantly. The new buses are air-conditioned and for long excursions offer lunch. Neither Cuba’s trains nor buses offer Internet.
Because Cuba’s infrastructure is unreliable, bus travel also takes longer than expected, but the air conditioning makes travel comfortable enough. Traveling by train or bus, passengers are assured of enjoying many sights unique to Cuba.
The chief architect of the Havana Station was American Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison who incorporated his fondness for Spanish planteresque décor with numerous visible shields and shells covering the building’s façade. The platforms in the station consume an area about 14,000 square meters and are about one kilometer in length.
The Cuban Congress authorized construction of a new rail station in 1910. The popularity of the train had grown beyond the capacity of the 71-year old Villanueva Railway Station. The new station was to be built on the former Arsenal grounds, which were publicly owned compared to the privately owned site of the Villanueva station.
The finances surrounding the transition to the Arsenal grounds caused a political nightmare. The political disagreement actually led to a duel to the death in which Congressman Colonel Servero Moleon Guerra was shot and killed in a duel on December 9, 1910.
The national rail service transported 7.5 million travelers in 2009, down 400,000 from the previous year. The 2009 volume was 3.5 million less than in 2004.
The country’s launch of the ASTRO bus service which specializes in long distance travel and features new buses with air-conditioning has dampened traveler’s appetite for the inconsistent rails. The most popular bus route is the 836 kilometer jaunt from Santiago de Cuba to Havana.
However, the Union de Ferrocarriles de Cuba acquired its first air-conditioned first calls coaches. For rail travel by tourists, first class is the only way to go. For the Havana to Santiago de Cuba rail, service, only tracks 1 and 2 are used. The cars are French-made stainless steel and are known as the Tren Fancaise. Originally, these coaches were used to take travelers from Paris to Brussels.
Want to learn more about travel in Cuba or travel to and from Cuba destinations? Contact Yordi or Dave at Info@travelguidecuba.com .