Saturday, 1 January 2011

Ecuadorean Railways: Part 1 – Introduction

Well you know, on this blog we go lots of different places and cover a wide range of subjects. In this series we are going to look at the railways in Ecuador and there are going to be a few parts because there is a lot that is of interest. A brief history to begin with. The fullest extent of the Ecuadorean Railways is about 1000 km of which about half is in the legendary Guayaquil-Quito line, the “G & Q”. The other lines which have been developed are Sibambe-Cuenca and Quito-San Lorenzo. The role of the railway in modern day Ecuador is not very clear. When you look at what has been in the past and what is now, it seems the railway was developed for full service in the past but now is mainly passenger, light freight and tourism. The biggest obstacle the railways have is the topology and the difficulties in overcoming it. The G&Q line has to climb from sea level (4 metres) at Guayaquil to 3229 metres at Palmira in only 166 km. Palmira is not the highest part of the line but it does represent in theory an unbroken ascent, after Palmira the line does drop a bit before it climbs again. Do the maths and you come up with an average gradient of 1 in 50. Let’s revise that a little and split the line into two parts. From Guayaquil to Bucay the track distance is 87 km and the ascent is 290 metres with average grade of 1 in 300 therefore. From Bucay to Palmira the track distance is 79 km and the ascent is 2935 metres, giving an average grade over that section of just 1 in 26. The steepest sections in that are 1 in 18 and this is an adhesion worked railway, it has no rack or any other aids to help the climb up. Effectively such steep grades over such a long section of the railway limits the practical size of any train and therefore its carrying capacity.
Construction on the G&Q line began in 1872 and with the many obstacles to be overcome especially the switchback at Nariz Del Diablo, between Sibambe and Alausi, which contains the steepest 1 in 18 sections, and which had to be blasted out of solid rock resulting in hundreds of deaths, it took until 1908 before the complete line was opened. The other two lines were completed in the middle of the 20th century: Cuenca was opened in 1965 having taken 50 years to build 145 km, while San Lorenzo was opened in either 1957  or 1962 (unsure when it started). The railways of Ecuador played their fair part in the development of the country in the earlier years but like many other countries have been run down in the second half of the 20th century. Although I can’t find full information on the web I understand that the Cuenca line is effectively closed and has been at least partly closed since the 1970s. The San Lorenzo line is partly closed but may be reopened. The G&Q is partly closed at present but is expected to be fully reopened. The main factors affecting the operation of the railways in recent decades have been financial problems, the development of the roads with transfer of traffic, and lack of maintenance. Some parts are currently closed because of landslides and washouts that have not been able to be repaired, and historically the line has been renowned for its reputation for frequent derailments and the operation of very old locomotives and rolling stock.
Now in the 21st century the value of the lines for tourist development has been recognised, I read somewhere that the railway was one of the top 5 attractions in Ecuador and there are a number of companies that specifically organise and run rail tours in the country. The government has borrowed money from Venezuela and has in the last few years started a large rehabilitation program on the G&Q line and on parts of the San Lorenzo line. They have their own website in Spanish and English and are making use of Flickr and Youtube to promote the works they are doing. I’ll finish off this article with a couple of Youtube clips. Here is one off the the official Youtube channel of Ecuadorean Railways that shows the track being reconstructed at Nariz Del Diablo, the zigzag section where the line climbs up the side of a mountain. (Please note it is Spanish language)

The second clip is a ride on a railcar from Alausi to Sibambe and return. From Sibambe at 1836 metres altitude and 131 km line distance to Alausi (2347 metres, 142 km) an average gradient of 1 in 21 is needed. In order to achieve this climb, the line firstly ascends the switchback at Nariz Del Diablo which involves three sections of track in total, with two dead end sections with points. The train heads up the first part, reverses up the middle part and then heads up again into the third section. The second part of the ascent involves a sweeping ascent of a cliff face with two horseshoe curves. The maximum grade on these sections is 1 in 18. The clip is also in theory Spanish language although there is almost no dialogue so it’s not really an issue. They started with the railbus at Alausi, went down to the bottom and came back up again.