By Lynn Cruz
HAVANA TIMES – My investigation about the Hershey train continues; It began to run in 1920 and is famous for being the only electric train to operate in the island, running from Matanzas to Havana.
I was recently in the town created by Milton Snavely Hershey, located in the Mayabeque province 45 kms away from Havana, for work reasons. A guard at the Casa Blanca train station in Havana, where the train used to depart from, told me that the carriages were out of service.
I went to the railway workshop in this town and interviewed a Shift Manager and an employee who has been working there for 23 years. Given the fact that paranoia was in the air because the town had woken up with a sign at the primary school saying: Down with the Revolution! And, underneath, there were insults about Raul Castro and president Miguel Diaz Canel, I decided not to ask the employees their names, even though they asked if I was a journalist.
In fact, these employees confirmed what I had already learned about the matter at hand: that a few days before Hurricane Irma struck in 2017, the train had stopped running its Havana-Matanzas route, yet I was finally able to learn why.
On September 2017, the train’s diesel engines were taken for the sugar harvest and were never returned. These locomotives were responsible for making repairs to the train’s electrical power system.
A month later, in October 2017, after Irma swept through the country, part of the overhead electrical cables and wooden posts to keep them up, had fallen down on the stretch running from Guanabo to Havana, approximately 30 kms away from the Casa Blanca station. As they didn’t have the engines, the damages weren’t repaired. One of the interviewees said the neglected cables and posts were taken by locals in the area because they were copper cables, and the wood from the posts was used to make wooden beams to support the roofs on their homes.
The train then began to travel from Hershey to Guanabo (changing its traditional route) until recently in January 2019, a tornado ravaged a part of Havana, as well as the train’s electric framework in Guanabo, which is why the new route has also been canceled, as the locomotives haven’t been returned yet, even though the sugar harvest has ended.
But, on the other hand, the section from Matanzas to Hershey was limited down to the town of Margot, as there eight posts which were also damaged during Hurricane Irma, and they prevent the train from reaching Matanzas. This route isn’t in very high demand today though, because it leaves passengers in the middle of nowhere. Literally.
Railway workers linked to this train are afraid that they will become “interrupted”. This is the euphemism the Cuban State uses so they don’t have to admit that there is unemployment in the country. According to what they explained to me: “the authorities in these cases say that workers need to wait at home until the problem is resolved, they pay your wages for one more month and then they tell you to look for another job.” Right now, payments are really uncertain, they are delayed most of the time and workers feel undervalued because management hasn’t sat down with them.
They also complain about the fact that Eduardo Rodriguez, the new minister of Transport, spoke about damages to Cuba’s railway system but failed to mention the Hershey train situation.
This form of transport was not only affordable, it also allowed Mayabeque’s inhabitants to have access to hospitals in the capital, which would have been very expensive and inefficient any other way. Many local professionals managed to study at university and get their degrees thanks to the regular service this train provided, making a total of 7 trips per day both to Havana and Matanzas, as it was a cross-link train and it stopped at the Hershey station.
Many carriages are in a critical state because they aren’t being used. A few others could be used in the condition they are in. There are also carriages that date back to the inauguration of this train, which are now tourist carriages, but even they aren’t being exploited, that’s to say, they aren’t being used either way.
These railway workers also told me that a few years ago, some French people came who were interested in investing in repairs where the railway had been damaged, in other words, in getting the train back up and running again. Something happened and they desisted.
If the Cuban State can’t bear the cost, then they should try to cover these repairs by creating a joint venture, especially now when the train can still be saved as only 40 km of the track is suffering electrical damage. But, if an investment isn’t made now then the stretch the train can run along will gradually decrease, until it unfortunately disappears, they concluded.