By Mario Fuentes and Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba’s first new train passenger cars in more than four decades set off on their maiden journey across the island on Saturday in what the government hopes will prove a total revamp of its decrepit railway system with help from allies Russia and China.
Cuba’s railway system is one of the oldest in the world; its first stretch was launched in the 1830s. But it has suffered from a lack of maintenance and new equipment in an inefficient state-run economy under a crippling U.S. trade embargo that lacks cash.
Trains have for years been one of the cheapest but also least efficient ways to travel long distances on the Caribbean’s largest island, typically taking 24 hours to cross the nearly 900 km (600 miles) from Havana in the west to Santiago in the east – twice as long as by car.
Tickets are often elusive, with the ramshackle infrastructure unable to cope with the demand, and trains do not run on schedule. Passengers, meanwhile, must contend with missing windows and doors, and cracked seats. Accidents have become increasingly common in recent years.
But Cuba’s government is planning to change all that by 2030, starting with upgrading its equipment, before moving onto the more daunting task of restoring the railroads.
In May it received 80 Chinese-made, gleaming blue rail cars, including those that set off eastwards from Havana on Saturday, and expects to receive 80 more next year, according to state-run website Cubadebate.
“This is the first step of the transformation of the Cuban railway system,” said Eduardo Hernandez, head of the National Railway Co of Cuba.
Reflecting market reforms of the centrally planned economy in the socialist country, the new rail cars are split into first and second class, with the former boasting air conditioning.
“Cuba has not received new rail-cars since the 1970s,” Transport Minister Eduardo Rodriguez was quoted as saying by Cubadebate last month. “We had only received second hand cars.”
While the new trains are expected to shave off some travelling time, they will require new or restored track to run at their full speed.
Cuba has signed a deal worth almost $1 billion with Russia to modernize its railways, according to Interfax news agency, although details have not yet been released.
In 2017, state-owned monopoly Russian Railways (RZD) told Reuters it was also negotiating to install a high-speed link between Havana and the beach resort of Varadero.
Trains carried 6.1 million passengers in 2018, down from 10 million passengers in 2013, according to the statistics office.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; editing by Jonathan Oatis)