Díaz-Canel says use of railway system vital to improving efficiency

Cuba is to place greater emphasis on the transport of goods by rail in order to save costs and increase efficiency at a time of shortages and rising costs caused by the tightening of the US embargo.

Speaking at a meeting called in part to discuss progress in upgrading the country’s railway system, Cuba’s President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, said that the process of prioritising the transport of cargo by rail in 2020 has begun. “You have to transport everything you can by that route,” he said.  Because of the shape of the country, he observed, it is the best way to move freight and relieves pressure on the country’s roads.

The meeting to assess the country’s Railways Recovery and Development Programme (Programa de Recuperación y Desarrollo del Ferrocarril) which took place at the Presidential Palace, was led by the Prime Minister, Manuel Marrero, and was attended by the President and other senior ministers and officials. It formed a part of government’s programme of regularly reviewing key economic activities.

Cubadebate reported that at the meeting Díaz-Canel said that the progress achieved in 2019 by the sector, which is expected with Russian and Chinese support to be substantially developed over the next decade, had demonstrated the economic value of it greater use (Background Cuba Briefings 13 March 2017 and 12 March 2018).

It noted that at the same meeting Eduardo Hernández, the Director of the Unión de Ferrocarriles de Cuba, said that in 2019 freight transported by rail increased by 7% to 858m tons from the 852m tons transported in 2018 but the figure was 9% below what the country’s centralised planning system required. The greatest volumes carried by rail, he said, were of products derived from sugarcane, fuels, imported foodstuffs and wheat flour.

The online media platform reported Hernández as saying that, increasingly, other cargos are now being transferred by rail citing the movement from road to rail to make fuel savings of beer, bottled water, plastic pipes and cereal from the port of Cienfuegos to Camagüey.

He also said that in relation to passengers, the country’s railways system exceeded planned numbers by 30%, moving over 717,000 people in 2029, a rise of 62% over 2018. He noted that the increase had been positively affected by the entry into operation of the new Chinese train carriages which he said had, since July 2019, enabled more than 0.7m journeys. 

The reports quoted Díaz-Canel as saying that this reflected a significant improvement in the quality of the service operated, although recent passenger commentary in Juventud Rebelde suggests that the success of improvements in passenger railway services is having the effect of severe overcrowding at some stations and that bureaucratic delays in relation to ticketing continue.

€1.81bn in Russian financing expected soon for railways

As Cuba Briefing has reported previously, Cuba is intending, with Russian support and finance, to significantly upgrade the country’s existing railway system which largely consists of an east-west spine route between Havana and Santiago de Cuba with numerous branch lines and services, many of which are in a poor state of repair.

This is expected to result in increased running speeds, much greater reliability and the construction of some new higher speed spurs, for example linking the airport in Havana to the city and Varadero. It has already taken delivery of new locomotives from Russia and rolling stock from China.

Last October UFC and Russian Railways (RZD) signed an agreement to undertake a 10-year programme of railway modernisation in the presence of Cuba’s President Díaz-Canel and the then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The overall cost of €1·88bn (US$2.09bn) is to be financed through intergovernmental agreements. RZD is expected to open an office in Cuba.

Almost all the Cuban railway system is to be upgraded, re-signalled and rebuilt with faster running times, with the complete overhaul to be completed by 2030. The project is expected to be managed by RZD International which is Russian state-owned, use Russian technology and equipment and involve UFC staff being trained in Russia.

It includes the modernisation of the principal line between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, the route between the central cities of Santa Clara and Cienfuegos, and the reconstruction of the principal junction that gives access from the network to Havana. The new system is expected to follow the route of the existing line of the railway system until Matanzas, and from there a new branch will be constructed to Varadero facilitating a higher speed Havana – Varadero service.

Much of the engineering work will be undertaken by specialised brigades from the Cuban Ministry of Construction and the UFC with technical expertise locally coming from Russia. The upgrade will be undertaken in segments. A previous report carried by TASS, the Russian News Agency, said that the initial objective will be to increase running speeds over the islands 1,100km of track and that Russian Railways was considering operating the system.

Separately, work is underway or has been competed on major stations including Havana, Santa Clara and Camagüey, and a new line from Havana to the port of Mariel was opened in 2014. Additional new lines aimed at improving capacity and journey times to Mariel have also been completed, as has an adjoining rail container terminal.

Cuba hopes that once the upgrade is complete the railways will become a central element in Cuba’s national transport infrastructure, spurring national economic development and introducing new efficiencies.

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