M Y O B

The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson

RAILROADING IN ECUADOR

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF RAILS IN ECUADOR

The Guayaquil & Quito Railroad had its origins in very narrow gauge rails serving sugar and banana plantations in the flatlands at the base of the Andes mountains.

Sugar Loco

Tiny locomotive preserved at Duran (with borrachero)

Construction of what came to be the G&Q as such began in 1861. The first locomotive reached Milagro in 1874 and Bucay in 1888. The line was pushed as far as it could be up the canyon of the Chan Chan river, but there further progress halted until President Eloy Alfaro struck a deal with J. P. Morgan to finance construction under the direction of Archer Harman. He surveyed the route switching back on the Nariz del Diablo to gain the necessary altitude to allow access to Alausí which was reached in 1902. Riobamba was achieved in 1905, and in 1908 the line reached Quito amid much fan-fare.

Although the railway was a boon to all, and reduced travel time between Quayaquil and Quito from from weeks (by stage coach) to two days by rail, the railroad put Ecuador in debt for many years. There was initial unrest due to the high fares which left many poor folk to struggle without access to the railroad, and Alfaro was eventually lynched: today there are statues of him and streets named for him in almost every town in Ecuador!

Archer

Monument in Huigra

That is probably Eloy Alfaro on top, but plaques at the bottom also commemorate Archer Harman.

A branch of the railroad left Sibambe in 1915 and eventually reached Cuenca in 1965. This became the Sibambe & Cuenca (S&C) division, with its own shops and locomotives, although by the time I was in Ecuador, S&C locomotives were operating on the G&Q, and vice versa, as the need arose.

As late as 1957 the Northern division was constructed, first to Ibarra, and thence to San Lorenzo, where a deep-water port was envisioned. The port never materialized, so the northern Division languished. I managed to ride a freight train from Quito to Ibarra (more about that later), but never rode the stretch from there to San Lorenzo. I saw maps of the route, however, and it included a couple of circles crossing over itself, and many tunnels, some of them with substantial curves. It looked like a fine ride (by autoferro), but there were no hotels to speak of in San Lorenzo, so I just never made the trip.

I hoped one day to write a book about the G&Q, so I did a little research while there. Language difficulties hampered me, but I did find one amusing book, written (as I recall) in the 1940s: it was the report of some commission or other whose clear objective was to get rid of the railroad. It mentioned, passim, that if all the curvature on the G&Q was added together, it amounted to 44 circles. It is true, there is almost no straight rail on the G&Q, but it gave me a title for my book: “Forty-four circles to Quito”. What appears to be the definitive book has now been written by Alfredo and Marcelo Meneses: “Train to the Sun”. I have ordered a copy, and you can read about it here.

I traced a map of the route from a book somewhere:

FFCCMap

A map of the route of the G&Q

I also made up this chart showing mileage and elevations:

Miles-Elev

Chart showing miles and elevations on the G&Q

However, this chart (shamelessly lifted from the web-page of  Train to the Sun) shows the same figures much more dramatically!

G&QPlan2

Locomotives on the G&Q were numbered in accord with the year purchased. All of their steam stock came from Baldwin, although I found brief references that suggested at least one Garratt was tried on the line. In 1979, the oldest operating were number 7, 72 years young, and her sister number 11, on which I rode extensively.

Engine #7

Number 7, at this time, just the yard engine, very cold

Sisters

But Number 7 was alive later that day

Number 14 was undergoing repairs at Duran along with consolidation number 44.

G&Q #14

Number 14 being rebuilt for the umpteenth time

G&Q #44

"Weedbeater" number 44 under repair

These little Atlantics had clearly been rebuilt many times. There were several of the consolidations operating when I was there, including 17, 45, 46, 51 and S&C number 18. There were several, including number 41, which appeared to be dead—for good. The last locomotive to join the line was number 58, one of the last Baldwin locomotives built.

Derelicts

Rusting quietly in Duran, and being cannibalized for parts

In operation also were Diesel-Electric locomotives built in Spain: these were quite new in 1979, and I counted ten of them as I recall. Although I rode them often, I preferred steam then, and I still do!

G&Q DE #167

One of the Diesel Electrics pulling up to Alausi

In all, the G&Q gave the impression in 1979 that it was a successful, working railroad. When I went back in 1994, though, that impression changed radically: more about that in due course.

I’ll close this epsode of the G&Q narrative with another classic photo:

Classic

Number 54 departs Alausi

I waited half a day in the hot sun to get this shot, having first walked the trestle. This freight became a “mixto” when passengers took their places on top of the box-cars.

There’s more railroading in Ecuador to come!

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Written by Editor

June 18th, 2010 at 11:13 am