The Ünion de Ferrocarriles de Cuba operates rail service. One main line spans the country connecting all the major cities, with secondary cities linked by branch lines. Commuter trains called ferro-ómnibus provide suburban rail service in and between many provincial towns.
Published schedules change frequently: Check departure and arrival times and plan accordingly, as many trains arrive (and depart) in the wee hours of the morning. The carriages haven’t been cleaned in years (windows are usually so dirty you can barely see out), and most are derelict in all manner of ways. Few trains run on time, departures are frequently cancelled, and safety is an issue: In February 2009, three people died when two trains collided near Sibanicu, in Camagüey Province, and in October 2007, 28 people were killed when a Manzanillo-bound train from Santiago collided with a bus at a level crossing at Yara, in Granma Province. In 2006, 12 new Chinese diesel trains were shipped to Cuba. In October 2007, 200 new railway cars were ordered from Iran. And in September 2007, Cuba signed a deal with the Venezuelan Economic and Social Development Bank to invest US$100 million to improve rail tracks, signals, and communications, not least, stated Cuban transport minister Jorge Luis Sierra, with a goal of increasing “the [average] speed of our trains from 40 to 100 kilometers per hour.” Yikes!
Bicycles are allowed in the baggage compartment (coche de equipaje). You usually pay (in pesos) at the end of the journey.
Train service has been cut back drastically in the past few years.
The fast especial (train #3), also known as the Tren Francés (French train), now operates between Havana and Santiago de Cuba every third day and takes 12.5 hours for the 860-kilometer journey. You can choose primera especial (first class), with comfy recliner seats; primera, the old second class, has smaller, non-reclining seats. Slower and more basic regular trains #5 and #7 run every third day when the Tren Francés isn’t running (hence, there’s service two out of three days). Expect bone-chilling air-conditioning, TVs showing movies (loudly), a poorly stocked cafetería car, and ferromoza (rail hostess) meal service. Regardless, take snacks and drinks. Relieve yourself before boarding as toilets are grim (and some have no doors); bring toilet paper!
Additional trains operate between Havana and Sancti Spíritus, Camagüey, and Morón.
The state agency FerroCuba (Av. de Bélgica, Havana, tel. 07/861-9389 or 861-8540, ferrotur [at] ceniai [dot] cu) handles ticket sales and reservations for all national train service. Foreigners pay in CUC, for which you get a guaranteed first-class seat. In Havana, tickets for foreigners are sold at the dysfunctional Terminal La Coubre (tel. 07/862-1000), 100 meters south of the main railway station (tel. 07/862-1920). Elsewhere you can normally walk up to the FerroCuba office at the station, buy your ticket, and take a seat on board within an hour. Buy your ticket as far in advance as possible. You should also buy your ticket for the next leg of your journey upon arrival in each destination. Reservations can sometimes be made through Infotur offices (tel. 07/866-3333, www.infotur.cu) and other regional tour agencies. You’ll need your passport.
Reservations for local commuter services can’t be made.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition