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Riding the Sugarland Express

The past is still on track for train buffs as the steam locomotives of yesteryear chug on.

January 20, 2002|KARL ZIMMERMANN

CIENFUEGOS, Cuba — Surrounded by fields of sugar cane, under a sunset sky streaked with orange, the rails stretched off into the distance. Along the narrow-gauge track rattled a train of cars loaded with cane. At its head, two antique steam locomotives, built in 1909 and 1920 in Philadelphia, struggled to keep the train moving. At its hind end, aboard primitive cabooses and flatcars with seats, 68 Americans held on tight when the cars shuddered as they banged through a switch leading to an acopio, or reload, where the cane was chopped and transferred from truck to train. There another locomotive panted softly, nudging cars into place to be filled with short lengths of cane.

Despite sitting on hard seats--or having to stand--and the general lack of amenities, most of these American passengers were happy to be riding the rails of Mal Tiempo, a sugar mill (or central, as they're called in Cuba) in the country's midsection.

So close, so inaccessible, so enigmatic, Cuba has intrigued a generation of Americans forbidden to travel here. The island's mystique and its attractions are manifold. Beaches and resorts. Mojitos, the rum, lime and mint concoctions much favored by Ernest Hemingway that have become the year's hot cocktail stateside. An accidental museum of American automobiles from the '40s and '50s, most still running well. The earthy, infectious music brought to our attention by the movie "Buena Vista Social Club."

Add to this predictable list a less likely attraction: steam locomotives. For Americans who love trains and, in particular, find steam locomotives charismatic, Cuba has tantalized for decades as a paradise just out of reach. The nation is like a museum of working American trains. The faithful have known that for the annual zafra, or sugar harvest, every February, a ragtag armada of locomotives comes to life to haul Cuba's chief product and export from fields to mills--and, to a lesser extent, to carry refined sugar and molasses to customers, usually through an interchange with the Cuban National Railways (the Ferrocarriles de Cuba, or FCC). About 100 steam locomotives are at work during the harvest--although the number drops each year, despite the resourcefulness of mill mechanics.

Canadian, British and European steam locomotive enthusiasts for years have been coming to Cuba, and recently more and more U.S. citizens have been traveling here illegally--but with increasing impunity. Because of an embargo enforced by the Treasury Department under the Trading With the Enemy Act, it's not going to Cuba that is against the law; it's spending money here.

So when Trains Unlimited Tours announced a two-week trip for last March, one that would be legal and licensed by the Treasury Department as an educational outreach tour, I was one of 68 train buffs who signed on.

Our group visited 13 mills, including one worked by ancient electric locomotives. Only one was a bust, showing us nothing more than diesels and a cool welcome.

At the rest, we saw 27 steam locomotives, all made in America, of two gauges--standard (which run on 4-foot, 81/2-inch-wide tracks) and narrow (with tracks only 2 feet, 6 inches wide). For economy, several of the lines into the fields were built in narrow gauge; lines from the mills interchanging with the national railroads had to be standard.

The oldest steam locomotive we saw dated from 1903 and the newest from 1925. The highlights were four mills where we could climb aboard a train and ride: the Rafael Freyre, Mal Tiempo, Cuba Libre and Venezuela. (When the mills were nationalized after Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959, they were renamed, most often for political or revolutionary heroes or neighboring countries.)

We also spent a few days riding the main lines of the Cuban National Railway (mainly in chartered American-built diesel rail cars) and one highly memorable ride on the antique electrified interurban cars (sort of streetcars on steroids) of the former Hershey Cuban Railway, now also part of the national system.

We participants in the "Cuban Rail Historian Tour" who arrived at Havana after a short charter flight from Miami (operated by Gulfstream International Airlines, a Continental affiliate) were a diverse group. Most were serious rail fans, though others just liked trains and were taking advantage of an opportunity to visit Cuba. Of the dozen women, many (though not all) were spouses of those in category one. Although steam locomotives were the primary focus, there was time to enjoy more mainstream attractions: the beaches, mojitos, classic cars, music and, in my case, some Hemingway shrines.

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