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An uphill climb for train buff

A U.S. millionaire has snapped up railways in the Third World. In Guatemala, his tracks get no respect and he risks being run out on a rail.

June 14, 2007|Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writer

Guatemala City — FOR the freight trains rolling through this Central American nation, every journey is a one-way trip to trouble.

Scrap-metal pirates plunder the tracks. Purloined spikes cause derailments. Seasonal rains bring washouts. Squatters build homes in the right of way. The track supervisor packs a 9--millimeter pistol. Just in case.

Engineers carry shovels to scoop garbage off the line in Sanarate, whose residents use it as a municipal dump. The tracks double as a parking lot in the narcotics hotbed of Morales. Locomotive drivers wait there patiently for the owners of shiny sport utility vehicles to move them off the rails.

"We don't bulldoze the cars because you never know which drug lord's car it might be," said Henry Posner III, a bow-tie-wearing, Ivy League-educated millionaire from Pittsburgh.

For nine years, the rail buff has been pouring time and money -- $15 million so far -- into a quest to get Guatemala's railways back on track. Now, he's facing the biggest obstacle of all: Guatemala has soured on the deal it cut with him. It wants its trains back.

The feud may cost Posner his investment and get him run out of the country on the proverbial rail. He vows he won't go easily.

"My desire is to give Guatemala a railroad even if they don't appreciate it," Posner said. "Because in the long run, someone will appreciate it."

It's hard to imagine now, but Guatemala once boasted one of the world's finest rail systems. In the early 20th century, American banana magnate Minor Keith Cooper, founder of United Fruit Co., stitched together a coast-to-coast network that dominated freight and passenger transport for decades.

But by 1996, rail service had ground to a halt, a victim of competition from highways, a botched government takeover and civil war. Eager to jump-start its economy, Guatemala set about privatizing state-owned industries, including rail.

Enter Posner. The 51-year-old entrepreneur has made a career out of salvaging troubled railways in far-flung parts of the world. Where others saw a money pit, he saw opportunity.

Guatemala's highways are choked with traffic. Yet its economy depends on moving heavy exports such as fruit, sugar and textiles to ports on the Atlantic and the Pacific. His Pittsburgh-based company, Railroad Development Corp., was the only bidder for the concession. It won a 50-year contract in 1998 in exchange for giving the government 11.25% of revenue and taking care of most of the maintenance.

The engines and freight cars were battered. Stations were crumbling. Storms and thieves had ravaged the old narrow-gauge track. RDC decided to replace what it could and patch the rest until its freight business got rolling. In 1999, it reopened a 200-mile stretch from Guatemala City to the Atlantic port of Puerto Barrios.

"This was Lazarus," said RDC President Bob Pietrandrea. "We raised it from the dead."

But a feat that dazzled railroaders hasn't paid RDC's bills. The average speed on the rickety rails remains just 10 mph. Trains derail almost daily. The joke is that Guatemala has gotten itself a bullet train -- so slow you want to shoot yourself.

To find out why, just ride a freight train east out of Guatemala City with Daniel Castaneda, Posner's operations chief.

A native Guatemalan who worked for a time as an auto mechanic in Modesto, Calif., the burly, amiable Castaneda can overhaul a Volkswagen Beetle or this 1971 General Electric locomotive with equal dexterity. He is also a worrier, which gives him plenty to do on the tracks.

On a recent afternoon, he and two engineers headed for Puerto Barrios hauling a load of aluminum and plastic scrap. The cab of the gunmetal gray "loco," as Castaneda calls the engine, was cramped and showing every day of its 36 years. The cracked windshield was reinforced with tape. The passenger seat tilted at a drunken angle.

As the train crept through the capital, engineer Joel Lopez kept a firm hand on the brake and a gimlet eye on the tracks. He blew the deafening horn with vigor. No one seemed to grasp that the locomotive was a 70-ton moving object. There were no crossing gates at intersections to keep motorists and pedestrians from wandering into the path of the approaching train, which they did with alarming regularity.

An open-air market did a brisk business over the tracks, the one place vendors don't have to pay rent. They languidly moved out of harm's way just moments before impact. The hawkers know precisely how high they can stack their merchandise between the rails so that locomotives don't flatten it.

Parallel streets run so close to the tracks that as little as six feet separates trains and motorists. Castaneda said a locomotive rammed a parked school bus full of kids last year. Miraculously no one was killed. He said municipal officials had ignored his pleas to honor the 50-foot right of way on each side of the tracks.

"This isn't a safety culture," he said with a sigh.

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