Costa Rica´s Jungle Train Offtrack

The old train station in Limon looks vacant. A few trains come in said one of the locals but it looks like it has seen better days. The train to Limon was just as important as the Panama canal? So why has the train fell off the tracks? Whatever the reason the result is more traffic and more traffic jams on the road from San Jose to Limon.

(The track offers a splendid introduction to the magnificent jungle-clad mountain landscape of Costa Rica. The line, with its 100 miles of embankments and dizzying trestles, took 20 years to complete. Malaria, dysentery and heat exhaustion are said to have buried 4,000 men who worked on it, Chinese, Italians and Hondurans – more even than the cutting of the Panama Canal – and only the laborers brought over from Jamaica proved strong enough to survive the punishing work. But when the track was opened, it shortened the trip to Europe, which had until then included a trip round Cape Horn, by three months.)

Sorry, you can’t ride the train to Limon anymore. The extensive miles of iron tracks, on which the train potently ran at one time, fell into disrepair years ago. The Costa Rican government shut down the train in December of 1990 after one hundred years of service. The inclemency of our tropical rains, irregular topography and constant mudslides have prevented the famed jungle train from returning.

Due to extensive earth slides the line between Cartago and Turrialba was destroyed in 1988 which divided the railway network into two parts. A powerful earth quake damaged in 1991 the lines along the atlantic coast which, however, were reinstated within two weeks. The Atlantic banana transport line had become unprofitable already earlier, because of the exhaustion of the banana fields and the high current costs. Bananas are transported in the evening when tariffs are at their highest, and the power stations would not reduce the tariffs. Further reasons were the high personal costs due to overstaffing, and so the banana transports were transferred to trucks. As a consequence operation ceased in 1995. The atlantic overhead line was in competition with private copper thiefs dismantled. In 1997 and 1998 the country’s government made several efforts to privatise the railway. But the potential operators made too high demands on the state or wanted only to take over parts of the lines. As the overcharging of the roads increased constantly, it dawned on the government that without the railway nothing more was possible, which made the government to reactivate INCOFER. INCOFER took over operations and repaired the lines. Today both on the Pacific line and the banana transport line diesel locomotives are used. The only passenger train, an excursion train, is the Tico train of America Travel which underway stops at Rio Grande de Atenas where the railway museum is situated, and which then continues to Caldera. A branch line of 4,6 Kilometres from Salinas connects the former railway with the new harbour which in the seventies replaced the harbour at Puntarenas, which was no longer deep enough, and the entry of which is too narrow for container ships. The Tico train operates, however, only on 2,3 Kilometres on the harbour branch line as far as the beach at Caldera. The train consists of a GE diesel electric locomotive U11 B of 1979 (two of ten imported locomotives), with Caterpillar motors type 388 and 398 of 1100 HP at 6000 Volts, which can reach a maximum speed of 80 Kilometres per hour, weigh 64 tons, and are 38 feet long, 12 feet high and 9 feet large. Furthermore there are passenger coaches from 1941, from Germany (blue cars) with 46 seats, metal coloured cars from 1960, from Japan, and caboose cars. A timetable can be found at the Fahrplancenter. INCOFER has a very modest home page. There one can find some hopeful information, that the railway can be resurrected in three steps. First the banana transport lines at the Valle de la Estrella, later the other Atlantic lines and finally the Pacific line shall be put out to concession. Furthermore the substation at Tacares shall receive more power within the available possibilities.

Jason Thompson received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Law & Society from Winona State University and the International University Of Ulaanbaatar where he studied U.S.-Mongolian Foreign Relations 1860-1920. He also attended programs at Hennepin Technical College in Minnesota, Soonchunhyang University in the Republic of Korea and at the University for Peace in Costa Rica. He has a Master of Arts degree from University of Nevada, Las Vegas where he focused on how climate control was visually framed in the media using content analysis, enhanced weathering techniques that create power and control atmospheric carbon dioxide percentages and high-energy x-ray applications. Jason has wrote for Diesel Power and The Costa Rica News.

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