History of Ecuador's Rail System
1830 A Nation in Need of Rail
Ecuador became an independent nation in 1830. As with many young republics, Ecuador experienced growing pains, including a civil war which forced the nation's first president from power in 1845. By the 1860's or so, things had settled down somewhat, and Ecuador's leaders began thinking about modernization, which at that time meant a railway. Ecuador had great potential, but the two main cities – Quito and Guayaquil – were separated by two days' travel along winding mule paths through the rugged Andes Mountains.
1895 Eloy Alfaro's Vision
By 1873, there was already a short rail line along the coast, but in 1895 new President Eloy Alfaro had grander visions. Alfaro was a man of vision and he was determined to modernize his nation in every way. A big part of his plan was a rail which would link Quito and Guayaquil. He felt that the long, arduous distance between the two cities was hindering Ecuador's development. He ordered the railway surveyed and built, bringing in thousands of foreign workers, including many from Puerto Rico and Jamaica.
1900 Construction of the Train System
Quito and Guayaquil are only about 170 miles (270km) apart, as the condor flies. The problem is that whereas Guayaquil is at sea level, Quito is at 9,350 feet (2800 meters) of altitude. The two cities are separated by raging rivers, deep ravines, frosty Andean peaks, dense cloud forests and rocky slopes. Linking the two cities was a monumental task. Foreign engineers plotted the course of the rail and thousands of workers toiled for years to complete it. Many workers died. The most challenging section of rail drops some 500 meters over the course of only twelve kilometers: this is the Devil's Nose, the best-known section of the Quito-Guayaquil route.
1908 Connected at Last!
On June 25, 1908, the first train from Guayaquil triumphantly chugged into Quito. President Alfaro's vision had come true. At first, the trip took twelve hours or so, dramatically cutting the time needed to travel between the cities. The train also allowed for heavy freight to be shipped from one city to the other. The system continued to expand, with additional lines to Cuenca, Otavalo and other destinations added.
1920 The Glory Days
The train thrived for decades. Passengers and freight moved freely around the country, powered by powerful steam engines (later, they would switch to Diesel engines). Stations were built where travelers could get on and off, or just get out for a snack, and local communities benefitted greatly from the new transportation system. Industry thrived as highland producers could now move their goods to the coast and coastal products – such as fresh fish – could reach new markets in the highlands. The growth of roads and trucking would soon spell and end to these glory days, however.
1990 Decline of the Rail System
By the 1990's, transporting people and goods was easier via the new roads which crossed all of Ecuador. Trucks and buses regularly shuttled between Quito, Guayaquil and the other main cities, carrying passengers and cargo. The train was not popular any more, and few people used it. Sections of track broke down and were not repaired. Engines wore out and were not replaced. Stations and coaches fell into ruin. On the outskirts of cities, people began building over the train tracks. Eventually the only sections left open were those popular with foreign tourists, such as the Quito-Cotopaxi run and the Devil's Nose.
2008 Renovation and Modernization
Like Eloy Alfaro, President Rafael Correa had a vision of a railway connecting Quito and Guayaquil. Since 2008, the Ecuadorian government has invested millions of dollars in renovating the rail system. The stations have been modernized, the tracks repaired, the coaches refurbished, the engines maintained. The change is astounding. Hundreds of miles of unused tracks are back in service, and visitors and Ecuadorians alike are marveling at the train's renaissance.