The International Steam Pages

Steam (?) in Ecuador 1999

Rob Ripperger sends a report on his visit to the G&Q:

All of this information concerning the Guayaquil & Quito is up to date as of July of 1999, when I visited the railroad with Chris Skow's tour, which covered the few operating portions of the G & Q between 10-18 of that month. As the future of the railroad is in grave doubt, this message is a bleak one. I have tried to include only those elements of the tour that are relevant to a report on the condition of the line (which was bad). Most of this report is based either on firsthand experience, or upon the word of reliable and experienced sources. Where I am reporting something that I did not personally witness, I will try to say so; where I am reporting something that is beyond my technical competence to judge, I will try to put it in as descriptive a form as possible, so that you can form your own opinions.

First of all, the condition of the road is extremely bad. The line is itself severed at three points: between Duran and Bucay, as a result of flooding in 1998; between Bucay and Huigra in the lower part of the Chanchan River Canyon (also as a result of flooding several years ago) and most recently, between Huigra and Sibambe, as a result of a flood on 3 April 1999. This latter flood was caused by a massive slide, and at the time of my visit, I was told that little or no work had been accomplished on clearing it. During my visit, mobs reportedly tore up a portion of the track between Cotopaxi and Quito, but I have heard that this has been replaced, and some local service has resumed. It would be impossible to overstate the decrepit condition of the railroad. The condition of the connecting lines is even worse. The Sibambe & Cuenca will probably never operate again; there have been several washouts in the Chanchan River Canyon, and I understand from a friend who served in the Peace Corps that the railroad has been destroyed below Cuenca by flooding. Portions of the San Lorenzo are said to be operable, but the bridge connecting the S.L with Quito is out, and unlikely to be repaired. All of the information on connecting railroads is secondhand, save for the washouts in the Chanchan canyon, which I have seen through binoculars.

Generally speaking, the condition of the track is, as I have said, extremely bad. The #58 derailed no less than 18 times in the course of one day in Bucay, although a substantial number of those derailments were on backup moves. The condition of the track on the Alausi-Riobamba section is at least marginally better, although I saw several derailments, all of them apparently caused by the spreading of the track under the engine. The condition of the rolling stock is not great, but where it is operating, it seems to be serviceable- the steam engines are naturally somewhat cantankerous, and spare parts nonexistent, so they are operated almost entirely by a process of cannibalization.

The brightest light on the railroad is the caliber of the workforce. The engine crews, track gangs, and mechanics literally performed miracles, not only in rerailing, but in emergency repairs. Twice I saw trains that I thought would not run inside the space of days on the rails and rolling in two hours (the time estimate came from a Brit Rail engineer on the trip). I have never actually seen a railroad held together with this degree of improvisation before, but the G & Q made me understand how things were once done on the Colorado Midland or the Rio Grande Southern. The competence and resourcefulness of the railroaders was past belief.

There is a substantial amount of surviving steam power, although from everything I heard, it appears that almost none of it is in regular service. The few trains that are still running are apparently covered either by autoferros or by the Alsthom diesels, several of which are in running order. The steam I saw is as follows:

  • Duran shed: Baldwin 2-6-0 #11 was serviceable, and ran. It pulled a short mixto to the edge of Bucay, before a lifted rail prevented further travel. The line was in any case supposedly serviceable for only a mile or so outside of Duran.

  • Baldwin 2-6-0 # 7 was stored in the shed. It appeared to be more or less serviceable, but had apparently been cannibalized for parts (ie, brake stand pedestals missing from the cab).

  • Baldwin 2-8-0 #18 from the Sibambe & Cuenca was stored in the shed. It was partly disassembled, ie, missing cylinder heads, side rods, valve gear, piston heads, much of the boiler jacketing, smokebox front, and pilot truck. I did not see any of these parts lying about, but that doesn't mean they're not around.

The situation at the Bucay shed was a little more heartening, at least at first. Baldwin 2-8-0 #58 was under steam, and completely serviceable, although she is probably no longer operable, as the engine crew had to remove her compressor and ship it to Riobamba to keep the #53 running. Sibambe & Cuenca #17 was stored in the shed; I did not inspect it with any attention, but it appeared to be almost serviceable. The #44 and #46 (both Baldwin 2-8-0s) were in various states of disassembly; the #44 was resting on blocks, and had no wheels or smokebox front. She looked as if she had been cannibalized to keep #44 in running order. The shop force was there, and they are evidently eager to keep both the railroad and the steam engines running, although most had not at that point been paid for several months. One elderly machinist who spoke a bit of English asked me if there were any tourist railroads in the U.S. that wanted good steam engine machinists. I gave him George Bartholomew's card, on the principle that the wages the C & TS was offering people last summer would at least look good to rural Ecuadorians. If it helps to get 488 running again, it's all to the good, right?

I recorded one operable steamer, Baldwin 2-8-0 #53, on the Alausi-Riobamba section of the line. 2-8-0 #38 was rusting at the Riobamba engine shed, tenderless and largely stripped. There were at least two steam engines in the Quito terminal, but they were unserviceable. My pictures did not come out, and I did not take notes in Quito, suffering as I was from the aftermath worst case of food poisoning I've ever had. I was told that 2-6-0 #14 was at San Lorenzo, and was serviceable, but I did not see this.

My overall impression is that the railroad is not long for this world. The Ecuadorian economy is in freefall, and the G & Q is a long way down the priority list. I would be surprised if it reopens the coastal portions of the line, although having said that, I must note that this railroad has been surviving predictions of doom since abandonment was first mooted in the 1920s. It may just manage to hang on with a very few very minor repairs for the next couple of years, and if it does, I would earnestly advise everyone who can to see it. It is extraordinary- an honest-to-God surviving repository of all the techniques, practices, and equipment of midcentury American narrow-gauge railroading- Adlake lanterns, telegraphy, train orders, and all the rest of it. It may already be too late, but go if you can. Riding the G & Q was a lifelong dream for me, going back to the pictures in O.S. Nock's Encyclopedia of World Railways, The Old Patagonian Express, and Nostromo. The price for me was three days' incapacitation with food poisoning, an air evacuation (this was during the first big demonstrations) by the Ecuadorian Air Force, and a great deal of discomfort and disappointment- but it was worth it. There's no telling how long it'll be there, but once it's gone, it'll be gone forever. So see it while you can.

Addendum: please note that Sibambe & Cuenca 2-8-0 #15 is preserved at Riobamba, in apparently great condition (at least, from a distance, all the parts appear to be there, and the paint is shiny).

Rob Dickinson