The Ecuadorian railroad and what is left of it

A little bit of history . . .

“The railroad has cost us, and will continue costing us enormous sacrifices and immense hardships, money tears and blood,” the newspaper El Comercio pointed out in 1908.  The writer was referring to the construction of an enormous project which was thought of, in theory, as a medium of unification and a conductor of harmony in a country separated by elitist interests.   

According to my memory, from what I learned in school about the History of Ecuador, my teachers described the construction of the Railroad as one of the biggest and most important works in the country.  They spoke about President Eloy Alfaro and about President García Moreno, about the liberals and conservatives . . . but they never mentioned to us the human cost spent on that “Great Project.”  I have always considered that the lack of union and vision in the country come in part from a very poor communication of our history, poor information about events, limited points of view and communicated history and false interests.   The history of the Ecuadorian railroad, as it is generally told, doesn’t describe half of the reality.  This reality involves not only political and economic interests, but a wide and profound lack of respect for the human being, for the basic rights, and the general wellbeing of a nation.  

It is surprising to think that, in spite of the radical liberal discourse that the railroad represented for President Eloy Alfaro: “the initiation of the Republic into contemporary life, economic abundance, the “best school”, the discovery of the most noble attributes of the human being,” and which “beyond  its combative postition against clericism, included” among others “the politics of social protection and the recognition and active intervention of democratic values;” the resulting project caused so many social injustices.

The truth is that this grand work, conceived of by President García Moreno, and continued with incredible insistence by President Eloy Alfaro, and which was passed from hand to hand from start to finish, didn’t even come close to its goal.  As A. Kim Clark explains in her book, The Redemptive Work: Railway and Nation in Ecuador, 1895-1930, the elites from the Sierra and the Costa regions saw in it, a mode of saving their interests at the cost of national well being.   As a result, they left future generations the poor remains of what tried to be a “master work,” without having achieved anything close to the famous unification, and at a human cost that is rarely taken into account.

On one hand, explains Clark, the elites of the Costa crystallized their interests, which were based in the production of cacao.  The producers of this “primary product for the world market” saw the railroad as an opportunity to attract labor to the enormous and productive cacao plantations. Furthermore, they perceived the possibility of introducing imported products from the port of Guayaquil to the Sierra.  But, on a large scale, the liberal coastal elite thought of the project as a tool that would be used “to transform the Sierra, as much to undermine the power of the Church, as to liberate indigenous labor and to achieve modernity and progress.”

The elites of the Sierra also sought the benefits of the railroad, though their interests weren’t focused in the creation of a labor market or in liberating indigenous labor.  They saw the railroad as the promise of a more secure way to transport their products to the coast for sale and export.  Until the end of the 1900’s, the trip and transportation were precarious and very dangerous, because many areas of the Sierra were still practically isolated.  Narrow paths, slippery or swallowed up by exuberant vegetation, intense rain, steep precipices and attacks by wild animals were some of the problems to be solved by those who wanted to travel in Ecuador at that time.   Not even the richest people, who traveled with an entourage of servants, or loaded onto the backs of indigenous people, could save themselves from these dangers.

In the annals of history, considering that the groups in power showed little to no interest in working for and towards the common goal of unification, the epoch of the railroad marked not only the plains and foothills of the Andes, but it showed the entire country, moving economic and social processes to a pitch that, more than unifying it, marked profound differences between the Liberals of the Costa and the conservatives of the Sierra, and demonstrated fundamental contradictions in Liberal thought. 

Whose nightmare? 

According to the chief engineer of the project during the liberal period, John Harman, the labor force was “unsatisfactory” (Clark); robbery, drinking, vagrancy, sicknesses among other reasons, were sufficient to give the engineers nightmares, causing them even to separate their camps from the indigenous camps with electric fences in order to avoid contagion. 

The construction of the railroad was made even more arduous by the bad climatic conditions that had to be faced most of the time.   

On the other hand, the indigenous people involved in this project were dragged into it under threat, the abuse of power, the use of force, imprisonment, the charging of fines, and little or no remuneration of whatever kind, though they were offered “good salaries.”

They were forced to leave their land to dedicate their time to the railroad, and many of them took their children with them, depriving them of the opportunity to go to school; moreover, they found themselves exposed to terrible dangers (landslides, sickness, snakebites, etc.), before which they were completely defenseless; Kim Clark mentions “a great number of workers . . . buried in mass graves at Kilometer 106 of the railroad.” Martha Chávez, in charge of Public Relations for the Railroad Company of Ecuador mentioned the history of workers killed by exploding dynamite in order to avoid paying them for completed work.  Workers were leashed with shackles fastened to rock in the part of the Railroad known as the Devil’s Nose.  On the other hand, workers feared a Siberia-like town called Casihuana, infamous for its wild animals and poisonous snakes, where those who didn’t “work well” were exiled.   

Later, when the train got to the town of Alausí, an important point in the railroad system between Guayaquil and Quito, although some day workers in the mountains saw the opportunity of immigrate towards the coast in search of work in the cacao plantations mentioned earlier, for better salaries, the conditions of the indigenous workers were no better: the bubonic plague traveled from the coast with the rats that boarded the wagons of goods.    

The measures that were taken to control the plague were “the temporary suspension of the service of the train between Alausí and Huigra” and the disinfection of the wagons, the declaration of an indefinite quarantine of the town; the destruction of double walls in certain buildings, the massacre of infected animals such as guinea pigs, dogs, rabbits, etc(and the confiscation of healthy animals for the benefit of the authorities), the incineration of straw roofs in the houses of indigenous people under the pretext that the rats lived in them (without indemnities for reconstruction), and the vaccination of healthy people by force.

The reaction that came with the bubonic plague was mostly illogical; they applied these extreme measures in Alausí, while in other areas which were affected but not near the railroad system, hardly any control or help arrived.   

Not only Ecuadorians 

The “subordinated groups” which participated in this project, were not only indigenous Ecuadorians who were not sufficiently physically resistant for the working conditions, but include the more than 4,000 workers who came from Jamaica to work in the construction of the railroad under a contract that “guaranteed” them workers’ rights. “However,” Kim Clark remarks in her book, “soon after the workers arrived n Ecuador, in November of 1900, they began to send complaints to Jamaica about the ways they were treated.”  Their mistreatment reached such levels that many deserted their work and escaped.  Some were captured and others settled in the country in places such as Bucay and Guayaquil.   

Also included are the Chinese workers who were not contracted “in spite of the liberal rhetoric that emphasized the importance of the free movement of labor force and products.” The effectiveness and efficiency of the Chinese established in Ecuador was feared by many to put their commercial interests at risk.  Contradictorily, the labor force was needed, but these interests meant that the Chinese were discriminated against and accused of spreading vices such as smoking opium, prostitution and gambling, which caused the degeneration of Ecuadorian workers.  They were also accused of running dishonest businesses.

A Living Ghost

Entering the offices of the Railroad Company (EFE) in Quito, on the Calle Bolivar and Garcia Moreno, one expects to find a sort of museum, interesting pieces, promotional brochures.  Nothing like this exists inside the office; it is a large space with a glass roof, in which the presence of employees is marked by a soccer game being shown on the top floor, and the eventual circulation of those returning from lunch.  It gives the impression of a place in which the existence of the railroad is semi-phantasmal. 

As Chávez says, a few years ago certain functions of the railroad decided to “deactivate” some responsibilities of the company, an accordingly burned old train tickets, and under the decision that had been taken to liquidate said company, they dismantled the existing library, distributing the books amongst a few public organizations, but also amongst a few specific peoplewho benefited amply.  Chávez has managed to rescue an old pendulum clock, which she guards in her office with pride.  “We hope [the business] will never close down, for the good of the country.”

The Railway Brotherhood and the Living Ghost    

 Chimbacalle Station, on the other hand, in southern Quito, has served for 11 years  exclusively for administrative functions.  There work Eleven employees and 3 lodgers who clean the machines daily even though they are not used.  The only woman who works there polishes the wooden floors everyday, even though there are parts of the building where the roof has fallen in and the rooms are ramshackle. The bell no longer tolls there for the train, but instead to call the employees.

     Today the EFE has 630 active employees and more than 1,400 retired employees; the former form what is called the “Railway Brotherhood, whose biggest wish is to see the rainlway function again.” Among the anecdotes Chávez told, one caught my attention: it had to do with an ex-railroad employee who described his experience as the worst part of his life,  rife with mistreatment, low or unpaid wages, and a mutilated hand.

     This Brotherdood, together with the current office employees of the railway system, has made itself  solely, as Chávez says, into the “Custodians of the goods of the State which belong to all and to every single Ecuadorian.”  For hte system, the legal mark and the business structure that doens’t allow them to advance, doesn’t even demonstrate a productive side.  Today, the support of the State consists in a budget that is hardly sufficient to pay the wages of the employees and maintain to some extent what is left of the railway.   

Train,  Tourism and Memory

Actually, when one sits on the roof of the train that goes from the city of Riobamba, early in the morning, towards the famous Devil’s Nose, which is a rocky part of the mountain known for being the worst and most difficult part of the construction of the railroad, with its many switchbacks  and several narrow bridge crossings of the Chanchán river, it is not difficult to imagine the dangerous work and sacrifices invested in involved in making such a construction. 

It is difficult to imagine that, what is now something of a part of tourist folklore, directed by the EFE and charted by tourist agencies, and of which today there are few traces left in the majority of its route: rails covered with asphalt, broken or nonexistent, stations abandoned or turned into hostels and boarding houses for travelers who come by car or on foot, was at one time the “national plan”, which considered those who didn’t come to work on its construction as unpatriotic, thus justifying the use of force.   According to Chávez, various tourist agencies, now participate: for example, Metropolitan Touring, one of the biggest travel agencies in the country, has recently invested in three "chivas" (small buses) put on the rails,  and pays the EFE for the use of the rails $1 per kilometer…  

It is also difficult to forget the differences between social groups, above all when you see some passengers throwing coins from the roof of the train to the indigenous people who beg barefoot in the station, while from above they are bombarded with photos.

     Today, due to the progressive disappearance of the railway system, entire villages such as La Perla, Venture, Ochoa, among others, are disappearing one by one without the presence of the railroad which generated movement of people and products. 

     The railroad that was, then, “the definitive liberal project of Ecuador,” has not been the only project in the country based in the interests of the powerful ones and in which the least powerful are dragged, in many cases, into humilliating and subhuman living and working conditions.  The history of its contruction and decadence has taught little or nothing, as the individual interests created by the possibility of its reactivation demonstrates. 

     Therefore, the example of the Transandian Railroad must not be taken only as a chapter of history, but also as a species of constant of human behaviour that is filtered through time and reflects the same disequalities and injustices, in spite of the declared Human Rights, and in spite of organizations that work in defense of workers. 

     This constant expells a large and profound lack of respect towards the human being, towards the basic rights and towards the general wellbiong of an entire people, that becomes difficult to ignore or take lightly.   

Patricia Simon is a contributing editor at


Kim Clark, he Redemptive Work: Railway and Nation in Ecuador, 1895-1930.

Francisco Guraderas’ biography El Viejo de Montecristi.

El Comercio. 16 May, 2006

Empresa de Ferrocarriles Ecuatorianos EFE: Licenciada Martha Chávez: Relaciones Públicas