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Intercity Rail Travels

Cuba’s Hershey Train: the last interurban railway

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Last week, my partner-in-crime and I escaped to Cuba for a short vacation. Eschewing the all-inclusive resorts at Varadero, we decided to spend our time in Havana instead.

Havana is a fascinating place that’s worth exploring beyond the popular spots such as the picturesque Old City, Revolution Square, and the Cristóbal Colón Cemetery; like any great city, it is best explored by foot.

One of our highlights was getting an impromptu tour of the José Martí National Library of Cuba in Havana. The library, named for the Cuban national hero, is adjacent to Plaza de la Revolución. The Plaza also holds the seat of the Communist Government and is famous for the towering monument of Martí and the metal mural of Che Guevara.

We met a wonderful guide, who with great pride described the library’s programs, but also the effects of the 55-year American embargo on obtaining educational materials, up-to-date computers and access to the Internet and other digital resources. We were fortunate for experiences like that, where we met interesting people and learned a bit more about the country. These were experiences that tourists staying at beachside resorts, perhaps visiting Havana on a bus tour or to see a cabaret show, sadly miss.

But, being on vacation, we made sure to spend some time to relax and enjoy the hot — yet pleasantly non-humid — weather. So we decided to go to the beach for our last full day in Cuba. But instead of taking the tourist buses, we decided to hop on the Hershey Train, probably the last true interurban railway in the Americas.

Interurban railways once existed all over Canada and the United States. Electrically-powered trains linked towns and cities together, providing passenger and local freight services and filling a niche between urban streetcars and long-distance steam railways. Improved roads, and increased car and truck ownership resulted in the closure of just about every interurban railway in North America, the last to close in Canada was the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway in 1959. A few remnants of North America’s interurban lines survive as modernized commuter services, such as the South Shore Line between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana. But Cuba’s Hershey Train still looks, and operates, like the electric railways that once crisscrossed much of southwestern Ontario and the eastern United States.