Public railways operated by Ferrocarriles de Cuba serve all of the provincial capitals and are a unique way to experience Cuba, as long as you have the patience of a saint and the stamina of a prize fighter.
Old trains and fuel shortages set you up for delays. Travelers report long delays, non-functional bathrooms, police removing passengers for on-board offenses and other passengers having fits or getting kicked off. It is not for the faint of heart. Cubans who have the budget to travel by other means do so.
The departure information provided is purely theoretical. Getting a ticket is usually no problem, as there's a quota for tourists paying in convertibles.
Foreigners must pay for their tickets in cash, but prices are reasonable and the carriages, though old and worn, are fairly comfortable. The toilets are foul – bring toilet paper. Watch your luggage on overnight trips and bring your own food. Only the Tren Francés has snack facilities, although vendors often come through the train selling coffee (you supply the cup).
For Cuban train times and types, consult The Man in Seat Sixty-One (www.seat61.com), run by Mark Smith in the UK.
At time of research the Estación Central of Havana was closed until mid-2018 for renovation. In the meantime, most departures are leaving through the La Coubre station.
Cuba's best and fastest train is the Tren Francés (train number 11), which runs between Havana and Santiago de Cuba in both directions every fourth day (CUC$30, 15½ hours, 861km). The trains use secondhand French carriages (hence the name), which formerly operated on the Paris–Brussels–Amsterdam European route. They were bought by the Cubans in 2001. The carriages are relatively comfortable, if a little worn, with frigid air-conditioning, a limited cafe, a purser (one per carriage) and decidedly dingy toilets. As with many things in Cuba, it's not so much the quality of the carriages that's the problem, but their upkeep – or lack thereof. The Tren Francés has only 1st class, which by the way, is nothing like 1st class.
The following information is liable to changes or cancellations. Always check ahead.
|Pinar del Río||71||every other day|
|Bayamo||13||every 4th day|
|Guantánamo||15||every 4th day|
|Santiago de Cuba||5, 11, 12||every 4th day|
|Matanzas||5, 7, 15||every 4th day|
|Manzanillo||28||every 4th day|
|Cienfuegos||73||every other day|
|Santa Clara||5, 7, 9, 15||every 4th day|
|Camagüey||5, 15||every 4th day|
|Sancti Spíritus||7||every other day|
Cuban train stations, despite their occasionally grandiose facades, are invariably dingy, chaotic places with little visible train information. Departure times are displayed on black chalkboards or handwritten notices; there are no electronic or printed timetables. Always check train info two to three days before your intended travel.
Trains are either especial (air-conditioned, faster trains with fewer departures), regular (slowish trains with daily departures) or lecheros (milk trains that stop at every little town on the line). Trains on major routes such as Havana–Santiago de Cuba will be especial or regular trains.
Regular trains cost under CUC$3 per 100km, while especial trains cost closer to CUC$5.50 per 100km. The Hershey Train (between Havana and Matanzas) is priced like the regular trains.
In most train stations, you just go to the ticket window and buy a ticket. In La Coubre train station in Havana, there's a separate waiting room and ticket window for passengers paying in convertibles. Be prepared to show your passport when purchasing tickets. It's always wise to check beforehand at the station for current departures because things change.
Cuba's train network is comprehensive, running almost the full length of the main island from Guane in Pinar del Río province to Caimanera, just south of the city of Guantánamo. There are also several branch lines heading out north and south and linking up places such as Manzanillo, Nuevitas, Morón and Cienfuegos. Baracoa is one of the few cities without a train connection. Other trainless enclaves are the Isla de la Juventud, the far west of Pinar del Río province and the northern keys. Trinidad has been detached from the main rail network since a storm brought down a bridge in 1992. Trinidad's small branch line along the Valle del los Ingenios was under repair at the time of writing.
Many additional local trains operate at least daily and some more frequently. There are also smaller trains linking Las Tunas and Holguín, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba, Santa Clara and Nuevitas, Cienfuegos and Sancti Spíritus, and Santa Clara and Caibarién.
The Hershey Train is the only electric railway in Cuba and was built by the Hershey Chocolate Company in the early years of the 20th century; it's a fun way to get between Havana and Matanzas.