Rail transport in Central America

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City rail in La Ceiba, Honduras is one of the few remaining passenger train services in Central America. Train LaCeiba1.JPG
City rail in La Ceiba, Honduras is one of the few remaining passenger train services in Central America.

Rail transport in Central America consists of several isolated railroad lines with freight or passenger service. The most famous one is the Panama Canal Railway, the oldest transcontinental railroad in the world, connecting Panama City with Colón since 1855. Other railroads in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama were built by private and public investors mainly to facilitate the transport of local agricultural produce (bananas, coconuts, coffee) to export markets and harbors. Their market share and profitability went into decline in the second half of the twentieth century and most lines have been decommissioned by the end of the 1990s. As of 2018, railroads operate locally in Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama only; all rail transport has been suspended in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. None of the operating railways crosses national borders.

Rail transport Conveyance of passengers and goods by way of wheeled vehicles running on rail tracks

Rail transport is a means of transferring of passengers and goods on wheeled vehicles running on rails, also known as tracks. It is also commonly referred to as train transport. In contrast to road transport, where vehicles run on a prepared flat surface, rail vehicles are directionally guided by the tracks on which they run. Tracks usually consist of steel rails, installed on ties (sleepers) and ballast, on which the rolling stock, usually fitted with metal wheels, moves. Other variations are also possible, such as slab track, where the rails are fastened to a concrete foundation resting on a prepared subsurface.

Panama Canal Railway railway line that links the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean across Panama

The Panama Canal Railway is a railway line linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in Central America. The route stretches 47.6 miles (76.6 km) across the Isthmus of Panama from Colón (Atlantic) to Balboa. Because of the difficult physical conditions of the route and state of technology, the construction was renowned as an international engineering achievement, one that cost US$8 million and the lives of an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 workers. Opened in 1855, the railway preceded the Panama Canal by half a century; the ship canal was later constructed parallel to the railway.

Panama City City in Panama

Panama City is the capital and largest city of Panama. It has an urban population of 880,691, with over 1.5 million in its metropolitan area. The city is located at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, in the province of Panama. The city is the political and administrative center of the country, as well as a hub for banking and commerce.



Old railroad bridge along the Hummingbird Highway. Abandoned Railroad Bridge in Belize.jpg
Old railroad bridge along the Hummingbird Highway.

There are no operational railroads in Belize. Historically, the major line - Stann Creek Railway [1] built by the British Honduras Syndicate and later used by the United Fruit - connected Middlesex Estate with Dangriga port along present-day Hummingbird Highway between 1913 and 1937.

Belize country in Central America

Belize is an independent and sovereign country located on the north eastern coast of Central America. Belize is bordered on the northwest by Mexico, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the south and west by Guatemala. It has an area of 22,970 square kilometres (8,867 sq mi) and a population of 387,879 (2017). Its mainland is about 180 mi (290 km) long and 68 mi (110 km) wide. It has the lowest population and population density in Central America. The country's population growth rate of 1.87% per year (2015) is the second highest in the region and one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere.

Stann Creek Railway

The Stann Creek Railway was used from 1908 to 1938 as a 25 miles (40 km) long 3 ft gauge narrow gauge railway from Commerce Bight to Middlesex in Belize.

Dangriga Town in Stann Creek, Belize

Dangriga, formerly known as Stann Creek Town, is a town in southern Belize, located on the Caribbean coast at the mouth of the North Stann Creek River. It is the capital of Belize's Stann Creek District. Dangriga is served by the Dangriga Airport. Commonly known as the "culture capital of Belize" due to its influence on punta music and other forms of Garifuna culture, Dangriga is the largest settlement in southern Belize.

Costa Rica

Train Station (INCOFER) in Costa Rica, near the University of Costa Rica Railroad siding costa Rica mt de ocoa.jpg
Train Station (INCOFER) in Costa Rica, near the University of Costa Rica

Railroads in Costa Rica are managed by state owned Incofer - Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles, and are of 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow gauge (the same as Honduras and Nicaragua). They operate suburban trains around San José and freight trains to the Pacific port of Caldera (outside Puntarenas). A private company, America Travel, organizes weekly tourist trains from San José to Caldera. Additionally, a 3.5 km long tourist "Swiss mountain railroad" with two tunnels runs on the premises of Hotel Los Héroes in Tilarán, Guanacaste Province.

Costa Rica Country in Central America

Costa Rica, officially the Republic of Costa Rica, is a country in Central America, bordered by Nicaragua to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the northeast, Panama to the southeast, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, and Ecuador to the south of Cocos Island. It has a population of around 5 million in a land area of 51,060 square kilometers. An estimated 333,980 people live in the capital and largest city, San José with around 2 million people in the surrounding metropolitan area.

3 ft 6 in gauge railways railways with tracks 1067 mm (3′ 6″) apart

Railways with a track gauge of 3 ft 6 in / 1,067 mm were first constructed as horse-drawn wagonways. From the mid-nineteenth century, the 3 ft 6 in gauge became widespread in the British Empire, and was adopted as a standard in Japan and Taiwan.

San José, Costa Rica City and municipality in San José, Costa Rica

San José is the capital and largest city of Costa Rica. Located in the mid-west of the Central Valley, San José is the seat of national government, the focal point of political and economic activity, and the major transportation hub of this Central American nation. The population of San José Canton was 288,054 in 2011, and San José’s municipal land area measures 44.2 square kilometers, and an estimated 333,980 residents in 2015. The metropolitan area stretches beyond the canton limits and has an estimated population of over 2 million in 2017. The city is named in honor of Joseph of Nazareth.

The first railroad in Costa Rica was opened in 1873, running between San José and Alajuela. In 1890, it reached the Atlantic coast in Puerto Limón. The contractor constructing the railroad from San Jose to Limon was Minor Cooper Keith. A concession of land granted to Keith to help compensate him and investors became a component of United Fruit. Construction of a Pacific railroad started in 1897 with the first train reaching Puntarenas in 1910. In 1926, a decision was made to electrify the lines; the first electric train reached Puntarenas in 1930.

Alajuela Canton in Alajuela Province, Costa Rica

Alajuela is the second largest city in Costa Rica. It is also the capital of Alajuela Province.

Minor Cooper Keith American businessman

Minor Cooper Keith was an American businessman whose railroad, commercial agriculture, and shipping enterprises much influenced the national economies of the Central American countries, and that of Colombia. His pioneering banana interests were absorbed by the then powerful United Fruit Company, today industry dominating giant Chiquita Brands International.

Puntarenas Canton in Costa Rica

Puntarenas (Spanish pronunciation: [puntaˈɾenas]; is the capital and largest city in the Province of Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

The railroad network was damaged during an earthquake in 1991 and operation suspended in 1995. After 2000, the state railroad authority (Incofer) works to resume and popularize rail transport again.

As of 2004, the denominated "Tren Interurbano" was reestablished to run services between neighboring cities Heredia and San José (due to the conurbation phenomenon, both cities and in minor extent Alajuela and Cartago, became part of one same urban area known as GAM, Gran Area Metropolitana, Great Metropolitan Area) as well as between Pavas and San Pedro neighborhoods in San José. New Apolo engines imported from Spain should start servicing the route San José - Heredia, several times a day, by the end of April 2009. This transport alternative has received relative widespread acceptance from citizens in GAM to the point that the Government will bid (third quarter, 2009) for the construction and operation of a modern system to operate between Heredia - San José, and San Pedro - Sabana Sur on an initial stage. So far, more than six international companies, specially European, have expressed their interest on the project. Recently a company in Brazil was committed to evaluate the viability of the project and the results were very satisfactory. The Government will provide part of the money needed (based on already existing funds) and the concessionary the rest. The service should be running by 2013.

El Salvador

Short-lived shuttle train in San Salvador, 2005 FENADESAL2005.JPG
Short-lived shuttle train in San Salvador, 2005

All rail transport in El Salvador was suspended between October 2002 and 2007, with the exception of a short-lived shuttle passenger train between San Salvador and Soyapango during emergency repairs on a road bridge in 2004 - 2005.

El Salvador country in Central America

El Salvador, officially the Republic of El Salvador, is the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America. It is bordered on the northeast by Honduras, on the northwest by Guatemala, and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. El Salvador's capital and largest city is San Salvador. As of 2016, the country had a population of approximately 6.34 million.

San Salvador National capital in San Salvador Department, El Salvador

San Salvador is the capital and the most populous city of El Salvador and its eponymous department. It is the country's political, cultural, educational and financial center. The Metropolitan Area of San Salvador which comprises the capital itself and 13 of its municipalities has a population of 2,404,097.

Soyapango Municipality in San Salvador Department, El Salvador

Soyapango is a municipality in the San Salvador department of El Salvador. Soyapango is a commercial center. The municipality is the third most populated area in the country, with 290,412 inhabitants. Soyapango is a satellite city of San Salvador and it is the main thoroughfare between San Salvador and the eastern part of the country, and nearly 70,000 vehicles travel through it every day. The nickname for this satellite city is Soya. The city is infamously and notoriously known for being the most dangerous city of the Central America region, and also for being a breeding ground for the Mara gangs and the place where gang members first arrive after being deported to El Salvador from Los Angeles, reason why these two locations evoke a similar resemblance to each other.

In 2007 a suburban passenger service operated by FENADESAL between San Salvador, Ciudad Delgado and Apopa has been put in service, it runs Monday to Friday a round-trip on early morning and another round-trip during evening peak. Its low fare of $0,10 makes it very popular. During 2008 this train transported 224,727 passengers. However service was again suspended in 2013.

Delgado, San Salvador Municipality in San Salvador Department, El Salvador

Ciudad Delgado is a municipality in the San Salvador department of El Salvador. It is a part of the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador.

Apopa Place in San Salvador Department, El Salvador

Apopa is a municipality in the San Salvador department of El Salvador. Probably the seventh biggest city in El Salvador with a little more than 150,000 people, the city has now collided with Soyapango and San Salvador, making it part of the Great San Salvador Metro.

Railroads have been built in El Salvador since 1882 by The Salvador Rail Company Limited (later named FES - Ferrocarril de El Salvador) and United Fruit (IRCA). In 1975, the two companies merged into FENADESAL - Ferrocarriles Nacionales de El Salvador. At present, this agency oversees 554.8 km of disused tracks, connecting major cities and formerly linked to Guatemala railroads at Anguiatú. The railroads in El Salvador were of narrow gauge, 914 mm (3 ft), the same as Guatemala. The line from Texis Junction to Santa Ana and Ahuachapán has been dismantled and the soil of it given away to people who lost their houses during an earthquake, today it is probably the longest and narrowest slum.

Official homepage: https://web.archive.org/web/20100306182740/http://www.fenadesal.gob.sv/


Freight transport was the main business of Ferrovias Guatemala. GT Sanarate freighttrain2.JPG
Freight transport was the main business of Ferrovías Guatemala.

Guatemala had 320 km (200 mi) of operating 914 mm narrow gauge railroads between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios, managed by US-based Railroad Development Corporation [2] as Ferrovías Guatemala. They ran regular freight trains and occasional charter steam trains for tourists from 1999 until September 2007, when all operation was suspended following a conflict with the Government of Guatemala. (June 2011) Most of the rail and steel bridges have now been dismantled by thieves meaning there now no possibility that service can be reinstated without millions of dollars' worth of investment in rebuilding it.

Railroads have been built in Guatemala since 1884. In 1912, the network was acquired by United Fruit Company, named IRCA and developed to connect Guatemala City with the Pacific coast (Puerto San José), Atlantic coast (Puerto Barrios), El Salvador (Anguiatú), Mexico (Ciudad Tecún Umán - change of gauges 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)/914 mm (3 ft)) and other places. In the 1950s, the railroads went into a decline, resulting in nationalization (1968, new name was FEGUA - Ferrocarriles de Guatemala) and suspension of all services in 1996. In 1997, the government gave a fifty-year concession to the Railroad Development Corporation, which then resumed operations on one line in 1999 and abandoned operation on September 30, 2007.

Apart from this main network, there were two other local railroads - Ferrocarril de Los Altos from Quetzaltenango to Retalhuleu and Ferrocarril Verapaz to the North-West of Lago de Izabal. They were closed in 1933 and 1963, respectively.


Passenger train in La Ceiba on January 11, 2005. Engineer tanks fuel manually from a barrel. Colorful passenger car (former box car without walls) is attached to the right. Train LaCeiba2.JPG
Passenger train in La Ceiba on January 11, 2005. Engineer tanks fuel manually from a barrel. Colorful passenger car (former box car without walls) is attached to the right.

Railroads in Honduras have been built in the northern lowlands (Valle de Sula) since the 1880s by two competing banana growers - United Fruit and Standard Fruit. They never extended to the capital (Tegucigalpa) or to the Pacific coast and never linked to other countries. In 1993, the combined network had 785 km. All railroads in Honduras are 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in). In 2006, three separate segments operated under the management of FNH - Ferrocarril Nacional de Honduras :


Diesel Locomotive General Electric in the old Nicaragua's railway Shot0004.png
Diesel Locomotive General Electric in the old Nicaragua's railway

There are no operating railroads in Nicaragua. The majority of lines were closed in 1993, the last one in 2001.

Narrow gauge railroads in Nicaragua have been built since 1878 on the Pacific coast. First was a Western division (from Corinto to Puerto Momotombo at Lake Managua, passengers to Managua had to change to a steamboat), then the Eastern division from Managua to Granada and finally a Central division connecting these two (thus eliminating the need for steamboats). In the following years, several branch lines were built. There were attempts to connect both coasts, but they all failed; except for a few isolated lines in the North, almost all of the network was in the Pacific basin. In 1993, there were 373 km of 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow gauge tracks in the Pacific region and isolated 3 km of 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard gauge line at Puerto Cabezas in the Caribbean. Most lines were shut down on December 31, 1993. The last one - 6 km from Chichigalpa to Ing. S. Antonio - was decommissioned in September 2001.


Panama railway in 1854 CulebraSummit.jpg
Panama railway in 1854

The only operating railroad in Panama is Panama Railway - the oldest intercontinental railway in the world, connecting Panama City and Colón with passenger and freight trains since 1855. It provided a vital transport link between the eastern United States and California during the mid 19th century and was used for the construction of the Panama Canal. In 1979 the US transferred control of the railroad to Panama; in 1998 it was privatized and since 2000, it runs on 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard gauge . Prior to that it ran on 5 ft (1,524 mm) broad gauge.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the government of Colombia studied the feasibility of additional railroads. Panama Railway was commissioned to estimate the cost of a railroad from Panama City to David, Chiriquí. The cost was however too high and a decision was made to build additional network in Chiriquí Province only. This railroad (Ferrocarril de Chiriquí) was inaugurated on April 23, 1916 with the first train on a steep mountain line from David to Boquete. Additional lines were built subsequently. After 1974 the infrastructure of Chiriquí Railroads has been transferred to Ministry of Public Works (Ministerio de Obras Públicas) and operations were stopped line by line. The last regular passenger service operated twice daily with a railcar between Ciudad David and Puerto Armuelles in about 1984. In the beginning of the 21st century, the tracks of the defunct railroads are being dismantled and reused for construction of bridges in rural areas.

Two separate and distinct tram or streetcar systems operated in Panama City. The first started service on October 1, 1893 and ended during the Thousand Days' War. The second started in 1913 and operated, with reorganizations and company transferrals, until May 31, 1941. [4]

The Chiriqui Land Co. operated 2 railways systems, one in Puerto Armuelles (Pacific) and in Changuinola to Almirante Port (Caribbean), used to transport bananas and company equipment. The Puerto Armuelles side was shutdown when Chiquita decided return land to the Panamanian government, around 2008 the Changuinola side closed operations and sold railways and diesel-electric engines to a Brazilian company, some of this equipment is now in use in Eastern Africa.

The railway system was impressive, covered from Sixaola to Almirante, including all Changuinola banana farms. In 2010, contracts were awarded for line 1 of a metro system for Panama City.


An intercontinental railway was proposed in 1912 to connect North and South America. [5]

The FERISTSA Railway was proposed to connect Mexico with Panama via ports along the way. [6]

Related Research Articles

Transport in El Salvador

El Salvador has transport links by road, rail, sea and air.

Transport in Guatemala

Transportation in Guatemala includes roads, waterways, and airports. It formerly included railways.

Transport in Honduras

Transport in Honduras refers to transport in Honduras, a country in Central America.

Transcontinental railroad Contiguous network of railroad trackage that crosses a continental land mass with terminals at different oceans or continental borders

A transcontinental railroad is a contiguous network of railroad trackage that crosses a continental land mass with terminals at different oceans or continental borders. Such networks can be via the tracks of either a single railroad, or over those owned or controlled by multiple railway companies along a continuous route. Although Europe is crisscrossed by railways, the railroads within Europe are usually not considered transcontinental, with the possible exception of the historic Orient Express. Transcontinental railroads helped open up unpopulated interior regions of continents to exploration and settlement that would not otherwise have been feasible. In many cases they also formed the backbones of cross-country passenger and freight transportation networks.

Trans-Andean railways

The Trans-Andean railways provide rail transport over the Andes. Several are either planned, built, defunct, or waiting to be restored. They are listed here in order from north to south.

Empresa de los Ferrocarriles del Estado

Empresa de los Ferrocarriles del Estado (EFE) is the national railway of Chile.

Rail transport in Mexico

Mexico has a freight railway system owned by the national government and operated by various entities under concessions (charters) granted by the national government. The railway system provides freight and passenger service throughout the country, connecting major industrial centers with ports and with rail connections at the United States border. Passenger rail services were limited to a number of tourist trains between 1997, when Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México suspended service, and 2008, when Ferrocarril Suburbano de la Zona Metropolitana de México inaugurated Mexico's first commuter rail service between Mexico City and the State of Mexico. This is not including the Mexico City Metro, which started service in 1969.

Rail transport in Peru

Rail transport in Peru has a varied history. Peruvian rail transport has never formed a true network, primarily comprising separate lines running inland from the coast and built according to freight need rather than passenger need.

Rail transport in Guatemala

Although Guatemala still has a network of 3 ft narrow gauge railroads, no passenger or freight trains currently run, except for occasional chartered tourist trains.

Rail transport in Honduras

Railroads in Honduras were built in late 19th and early 20th centuries by two competing U.S. corporations - United Fruit and Standard Fruit. All were in the Caribbean coastal area and never reached the capital. In 1993, the combined network had 785 km. At present (2006), only three separate segments remain in operation under the management of FNH - Ferrocarril Nacional de Honduras:

Rail transport in El Salvador

At present (2015), no trains are operated in El Salvador. The national railroad corporation is FENADESAL, a division of CEPA. It oversees 554.8 km of all disused 3 ft narrow gauge lines connecting major cities and formerly linked with Guatemala railroads at Anguiatú.

Since 2008, the only functioning railroad in Panama has been the Panama Canal Railway, operated by the Panama Canal Railway Company, successor of Panama Railway, which provides passenger and freight service between Panama City and Colón. Historically, there were also narrow gauge railroads in Chiriquí Province, which were been abandoned in the late 20th century.

History of rail transport in Nicaragua

The history of rail transport in Nicaragua began in 1860s, with the first plans for a railroad in Nicaragua. The first line was opened in 1882. In the past, there were 3 ft 6 in gauge railroads on the Pacific coast, connecting major cities. A private 4 ft 8 12 in gauge line operated on the Atlantic coast.

Rail transport in Colombia

The Colombia railway network has a total length of 3,304 kilometres (2,053 mi). There are 150 kilometres (93 mi) of 1,435 mmstandard gauge connecting Cerrejón coal mines to the maritime port of Puerto Bolivar at Bahia Portete, and 3,154 kilometres (1,960 mi) of 3 ft narrow gauge of which 2,611 kilometres (1,622 mi) are in use. The state-owned railway company was liquidated in the 1990s. Since then the only passenger trains are tourist trains on the Bogotá savanna railway, now called Turistren, between Bogotá and Zipaquirá.

Rail transport in Bolivia

The Bolivian rail network has had a peculiar development throughout its history; owing to losses of land, prestige and credit rating due to the failure of the War of the Pacific, railway development came late to Bolivia. The demand for mineral wealth and communication to the inland city of La Paz, encouraged foreign investors, mainly British, to construct railways. However, into this mix came the experience of railway building in adjacent Peru, whereby overbuilding of standard gauge line across the high Andes meant that Peru went bankrupt.

Track gauge in North America

The vast majority of North American railroads are standard gauge. Exceptions include some streetcar, subway and rapid transit systems, mining and tunneling operations, and some narrow-gauge lines particularly in the west, e.g. the isolated White Pass and Yukon Route system, and the former Newfoundland Railway.

Rail transport in Uruguay

The Uruguayan railway network has approximately 2900 km (1802 mi) of lines, all of 1,435 mm gauge, diesel traction with only 11 km (7 mi) of double track. Only half of the network is currently active. All the Uruguayan lines start from Montevideo, connecting the cities of Paysandú, Salto, Rivera and Río Branco. The rest of the lines (closed) connected the capital city with Fray Bentos, Cuareim, Artigas, Km. 329, Melo, La Paloma and Colonia del Sacramento.

Most narrow-gauge railways in North America were constructed with 3 ft track gauge.


  1. Railways and Trains in Belize. A Guide to the Past
  2. Railroad Development Corporation
  3. Google. "La Unión" (Map). Google Maps . Google.
  4. Morrison, Allen (1 February 2008). "The Tramways of Colombia / Panama" . Retrieved 2010-11-07.
  5. Forbes, Charles (1912). Panama: The Isthmus and the Canal. Library of Congress: The John C. Winston Co. p. 15.
  6. "Shaw Group in talks with US railroad cos for Feristsa project, Central America, Infrastructure, news" . Retrieved 2010-10-16.