Devils Nose Train, Ecuador

After 25 years of frustrated plans and abortive attempts, work finally started on Ecuador’s first railway in 1899. The country needed to link the coastal city of Guayaquil with the capital, Quito, in the highlands – the feat finally achieved in 1908. The journey was taking 2 weeks at that time. The greatest obstacle to engineering the railway was met 130km east of Guayaquil at a near-vertical wall of rock, known as El Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose). The ingenious engineering solution was to carve a series of tight zigzags out of the rock, which allowed the train to climb 800m vertical distance at a gradient of 1-in-18 (5% gradient) by going forwards then backwards up the tracks, reducing the gradient needed by the tracks to a manageable 2 or 3%.

The inclusion of steep gradients on railways avoids the expensive engineering works required to produce more gentle gradients. However the maximum feasible gradient is limited by how much of a load the locomotive(s) can haul upwards. Braking when travelling downhill is also a limiting factor. Tramways and light railways often have higher gradients than heavier railways. This is because all wheels are usually connected to engine power in order to give better acceleration. Grades of 5% are not uncommon on them. Metros and pure commuter railways often also allow higher gradients, over 4%, for the same reason. High-speed railways commonly allow 2.5% to 4% because the trains must be strong and have many wheels with power to reach very high speeds. For freight trains, gradients should be as gentle as possible, preferably below 1.5%.

Today, a one-percent grade, or an incline rising one meter in 100 meters of horizontal distance, is considered steep. Moreover, inclines and curves in the track, especially ones as dramatic as those of the Devil’s Nose, limit the speed of trains and the size of the loads they can carry. Whenever possible tracks follow topographical contours or the contours are smoothed out or tunneled through. At the Devil’s Nose, engineers ruled out tunneling through the mountain (it is granite) and decided that they must either go up it or around. They chose up. This decision made sense in 1900 but unfortunately it has precluded the use today as a freight or efficient passenger line.

The zigzag track design allows trains to climb the steep grade as far as possible to a terminus, reverse direction and back up a subsequent section of track to a second terminus, then move forward again on a final section of ascending tracks. Hundreds of indentured Jamaicans who were brought in to dynamite the hard rock lost their lives in the process; they, along with scores who succumbed to malaria, yellow fever, and poisonous snakes, remain entombed in the rubble along the route, earning it the nickname La Nariz del Diablo by the time it finally opened between the coast and Alausi in 1901. It is believed that about 2.500 died in the construction.

The Ecuadorian railway represents the largest infrastructure of the country with a total length of 965.5 kilometres. Its single track uses a gauge of 3 ft 6 in . The 446.7 kilometres Southern Division starts at the habour of Guayaquil with a ferry to Duran and then heads east into the Andean mountains where a more than 2.5 kilometres difference in altitude has to be overcome to reach Riobamba at 2,754 metres (9,035 ft). A major gain in altitude is made at the Devil's Nose (Nariz del Diablo) where the train shunts back and forth along the rocky promontory. From Riobamba the train heads north passing its highest point at Urbina an altitude of 3,609 metres to reach Quito at an altitude of 2,850 metres

Despite frequent delays and derailments, the service from Guayaquil to Riobamba and Quito ran, with interruptions, until 1997, when El Niño-related weather devastated the tracks. Currently, only the 12-km stretch from Alausí to Pistishi (usually advertised as Sibambe) at the end of the Devil’s Nose descent, is open. However, a controversial multi-million-dollar project to restore almost the entire original rail network is now underway, so it should soon be possible to start the trip in Riobamba again. Although the currently curtailed route, and abandonment of rooftop travel have undoubtedly diminished the appeal of the journey, it still offers stunning views of Chimborazo and Carihuairazo and a thrilling descent down the Devil’s Nose itself.

The train starts at Alausí , taking around two and a half hours for the return trip, including a brief spell in Pistishi, where you are treated to some supposedly traditional dancing and can pick up some light refreshment. The carriages have recently been refurbished but following a fatality, it’s sadly no longer possible to ride on the roof of the train, which was one of the big draws. The Nariz del Diablo train today uses a relatively modern engine to pull the beautiful old railway carriages.

Click on any thumbnail photo to get a larger picture

I booked tickets online at the Ecuadorian Railways web site , even getting an OAP discount. We got to Alausi, in spite of a complete lack of signposts, about an hour before our 11am booking. Time to wander round the small town of Alausi, then watch the arrival of the earlier excursion train. Alausi is called a "railway town" and indeed that it what it is, a small town with a railway routed down a main street. The entry onto the train was a bit chaotic/bureaucratic, we had to present or online tickets at a station desk with catholic opening hours, then, armed with a new piece of paper, were eventually allowed to board to pre-booked seats

The carriages are old wooden ones which are quite classical. The layout is two seats together on one side of the carriage, with an aisle separating the single seat on the other side. Opinion on the web varied as to which side you needed to be - important as the train comes back the same way is it went - in other words the engine is moved from the front of the train to the back to return, but the carriages remain the same.In the end it did not matter, our carriage was only 2/3 full, so there were plenty of spare seats on either side.

There was a "guided commentary", which as with most guides was not worth the trouble. A young lady a bit bored with spouting the same stuff 4 times a day, seven days a week, had the delivery of the average air-stewardess doing the flight safety announcement on an aircraft. We motored downhill on the train for 45 minutes, enjoying the spectacular views out of the carriage windows. Noted the two zigzags, when the train stopped, they changed the points and then the train reversed downhill a way before getting to a similar construction, where the points were thrown, and the train was able to motor out forwards.

Arriving at the terminus station, there was the "traditional dancing" put on 4 times a day for each train. Two cafes were available, and we enjoyed a real fresh OJ in one of them

After an hour here (quite long enough) the train went back uphill on the same set of tracks, and after a 2.5 hour trip we pulled back into Alausi. Picked up our car, and headed south along the Pan American to get to our next stop at Cuenca. The was quite a bit of cloud cover on the road, limiting viability to 20 metres in many places. We did look out for an Inca ruin site along the way, but not even the sniff of a signpost

The Nariz del Diablo is undoubted one of the train journeys that any self respecting rail buff would want to do. Whilst I am not a rail buff, I did enjoy the journey

On to Cuenca

Ecuador Holiday