The Almirante Railroad


This is the account of a visit to the Bocas Fruit Company Railroad (part of United Fruit Company, now Chiquita Brands International) in Almirante, Bocas del Toro, Panama, on 20th August 2005.

It shows something of the final days of one of the last of the Banana Railroads which, in their heyday, extended to over 1,800 miles of track.


We begin at the Almirante Headquarters, the workshop complex by the waterfront
....................a very green scene. This railroad commenced operations in 1906. The track gauge is 36 inches.

This railway is in the process of being dismantled. Banana transport finished last December and the only train now running is the Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 07.00 departure, to Changuinola, a train run mainly to serve the settlements at 5 mile and 7 1/2 mile stations, villages not connected to the road network. It is a Saturday but a special train is operating today. It is a (strangely appropriate) funeral train, running to collect a body from Changuinola Hospital and take it to 7 1/2 mile for burial tomorrow. The helpful Control Staff invited us to travel on an additional journey of this train following its return to Almirante about 4pm.

 



Meanwhile shunting is taking place in the yard.

 



A breakdown crane is being hauled from the undergrowth in order to rectify a mishap at the docks.

 



The breakdown crane has arrived at Puerto Almirante. A banana boat, the Chiquita Schweiz, has just arrived and the road to the port is full of trucks delivering containers of bananas.

 



And, amongst these trucks, the big moment, just after 4.00; the funeral special arrives.
It comprises two cars, the entire passenger fleet, hauled by locomotive 720.

 



Time to climb aboard. We were to reverse back to the workshop entrance where complex shunting would be needed to put car 21993 and locomotive 720 into the yard and the breakdown crane engine, 819, onto the front of our train.

 



At 4.37 we were off. Street running back to the yard. Views of the banana trucks on one side.............

 



............and stores and bars on the other.

 



As always on the railways, people like to watch the trains go by. Behind this store the huge old corrugated iron sheds of the old railway workshops are coming into view.

 



Our coach has been pushed back into the yard entrance to enable 819 to come on to the front. We will then head forward again towards the other coach and then back towards the docks for a short distance.

 



With our train out of the way locomotive 720 and car 21993 could reverse into the yard. An armed security guard then locked the gate. Scrap metal is a valuable commodity in this part of Panama.

 



While all this had been taking place 4 hopeful passengers had climbed aboard and, once our permission had been sought by the crew, were permitted to travel. The remaining coach was an amazing observation car allowing uninterrupted views from the back of the train.

 



Care was required on the street running section; by everybody!
The banana trucks seemed keen to get by.

 



This is the scene inside the observation car as we head out of town and into the jungle.

 



With no road access to the villages en route the track was a well walked right of way.

 



Emergency braking brought us to an abrupt halt. This was the cause. A trolley was being clandestinely pushed up the line to collect scrap metal from a train wreck. Our unexpected special had them hastily remove their trolley off the line.

 



They were heading for this train wreck. Another wrecked train, on the outskirts of Almirante, was being watched over by an armed guard to prevent theft of scrap metal.

 



The other passengers then wished to disembark. No station facilities here.

 



But there were at 5 mile station, a picture capturing the current character of this banana railway.

 



And here we are at 7 1/2 mile station, the end of the line for us.
It would have been great to have continued to Changuinola and even better, in days gone by, to have continued over the Sixaola River bridge and into Costa Rica.

 



The passing loop is overgrown and unusable. We will need to reverse back to Almirante.

 

What an incredible railway carriage this is.

 



Reversing back down the line.
The jungle grasses are encroaching!

 



We have reached the outskirts of Almirante.

 



The street running section to the docks lies ahead.

 



The road to the Docks. This is one of the last passenger trains along this line.

 



We arrive back at the docks with darkness falling.
Flat cars, piled high with lifted track, are everywhere.
The end is not far away.

 



The huge sheds are patched and rusted. Scrap litters the ground.
The end is not far away.

 



The banana box cars have made their last journey.
The end is not far away.

 



The cutting gang is at work.
The end is not far away.

 



It is the end of the line.

 


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