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Antioquia Railway, Colombia

Written by Peter Lauffer
June 7, 2021

The Antioquia Railway played an important role in the economic development of Colombia, linking Medellin to the Magdalena River. Its construction began in 1874 and officially ended with its inauguration in 1929. 

Construction of the Antioquia Railway

The construction of the Antioquia Railway represented a technological challenge in the late 19th century due to the complicated geography involved. 

In 1874, at the beginning of the railway project, nobody imagined that it would take 55 years until the first train would travel from Medellin to Puerto Berrio. Civil wars and political instability had affected the finances of the planned railroad and delayed its execution. In 1903 Panama separated from Colombia, later compensating Colombia financially in 1920. The Colombian government invested a large portion of the funds received from Panama in railroad construction. Even so, it was not until August 7, 1929, that the first locomotive pulled a train from Medellin to Puerto Berrio through the Cisneros Tunnel. 

The Cisneros Tunnel, commonly known as “Tunnel de la Quiebra,” is a key element of the Antioquia Railway and marked the beginning of Colombia’s modern age because it was the first giant civil construction to be planned and built in the country. The tunnel has a length of 3,742 meters, and for its construction, 110,532 cubic meters of rock were removed. Moreover, 540,000 pounds of dynamite and 7,540 barrels of imported cement were used in the construction. The work to build the tunnel lasted only three years.

Cisneros Railway Station, Antioquia Railway, Colombia
Cisneros Railway Station, Antioquia Railway, Colombia

Early operation of the Antioquia Railway

Transporting crops, coffee, and people became much easier and quicker—and at a much lower cost—with the new rail transport system. The number “1” locomotive was in reality number “2,” since the first one disappeared from the map after having rolled into an abyss. To avoid panic, the company painted number “1” on locomotive number “2.” The Government did not communicate this story to the public until many years later.

Over time, the Antioquia Railroad became the object of increasing admiration, affection, and pride among Antioquia’s population. The railroad allowed Antioquia to become one of the most profitable territories in Colombia, thanks to the international coffee trade.

Tunel de la Quiebra between Santiago and Limon, Antioquia Railway, Colombia
Tunel de la Quiebra between Santiago and Limon, Antioquia Railway, Colombia

Railroad Decline

Although from 1905 to 1960 the Colombian government invested resources in the railroads, the government also devoted massive sums of money to the construction of roads, especially after 1930. Since that time, investment in rail transport has decreased by almost 90%.

In 1934, the Antioquia Railroad’s budget began to see a deficit. In 1947 a road parallel to the train was built supposedly to support the train, but from the beginning it constituted a threat to the train’s survival.

The railroad began to lose more and more money, and the deficit grew from year to year. The construction of the Puerto Berrío–Medellín Pipeline at the end of the 1950s was highly problematic for the railroad, because before that time oil was transported by train.

Finally, in 1961 the Antioquia Railroad Company was liquidated, and all the actives of the company were transferred to the State of Colombia.

"Brujitas" in Santiago at the entrance of the Tunel del la Quiebra
"Brujitas" in Santiago at the entrance of the Tunel del la Quiebra

The Antioquia Railroad Today

During the Tour “Coffee & Rum by Rail in Colombia and Panama” we revive the memory of the Antioquia Railway when we travel the wonderfully scenic part of the railroad from Santiago to Cisneros on “Brujitas” (motorbikes on rails). During the nearly 15km rail journey, we pass through the famous Cisneros Tunnel and see many of the Antioquia Railroad’s old railway buildings along the way. These large historical buildings demonstrate the importance the railroad had in the past for the Antioquia Region and for Colombia as a country. 

Antioquia Railroad between Medellin and Puerto Berrio at the entrance of the La Quiebra Tunel
Antioquia Railroad between Medellin and Puerto Berrio at the entrance of the La Quiebra Tunel
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