The Tramways of


Allen Morrison

Bolivia's third most populous city (after La Paz and Santa Cruz) sprawls across a plain in a rich agricultural district approximately in the center of the country [see map]. Altitude is a pleasant 2,500 m (8,200 ft) and population was 510,000 in 2001. Cochabamba is the capital of the only departamento in Bolivia that does not have an international border. The development of its tramways was somewhat mysterious.

Steam railroads did not connect Cochabamba with the rest of Bolivia until 1917. The first rail transport in the area seems to have been the animal-powered tramway that was established in 1902 by a German resident, Julio Knaudt (who was later one of the founders of Lloyd Bolivian Airline). The Empresa Julio Knaudt had two tram routes: over Calle Colombia to Hospital Viedma and down Av. Oquendo to Laguna Alalay [see map]. The origin of its rolling stock is unknown and no pictures of the operation could be found.

The Empresa de Luz y Fuerza Eléctrica de Cochabamba, founded in 1908, constructed a power plant at Chocaya, 18 km northwest of the city, and installed the city's first street lights. In 1909, impressed by the success of the two electric railways that had opened in La Paz, ELFEC obtained franchises to build two electric railways in Cochabamba: a 17 km line west to Vinto and a 58 km line southeast to Arani [see map]. Construction of the first 13 km of the Vinto line, as far as Quillacollo, was completed on 13 September 1910 and official inauguration took place the following New Year's Day. Small electric locomotives, of the type built by Arthur Koppel in Berlin, pulled up to 19 passenger cars! The line operated only during daylight hours since, at night, the Chocaya turbines could produce only enough power for the city's street lights.

The 4-km segment between Quillacollo and Vinto began carrying passengers in June 1911, but its cars were pulled by steam locomotives until 1912. The Arani line opened to Tarata in August 1912 and to Arani in 1913 [see map]. The Arani line was always powered by steam, never had any electric operation. Track gauge of both the Vinto and Arani railways was 750 mm (29 1/2 in).

In 1913 ELFEC acquired permission to extend its Vinto line to Sipesipe, its Arani line to Totora, and to build a new line 9 km east to Sacaba, but none of these projects was realized. However, ELFEC opened a new electric line across the river to Cala Cala in August 1913 and urban lines to the east and south in November [see map]. And it built a larger, more powerful electric plant at Incachaca, 80 km northeast of the city, in 1914.

Also in 1914, ELFEC ordered its first genuine electric trams: two two-axle cars, numbered 1 and 2, from Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg in Germany. In 1924 it ordered another car from MAN, this one with four axles and numbered 3. The World Survey of Foreign Railways [see BIBLIOGRAPHY] reported five electric locomotives and six electric tramcars on 29 km of track in Cochabamba in 1933. The Bolivian government's Extracto Estadístico of 1936 reported five locomotives, six tramcars, 11 passenger trailers and 53 freight vehicles. The origin of the other three passenger trams, which did not resemble the MANs, is unknown. ELFE replaced the pantographs on the MAN cars with the Siemens-type bow collectors that it used on its locomotives.

After the Depression ELFEC concentrated on supplying electricity to Cochabamba residents and industry and neglected its tramway operation. Vehicles and rails fell into disrepair and new bus lines stole its passengers. Three ageing trams on four routes, one of them 17 km long, were hardly adequate and ELFEC was unable to obtain a loan to buy new equipment. In July 1939 the city paved over one of its tracks and shut the system down.

The new buses deteriorated faster than the trams and the public clamored for the latter's return. The lines to Cala Cala and Vinto resumed operation in 1941, but the Vinto line closed again in 1943 and the city took over operation of the line to Cala Cala [see map]. Breakdowns and derailments increased and in February 1948 the administration announced that the tramway would close soon. The last tram in Cochabamba made a round trip to the park in Cala Cala on Sunday afternoon, 30 May 1948.

ELFEC's rolling stock was apparently scrapped. The steam and diesel trains of the ENFE (Empresa Nacional de Ferrocarriles) continued to leave from the Estación Central until 2000, but now that building is closed. A ferrobus occasionally takes tourists on short trips along rusted rails, but most modern guidebooks say that there is no longer any rail service in Cochabamba.

See 30 pictures


(in order of publication)

Bolivia, República de. Memoria prsentada a la Legislatura de 1911 por el Dr. Juan M. Saracho. La Paz, 1911. "Ferrocarril Eléctrico Cochabamba" chapter on pp. 72-73 describes the new Quillacollo electric line, ridership and fares. Notes the "tráfico provisional de Quillacollo a Vinto con tracción a vapor".

"Bolivia" in The Electrician (London), 25 July 1913, p. 666. Nice description of the electric installation in Cochabamba, power plant, railway, rolling stock, etc., which it says "are all of German manufacture".

U.S. Bureau of Foreign & Domestic Commerce. Special Agents Series 167: Electrical Goods. Washington, 1918. The "Bolivia" chapter on p. 23 contains a good description of the Cochabamba tramway.

J. Ricardo Alarcón A. Bolivia en el primer centenario de su independencia. New York [!], 1925. This huge 1,142-page volume contains hundreds of photographs, including many of trams. The source of some of the illustrations on this website.

Rodolfo Torrico Zamudio. Bolivia Pintoresca. New York, 1925. This album presents about 500 of the author's photographs of Bolivia, including some also reproduced in the Alarcón book above. Pages are unnumbered and there is no index.

U.S. Bureau of Foreign & Domestic Commerce. Trade Promotion Series 39: Railways of South America. Washington, 1927. The "Empresa Luz y Fuerza Eléctrica de Cochabamba" chapter on pp. 8-9 of the Bolivia section describes the development of the company and its lines.

Bolivia. Dirección General de Estadística. Extracto estadístico de 1936. La Paz, 1937. A full-page chart labeled "Movimiento de Tranvías Eléctricos y Tranvías a vapor en Cochabamba y entre esta ciudad y Cala Cala, Cementerio y Vinto" tallies the rolling stock and earnings.

Guia Comercial de Cochabamba. Cochabamba, 1944. A large street map of the central area shows the Cala Cala line and a small section of the Vinto line.

Eudoro Galindo Quiroga. La Ciudad de Cochabamba: su formación y desarrollo. Cochabamba, 1975. Very brief but useful history of the ELFEC.

Ernst Klahsen. Entwicklung und heutige Struktur der Stadt Cochabamba. Aachen, 1983. References to tramway development, pp. 70-71, with emphasis on the two tramway bridges over the Río Rocha. Oddly, disappointingly, this German author ignores the German origin of the tramway and its cars.

Humberto Solares Serrano. Historia, Espacio y Sociedad: Cochabamba 1550-1950. Cochabamba, 1990. Extraordinary, detailed history of tramway operations, from beginning to end, pp. 164-170. The author even supplies a map of the lines! (The map has a few errors, but is nevertheless amazing to find.) How nice it would be to find a text like this about every tramway in Latin America.

ELFEC. Historia de la Empresa. A brief online history of the electric company, posted in 1999. The "Galeria" hides two tram pictures.

Wilson García Mérida. Recuerdos del último tranvía in Los Tiempos (Cochabamba), 12 II 2006. Wonderful, long, detailed history of the tramways, both animal and electric, of Cochabamba. Cites data from Humberto Solares Serrano, above.

Album Testimonio fotográfico de Cochabamba: Rodolfo Torrico Zamudio. Cochabamba: Fundación Torrico Zamudio-CIDRE IFD, 2010. Compilation of 200 photographs, recounting the city's history from 1910 to 1950. Several of Torrico Zamudio's images appear on this page.

The author is grateful to Cochabamba resident Renato Crespo for submitting the extraordinary Torrico Zamudio photographs and for granting permission to reproduce them; to Cochabamba resident Jim McIntosh for his help in identifying some of the photograph locations; and to Peter Berger of Luzern, Switzerland, for the information that he provided about the locomotives.


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