ON the ground in Cuba since April 2022, the Serfer team is now ready to advise Cuban Railways (UFC) to start tendering for the spare parts, tools and consumables that will be needed to repair and improve the reliability of 35 DF7G-C Co-Co diesel locomotives. They are part of an 82-strong fleet UFC received from China between 2007 and 2010. In September or October work will start at the San Luis workshops near Santiago de Cuba on two prototypes that will test new procedures and establish the time required to carry out specific maintenance tasks. Serfer president, Mr Dominique Vastel, says that work will initially focus on 25 locomotives in comparatively better condition, which are expected to take between seven and nine months to repair and return to service, to be followed by the remaining 10 that will require more attention.

Despite the relatively simple nature of this project, it has been a long and winding road to get this far, complicated by international politics and the ongoing US embargo of Cuba in particular. The story begins in May 2015, during a state visit of then French president, Mr François Hollande, to Cuba, when Vastel, then a director within the international department of French National Railways (SNCF), was present at an official lunch where a letter of intent was to be signed for France and Cuba to cooperate in the railway sector.

In the event, the Cuban government declined to sign. “This false start would turn into an opportunity,” says Vastel, who was sitting next to Mr Eduardo Rodríguez Dávila, then a young deputy minister of transport in charge of rail. Vastel went on to build a lasting and trusting relationship with him, and that very afternoon the first working meeting with UFC took place, marking the beginning of its partnership with SNCF.

The roadmap for Franco-Cuban cooperation that was signed by the two governments on February 1 2016 in Paris, during a visit by then Cuban president, Mr Raúl Castro, had an important railway component, with work later focusing on projects to modernise the UFC coach workshops at Luyano in the suburbs of Havana and the locomotive maintenance facility at Camagüey. In December 2017 UFC and the French Development Agency (AFD) signed an agreement that would see AFD provide €30m to finance the modernisation of maintenance processes and equipment at Luyano and Camagüey, with SNCF providing project management assistance.

Then SNCF president, Mr Guillaume Pepy, visited Cuba in April 2019 and met with Rodríguez Dávila, now minister of transport. A draft contract with SNCF was almost finalised, but the following month the Trump administration in the US tightened the embargo on Cuba and reactivated the Helms-Burton Act.

UFC is close to tendering for the spare parts it needs to repair the DF7G-C locomotives.

This allows any US citizen of Cuban origin to take legal action against any company engaged, directly or indirectly, in activities connected with property confiscated after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Until it was nationalised, UFC’s Camagüey workshops had been owned by the private US company Consolidated Railroads of Cuba, with the result that 263 complaints were filed by US citizens under the Helms-Burton Act. Even if the risk to SNCF was not proven, Vastel’s superiors asked him to find another site. With UFC’s agreement, Camagüey was replaced by San Luis, built in the 1970s on a greenfield site.

But then SNCF policy changed. In November 2019 Pepy was succeeded as president by Mr Jean-Pierre Farandou, who after 10 days in post asked Vastel to inform his Cuban counterparts that SNCF was withdrawing from the project. “He wanted to refocus the company’s strategic direction on the priorities set by the government,” Vastel says. SNCF’s international activities would henceforth be focused on Europe, while SNCF’s main bank, BNP, was also very wary of potential US sanctions.

Vastel informed his Cuban counterparts and the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs that SNCF was withdrawing from the project, but this reversal of policy caught the ministry on the wrong foot. The government wanted its policy of cooperation with Cuba to continue and in February 2020 Farandou was asked to help to find an alternative solution.

Two-tier project

With the outbreak of the global Covid-19 pandemic the following month, France went into lockdown, international travel was suspended, and assistance projects were frozen. But this long hiatus enabled a solution to be found. The team that Vastel had been leading for five years was made up of experts in rolling stock maintenance, some of whom had continued to work on the project after their retirement from SNCF. Vastel’s own retirement was scheduled for February 2021.

“During my regular exchanges with AFD, UFC and the Cuban Embassy in Paris was born the idea of turning these retirements into an opportunity,” Vastel says. “Why not continue the project with the same experts, but within a new company that would replace SNCF?”

“Over time, each workshop has adopted its own processes. It is very important to get the workers back on track and to redefine industrial processes.”

Dominique Vastel

During 2021, a two-tier structure was accordingly developed in order to meet the constraints imposed by public procurement processes and ensure that the Cuban rolling stock project could go ahead. UFC would award a contract to provide project management assistance for the modernisation of maintenance processes and workshops at Luyano and San Luis to Expertise France, the government agency that undertakes technical cooperation and assistance projects abroad. Expertise France would then subcontract the provision of project management assistance to Serfer, a company specifically created by Vastel for this purpose.

The sole supplier for the spare parts required is Beijing FangLian Technology.

Serfer would employ three categories of staff. Some would be SNCF employees on special leave, no longer having a contractual relationship with SNCF and thus not exposing the latter to the threat of legal action under the Helms-Burton Act. They would retain their pension rights and would also be able to rejoin SNCF once their work for Serfer had been completed. The second category comprises retired SNCF staff, such as Vastel himself, some of whom had already visited Cuba during the first study missions undertaken by SNCF. Other staff with the relevant expertise would be drawn from contractors, some of them already suppliers to SNCF, and therefore familiar with its rolling stock maintenance processes.

The contract between UFC and Expertise France was finally signed on March 4 2022, and on March 9 Expertise France in turn signed a technical assistance contract with Serfer worth €7m. The Serfer team flew to Cuba on April 4 to start work on the four-year project.

After nine months in the field, Vastel reports that UFC is now getting close to tendering for the spare parts it needs to repair the DF7G-C locomotives, a situation complicated by the fact that the sole supplier is a company in China, Beijing FangLian Technology, set up by former employees of the erstwhile Chinese company which built the locomotives, to acquire the locomotive manufacturer’s stock of spare parts. “We don’t have any specifications, we only have the manufacturer’s reference numbers,” Vastel says. The only solution is to buy direct from Beijing FangLian.

The project has a total budget of €37m, which is mainly being met by the €30m AFD loan coupled with some €7m of Cuban debt cancelled by France on the understanding that it will be used to procure goods and services locally. After its own €7m technical assistance contract is taken into consideration, this leaves Serfer with €23m for the purchase of spares, equipment, tools and consumables including oil, engine coolant, and small parts such as nuts, bolts and screws.

Power for onboard equipment is provided by seven generator cars each equipped with
two diesel alternator sets for redundancy.

Serfer has identified the new workshop equipment needed at San Luis, including an overhead crane and wheel lathe, but perhaps a more challenging part of the project will be developing new rolling stock maintenance processes, covering the management and organisation of the workshop as well as the specific maintenance regime required to deliver a reliable DF7G-C fleet. With a maximum power output of 1840kW and a maximum speed of 120km/h, the locomotives are used to haul passenger and freight trains on the 835km Havana - Santiago de Cuba route, and from the capital to other major cities such as Holguín, Guantánamo and Bayamo.

“At present UFC has no company-wide maintenance processes,” Vastel says. “Over time, each workshop has adopted its own processes,” and even each individual worker has their own way of doing things, a situation that UFC is keen for Serfer to improve. “It is very important to get the workers back on track,” Vastel says, “and to redefine industrial processes.”

Coupled with a lack of standardised procedures is the absence of individual maintenance records for each locomotive and thus no details of the failures that have brought them in for repair. There is also no distance-based system of inspecting the locomotives at regular intervals to detect faults and repair them before they take the locomotive out of service. Furthermore, frequent failures in service force UFC to postpone scheduled maintenance operations on locomotives in order to use them to replace locomotives that have failed.

All this has to be developed and implemented in what must be less than ideal working conditions. Under the US embargo “life is very difficult,” Vastel reports, having noted a steady deterioration since his first visits to Cuba. There are frequent power shortages and, in the absence of a well-functioning railway system, travel is difficult. “It takes two days to get from Havana to Santiago and you can’t find a car,” Vastel says. Nevertheless, his team will be working closely alongside UFC personnel as they work to put the new maintenance procedures into practice.

Coach maintenance

Serfer’s contract also covers the maintenance facility at Luyano, but the task here is less urgent and the project is at an earlier stage of development. This workshop maintains more modern rolling stock, namely the fleet of 80 passenger coaches acquired by UFC from CRRC of China in 2019. The fleet comprises 42 second class and 24 first class coaches, both types with 72 seats per coach but the first class cars have air-conditioning and TV screens for passenger entertainment. There are also seven restaurant cars each equipped with a kitchen, while power for onboard equipment is provided by seven generator cars each equipped with two diesel alternator sets for redundancy.

According to Serfer’s preliminary assessment, fleet reliability is good, as both the design and equipment of the 26.6m-long coaches are well-suited to modern maintenance procedures. Main equipment is easy to access and remove, including the roof-mounted air-conditioning system. The fleet is equipped with controlled-emission toilets and disc brakes. There is also an anti-wheelslide system and a hot axlebox detection system, controlled by an onboard computer on each car and monitored from the generator car. These systems help to considerably improve safety, Serfer says.

The UFC passenger coach fleet includes 42 second class and 24 first class coaches, which were acquired from CRRC in 2019.

The two main tasks at Luyano will be to set up maintenance processes for the CRRC coaches and to build two workshops, a multifunctional one for repairing parts and a new 320m workshop building with two tracks. Work is expected to start this spring. The new two-track facility will enable UFC to undertake routine maintenance tasks on five trains a day without the need to uncouple individual cars.

“Building international partnerships is always an adventure with many twists and turns,” Vastel says, “and establishing this Franco-Cuban rail cooperation project has been no exception.” US policy under the Trump administration towards Cuba, the reluctance of banks to expose themselves to the potential risk of sanctions and the global Covid-19 pandemic could have proved insurmountable obstacles. But as Vastel concludes, the influence of the French rail sector “and the willingness of Cuban railway workers to continue the trust-based relationship patiently built with French railway experts were stronger, and allowed us to succeed in sealing this historic partnership.”