The Tramways of


Allen Morrison

Bolivia has two capital cities. The administrative offices of the government, the embassies and most of the nation's cultural life are in La Paz, in the west central part of the country, near the Peruvian border [see map]. Bolivia's constitutional capital, its Supreme Court and its oldest university are in Sucre, 418 km (260 mi) southeast of La Paz, closer to the center of population. Sucre never had streetcars. The population of La Paz was 62,000 in 1900, is over a million today.

La Paz has an extraordinary setting. The airport sprawls across a cold, windy plain called El Alto (The Top) at altitude 4,082 m (13,392 ft). Surrounding peaks, always snowcapped, reach 6,462 m (21,201 ft). The road from the airport winds down a deep valley to reach the city 432 m (1,417 ft) below. The approach at night is breathtaking. The lower one goes, the higher the temperature, the greener the foliage and the more favorable the living conditions.

The region's first rail transport was introduced in 1903 by the Ferrocarril Guaqui a La Paz, which built a 95 km steam line from El Alto to Lake Titicaca, "the world's highest navigable lake", on the Peruvian border [see map]. At Guaqui passengers and cargo transferred to boats that took them across the lake to Puno in Peru, where they changed to trains for Arequipa and Mollendo on the Pacific coast. For years, this 3-stage train-boat-train journey through Peru was the Bolivian capital's only connection with the outside world. Both the FCG (as the Bolivian railway abbreviated its name) and the Ferrocarril del Sur del Perú were eventually controlled by the Peruvian Corporation, registered in Great Britain.

In 1904, to complete the circuit, FCG ordered three electric locomotives and four tram cars from General Electric and J. G. Brill in the United States and built an electric railway from El Alto down the mountain to La Paz. The new equipment was shipped to Mollendo, then transferred by train, boat and train to El Alto. The new 9 km, meter-gauge electric line, which attained grades of 7.4%, began operation on 1 December 1905.

The tram cars carried local residents up and down the steep hill. The electric locomotives were attached to FCG's passenger and freight trains to bring them in and out of La Paz. After 1913, when other steam railroads extended their lines to El Alto, the FCG locomotives hooked on their cars as well. It was not until the Bolivian Railway built a new route down the mountain in 1917 that the first steam locomotives appeared in the city [see map].

FCG bought two more Brill locomotives in 1906 and an English Electric locomotive in 1930. The three Brill locomotives, originally numbered 120-122, were renumbered 20-22 about that time. General Electric locomotives 130 and 131 were renumbered 30 and 31. The EE locomotive was numbered 32. The four trams were originally numbered 100-103. Car 103 was sold to Tranvías de La Paz about 1920 – see below – and the remaining three cars were renumbered 10-12.

As far as could be determined, La Paz never had an animal-powered streetcar line. But it had an urban electric system financed by Bolivian Rubber & General Enterprise Co. – or, simply, Bolivian General Enterprises or, later, Bolivian Power Co. – which, despite the name, was organized in France. Tranvías de La Paz ordered eight 4-wheel passenger cars from J. G. Brill in 1908 and inaugurated a meter-gauge electric tramway on 16 July 1909 [see map]. TLP's Brill cars were similar to those operated by FCG, which also used meter gauge, but had six side windows instead of seven.

In 1913 TLP extended its San Jorge line down a serpentine path, 300 m (about 1,000 ft) deeper into the valley, to an upscale residential area called Obrajes [see map]. This route was almost as spectacular as the FCG line that ran the other way. In 1914 TLP purchased eight unusual center-door trams from Wason Manufacturing Co. in Massachusetts and about 1920, as noted, acquired car 103 from the FCG, which it renumbered 18.

TLP opened a new line to Miraflores in 1921 and in the late 20s relocated three sections of old line: the rails on Calle Comercio were moved to Calle Ingavi; part of the route on Av. Arce was moved to Av. 6 de Agosto; and the last few blocks of the Sopocachi line were altered [see map]. Bolivian Power Co. reported 20 vehicles in operation on 15 km of track in 1936.

Unfortunately, on most of the system, trams ran both ways along single track on two-way streets and along the west side only of busy Av. 16 de Julio [see map]. Congestion became intolerable and, rather than rebuild its lines, TLP closed its tramway system in 1950.

Bolivia's national railway company, Empresa Nacional de Ferrocarriles, or ENFE, acquired the FCG in 1974 and discontinued passenger service down the mountain. Freight movements to a textile mill and glass factory near Pura Pura depot continued for a while, but the entire electric line was torn up in 1990 and the old passenger station at Challapampa became the city's new Terminal de Buses. In 1995 ENFE's operations were transferred to a Chilean company (!), which eliminated the other rail line into La Paz and closed the Estación Central.

In 1999 the Bolivian government announced plans to convert the Estación Central into a new train-bus terminal and construct a new "Tren Eléctrico" up the mountain to El Alto. In 2003 it announced a plan for a "Tren Elevado" down the valley in the opposite direction. Neither of these projects was realized. On 1 June 2005 a funicular was inaugurated between Av. del Exército and Kusillo Museum, near Miraflores [see map]. At an altitude of 3,600 m (11,811 ft), it claims to be the highest funicular in the world. A visitor in April 2006 found FCG locomotive 22 at Pura Pura depot, locomotives 20, 21, 30, 31 and 32 in a shed near Estación Central, and passenger cars 10 and 12 at Guaqui depot on Lake Titicaca [see map]. The trams had been painted blue for use as railroad coaches in the 2007 Bolivian film, "Los Andes no Creen en Dios (The Andes Don't Believe in God)".

There was a dramatic development in 2012 when the Evo Morales government signed a contract with Doppelmayr Garaventa of Austria to build a network of aerial cableways between the upper and lower parts of the city. Construction began at once and the 2,350 meter long Red Line of "Mi Teleférico", from 16 de Julio station in El Alto to Estación Central in the city center, was inaugurated on 30/5/2014 [see map]. The 3,706 meter Green Line opened the following September and the 3,737 meter Yellow Line in 2015. La Paz now has the world's largest network of aerial cableways as principal transport – and six more lines are planned!

See pictures of the

Ferrocarril Guaqui a La Paz

Tranvías de La Paz


(in order of publication)

"American Cars for La Paz, Bolivia" in Street Railway Journal (New York), 25 February 1905, p. 378. Half-page article about the trams that J. G. Brill built for the Ferrocarril Guaqui a La Paz. A reproduction of a Brill photograph of car 103 [see pictures] is the only known reproduction of this photograph.

"Bolivia" news item in The Electrician (London), 19 January 1906, p. 564. Description of the inauguration of the FCG on 2 December 1905.

"The First Electric Railway in Bolivia" in Street Railway Journal (New York), 7 April 1906, p. 535. Long description of the FCG, its Brill locomotive and four passenger cars.

Marie Robinson Wright. Bolivia. Philadelphia, 1907. The development of the FCG, pp. 205-206. Description of a "trolley ride" down the mountain.

"Special Purpose Cars" in Brill's Magazine (Philadelphia), 15 March 1909, pp. 56-59. A general article about new equipment includes a photo of a tower car that Brill built in 1905 for the FCG. No description in the text.

"Brill Cars for the Capital of Bolivia" in Brill's Magazine, 15 May 1909, pp. 110-117. Description of the city, the new Tranvías de La Paz street railway and the cars that Brill built for it. A map and eight illustrations. (Warning: the map shows the tramway system that was planned, not the one that was built.)

La Paz, Concejo Municipal del Departamento de. Memoria, 1909. La Paz, 1910. "Tranvías" chapter, pp. xxxviii-ix, 223-225, describes the inauguration and operation of the new street railway of the Bolivian Rubber & General Enterprise Ltd.

La Paz, Concejo Municipal del Departamento de. Resumen de las labores de la Municipalidad de 1911. La Paz, 1912. "Servicio de Tranvías" section describes the tramway routes and fares.

La Paz, Concejo Municipal del Departamento de. Resumen de las labores de la Municipalidad de 1913. La Paz, 1914. A series of "Tranvías" chapters on pp. 120-125 describe streetcar operation, the construction of the new line to Obrajes and plans for route changes. Four extraordinary, large pictures of the Obrajes line on unnumbered pages.

Bolivia. Dirección general de Estadística y Estudios geográficos. Annuario geográfico y estadístico de la República de Bolivia, nos. 1-2, 1917-1919. La Paz, 1919. "Tranvías" chapter, p. 331, describes the itineraries of the five tram routes in La Paz.

U.S. Bureau of Foreign & Domestic Commerce. Special Agents Series 167: Electrical Goods. Washington, 1918. The "Bolivia" chapter on pp. 23-24 has a nice description of the FCG.

U.S. Bureau of Foreign & Domestic Commerce. Special Agents Series 169: Investments in Latin America and the British West Indies. Washington, 1918. The "Public Utilities" chapter on p. 110 contains a brief description of the Bolivian & General Enterprise Co. tramway in La Paz.

Pan American Union. Bulletin (Washington), August 1921. "Bolivia" chapter, p. 185, announces the inauguration of the Miraflores streetcar line in La Paz.

"New Cars for La Paz, Bolivia" in Brill Magazine (Philadelphia), August 1925, pp. 310-312. Article, diagram and two photographs of the new arch roof cars.

"Bolivian Power Company, Ltd" in Moody's Manual of Investments, 1928. New York, 1928. Corporate history and brief description of the La Paz tramway system and its equipment.

Luis Guzmán Achá. Plano General de la Ciudad de La Paz, 1928. La Paz, 1928. Large, beautifully detailed street map shows the entire tramway system, including the Obrajes line.

English Electric Journal (London). Pictures of locomotive 32 that EE built for FCG in 1930 on p. 107 of the November 1930 issue, and on p. 190 of the December 1931. The latter view is reproduced on the FCG pictures page.

Ferrocarril de Guaqui a La Paz. Plano General de la Ciudad de La Paz, scale 1:5,000. La Paz, "15:3:1933". FCG street map shows part of its route and the entire urban tram system.

José Rodríguez M. Nuevo Plano de la Ciudad de La Paz. La Paz, 1933. Nice street map shows part of the FCG route and the TLP system except the section in the Obrajes area.

Bolivia. Dirección General de Estadística. Extracto estadístico de Bolivia. La Paz, 1936. The "Ferrocarriles de Bolivia" section inventories FCG rolling stock on 31 December 1935. A "Resumen del movimiento de Tranvías de la Bolivian Power Co." page surveys the operation of Tranvías de La Paz.

Plano de la Ciudad de La Paz. La Paz, 1948. Anonymous street map shows the tramway system, including the Obrajes line, and part of the FCG. The street railway in its final years.

Talleres-Escuela Don Bosco. 1972 La Ciudad de La Paz. Large street map shows the metropolitan area from Obrajes to the El Alto airport, including railroad lines and the entire electrified section of the FCG.

"Ferrocarilles [sic] de Guaqui a La Paz" in Electric Traction (Sydney), October 1973, pp. 4-5. Trip report by an Australian enthusiast group includes a map of the track layout of the electrified section.

Edgar A. Haine. Railways Across the Andes. Boulder (CO), 1980. The "La Paz-Viacha-Guaqui Railway" chapter presents a nice history and description of the FCG.

Ian Thomson. "The Ferrocarril de Guaqui a La Paz" in Locomotives International (Skipton, England) #9, May 1991, pp. 2-10. Excellent article with history, two maps, equipment roster, bibliography and 11 beautifully reproduced photographs.

"Avanza el proyecto del tren eléctrico" in La Razón (La Paz), 21 March 1999. Front page newspaper article about the construction of a new electric railway between La Paz and El Alto. A fleet of 40 vehicles is planned . . .

"Ya funciona el funicular del Kusillo" in La Epoca (La Paz), 24 August 2003. Webpage about the new funicular.

"El funicular más alto del mundo está en el Kusillo" in La Razón (La Paz), 2 June 2003. This webpage includes an animation.

Gobierno Municipal de La Paz. Tren Urbano en La Paz. Government webpage dated July 2003 describes its plan for an elevated railroad. Four illustrations and a map!

The author would also like to thank Christopher Walker of Bristol, England, Gustavo Rodríguez Ostria of Cochabamba, Bolivia, Ian Thomson of Santiago, Chile, Earl Clark of Cincinnati, Ohio, Harold E. Cox of Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, and Marcel Ulmann and Peter Lais of Zürich, Switzerland, for the valuable information that they provided for this study.


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