A Deadly Track: Devil's Nose Railroad

Interesting Engineering

Engineers examine technology and look at aspects to modify, tweak, or recreate aspects altogether across many different platforms generally to perform a task safer, faster, and more efficient. For The Devil’s Nose Railroad, however, the exact opposite was achieved, yet still remains an impressive feat of early engineering.

devils road crashOne of many derailed trains [Image Source: Railroad In the Sky]

The Ecuadorian train system is quite remarkable. The workers and engineers that created a safe passageway between Quito to Guayaquil over a century ago are nothing short of extraordinary. The track climbs over rocky ravines alongside raging rivers throughout the mountains. The most impressive extension of the track is also reserved as Ecuador’s most dangerous- The Devil’s Nose Railroad.

The stretch of 12 km track is one of the most notoriously dangerous railroad tracks in the world, overhanging sheer cliffs that drop hundreds of feet, winding turns, and an incredibly steep incline.


The track earns its devilish name from a multitude of its dangers; from the actual construction, and the layout of the track. The construction of the track was plagued by frequent seismic activity, heavy rainfall, jaguars, poisonous snakes, malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever which delayed progress. Perhaps the most frightening of all, however, was the massive cliff that loomed below.  Engineers had to devise a method on how to ascend the massive wall. The method of choice? A series of switchbacks that require great technical skill, all while on the face of an 800-meter cliff.

The railroad ascends a 3.5% narrow cornice cut through the rock by blasting the wall  perpendicular to the “nose”, extending the bifurcation of the railway. As the train passes beyond the bifurcation, a switch man is required to jump off the locomotive, raise the lever to switch the track, then, the train can continue on its journey in reverse until the next 'devil’s nose'. By the end of the construction, an estimated 2,000 men died from disease, labor, or the intense climate. The toll included workers brought over from the English colonies in the Caribbean, hundreds of prisoners who were promised freedom from their forced labor, and Major John Harman, the chief engineer of the project himself.

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rock-on-tracks Rock slide that partially ruined the track, one of the main dangers [Image Source: Railroad In the Sky]

The railroad is still in operation as a tourist attraction despite closing multiple times due to avalanches and degradation- not to mention how dangerous it is. However, a revitalization project set out by the Ecuadorian government ensured US 200 million dollars to modernize the track and keep the small section of history open for the public to enjoy.

Devil's nose railroad[Image Source: Tren Ecuador]

SEE ALSO: India is Building a Bullet Train that Runs Underwater

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