The Old Patagonian Express
By Steve Cheetham
In 1973 I read Paul Theroux’s classic book ‘The Old Patagonian Express’ in which he describes his journey by train from Boston, USA to Esquel, Argentina. His description of the final stage of this epic journey, on the narrow gauge line from Inginiero Jabocci to Esquel (after which the book is named), fascinated me at the time and I resolved to visit the line. It was to be 31 years before this ambition was realised in November 2004, and in the meantime the Esquel branch had experienced closure, transfer of ownership from National to Provincial Governments, partial re-opening, and its declaration as an Argentine National Heritage site in 1999. I never dreamt that my visit would seem less like the famed Paul Theroux’s account and more like a Thomas the Tank Engine story.
The Esquel line, known locally as ‘La Trochita’, which translates roughly as ‘The Narrow Gauge’ is held in great affection in Patagonia. In Esquel it lends its name to shops and a restaurant and its image is seen throughout the town. This high regard has been an important factor in its survival into the 21st century.
The line’s situation today is rooted in its short but eventful history. The development of Patagonia was a major objective for the government of Argentina in the early years of the 20th century. Ambitious plans were drawn up for a network of broad gauge lines to serve North Patagonia and pave the way for further economic development. These plans were only partially implemented, one reason being the economic impact of the First World War on Argentina. The allied blockade of Germany robbed Argentina of one its largest overseas markets. The completion of the broad gauge route through the Province of Rio Negro from the Atlantic Coast at Viedma to Bariloche in 1934 was the final stage to be brought to fruition of this original scheme. However, in the early 1920’s, the remainder of the project was revised and a modified scheme put forward to extend the railway network into the remaining parts of North Patagonia, using the 75 cm gauge. For this undertaking the government gave massive orders for track in 1921, and rolling stock and locomotives in 1922. These included freight rolling stock and 50 passenger carriages from Atelliers de Construction de et a Familleureaux To meet the traction requirements of the proposed network twenty five 2-8-2 locomotives from Baldwin and, to a different design, twenty five further 2-8-2’s from Henschel, were ordered, all oil fired. In addition, a small number of 0-6-0T and 0-8-0 crane locomotives were also supplied by Henschel. Work on construction of the line from a junction with the main line to Bariloche at Ingeniero Jacobacci began immediately.The terrain and climate of North Patagonia is challenging for railway construction and there were setbacks caused by severe flooding, resulting in modifications to the original route. The international economic problems of the Depression years also played a part in slowing down construction of the scheme. Although trains operated on the completed section of the line from 1935, El Maitén, where the lines workshops were built, wasn’t reached until 1941. The 400 km route to Esquel was not completed until 1945 and not opened for passengers until 1950. Those remaining sections of the grand project, which had not been commenced, were then quietly forgotten, and the operating sections of the railway fortunately found themselves endowed with a fleet of locomotives far greater than its traffic required.
In the years following the opening to Esquel, the railway provided the only feasible means of transport for the area for many years, and served the community well. The journey from the mainline at Eng. Jacobacci to Esquel took roughly 20 hours in favourable weather. In the bleak Patagonian winter, journeys sometimes took days. It was fortunate each carriage was supplied with a small stove. However, the roads were unpaved and slower. Over the years, surplus locomotives from the line were transferred to railway developments elsewhere in Argentina and others were used as a source of spare parts at the El Maitén workshops, keeping the remainder of the fleet running. Meanwhile the roads were gradually improved and the line began to lose its competitive edge. In the 1970’s Buenos Aires ordered the railway to scrap a number of its surplus locomotives and finally, on 30th November 1993, the line was closed by the central government. As is often the case, there was much opposition locally to the closure. This, and the international fame of the line following the description of the journey in Paul Theroux’s book, led to a campaign to save the line. The government transferred ownership of the line and rolling stock to the provinces through which the line runs, Rio Negro and Chubut. Under provincial ownership resurrection of the line beganUnder the new management the lines physical structure has survived in its entirety. However the timetable indicated regular passenger services only operate over limited sections of the line. It runs throughout the year, but with a heavy emphasis on the main southern hemisphere summer tourist season, which lasts for the ten weeks following Christmas trains operate from Esquel and El Maitén. I was told charter trains for enthusiasts occasionally operate over the entire 400 kms of line, usually with German groups, and that other sections operated according to the published timetable. The timetable said in November trains ran once a week, on Fridays, from both Esquel and El Maitén. However the accuracy of this information is open to question as my experiences on the line in November 2004 were far from what I anticipated.
My journey to Esquel was not without problems. I had been travelling in Chile and planned to cross the border into Argentina via the border town of Futalefú. As the train timetable I had previously downloaded from the internet said that in November trains operated on the line on Saturdays, when one train made a return trip from Esquel to Nahuel Pan and another ran similarly from El Maitén to Desvio Ing B J Thomae I was keen to arrive in Esquel on a Friday at the latest. To my frustration, delays caused by infrequent buses in Patagonian Chile resulted in my arrival in Esquel being on a Monday. I had insufficient time to wait in Esquel for five days until the next train and so resigned myself to being satisfied with a look around the railway infrastructure at the terminus. Esquel is a rapidly developing town attractively situated in a valley in the Andes foothills with a growing population. It serves the needs of the agricultural community over a wide area and is also quickly developing its tourist potential. In July and August the nearby Las Hoyas ski resort attracts Olympic Skiing Teams from the northern hemisphere, eager to practice during the European Summer. Between December and March is the peak Argentine holiday season. Esquel is a base for visiting the beautiful Los Allerces National Park and the pioneering Welsh communities around Trevelin. Esquel itself prides itself on a rough frontier heritage, and shop fronts that would not look out of place in cowboy films have been carefully conserved. Butch Cassidy and Sundance hid away in nearby Cholola after their escape from the USA, hoping not to be discovered by the detectives from Pinkertons. It was only after the failure of their ambition to become honest farmers in the area that they returned to a life of crime. The addition of La Trochita to this list of tourist attractions considerably strengthens this aspect of the town’s economy.
On a sunny Monday afternoon I made my way to Esquel Station. Esquel is a spread out town but the station is within walking distance of the downtown area. The spacious station area was situated on a gently sloping hillside and overlooks the suburbs. The station building itself is a surprisingly small, red roofed, corrugated iron structure with hardly enough space to sell tickets inside. I walked towards it, past two large, locked, rail served sheds. There was no sign of activity so I walked on, past two rows of derelict, grey painted freight rolling stock, cattle trucks that were slowly being vandalised for firewood towards the water tower and youths playing on the turntable. The door of the two-road engine shed was open. Inside in the gloom two men were working beneath Henschel 2-8-2, number 105, which was on raised track over an inspection pit. They were apparently busy attending to the motion of the locomotive and I wondered if there was a problem. In the depths of the shed on the other track was a wooden carriage but there was no sign of any other locomotives around. I wondered what would happen to the service if this locomotive suffered a failure. Investigating behind the shed I found only more derelict wagon stock, overgrown by weeds.
Returning to the booking office, I enquired about trains from Esquel and El Maitén. I was told that services from El Maitén had been discontinued but that there would be an additional train running from Esquel to Nahuel Pan on Wednesday morning because of increased demand for a ride on the line. Pleased to have the opportunity of a ride, I booked a ticket immediately. To my surprise, the ticket had the coach and seat number written on it.
With my ride a La Trochita assured, I went to book a tour to Los Alerces National Park for Tuesday and celebrated in the evening with an excellent steak and chips and a delicious local wine, other good reasons for visiting Argentina.
On Wednesday morning I arrived at the station early to watch the preparations for the day’s journey. The station was already busy with waiting passengers photographing the scene. Number 105 was in steam and was assembling the carriages for the journey. There were five carriages, including a dining car. By the time it arrived in the platform the station was crowded with passengers and the need for reserved seats became clear. There was a large coach party of senior citizens from La Plata on a tour of Patagonia and a class of infant children from a local school in addition to many passengers who had bough tickets at travel agencies in the town. The train was full to capacity. Boarding the train was a relaxed and cheerful occasion with many passengers wishing to have their photograph taken next to the locomotive, but departure was on time and the train accelerated out of the station, whistled as it crossed a road on the level and began to climb the gradient out of town. In the carriage a guide described the history of the line and of the coach in which we were travelling and outlined the itinerary for the day, which would include a photo stop, a tour of the locomotive shed and the opportunity to buy handicrafts and refreshments at Nahuel Pan. The train crossed a girder bridge over a mountain torrent and climbed up behind a barracks and the town cemetery. Progress was slowing up the steep gradient but the mood in the train was happy.
The views over the town were improving with the increasing height and the train was winding through rocky cuttings and rugged, forested slopes, with the main road far below. In the distance the peaks of the Andes foothills were still capped with snow. A Mapuchi Indian couple played a guitar, sang traditional songs and sold CD’s. The train slowed further and, surprisingly, with wheels spinning, it stopped. From the carriages heads poked through windows to see what the problem was . After a pause the train reversed a few yards, stopped, and then moved forward once more until, wheels slipping, we stopped again. One of the footplate crew hit the sander pipe with a shovel as a third unsuccessful attempt was made to ascend the incline. This was followed by a longer pause, and then the train began to return slowly and cautiously backwards, down the gradient. The mood within the train became more sombre as it became obvious we were gradually returning to Esquel. Subdued passengers bemoaned the state of the nation. I heard ‘We can’t do anything in Argentina, not even run an old steam train!’ Once we were back in the station, a sad long queue formed at the ticket office for the re-imbursement of the fares. The tour group headed back for their bus, the disappointed class of children were gathered for a picnic on the grass. More photographs were taken the train crew gathered to mournfully talk and then the carriages were returned to their shed and the locomotive to its depot. Despite the bright spring sunshine and the blue sky, there was a palpable forlornness in the air.
Following this aborted trip I decided I would like to see the line’s workshops at El Maitén but enquiries at the bus station and the tourist office revealed that there were just three buses to El Maitén each week and they returned to Esquel within an hour of arriving at El Maitén. My excellent guidebook had no information on accommodation at El Maitén. The position didn’t seem hopeful and I decided to move on next morning to the town of El Bolsòn instead. I arrived in El Bolsòn by lunchtime and after finding accommodation, enquired at the tourist information office if it were possible to visit El Maitén from there. I was surprised to be told that a tourist agency in El Bolsòn ran a tour each Saturday to El Maitén, which included a ride on the El Trochita service. I quickly found the agency concerned and they confirmed they would be running a tour in two days time. Without waiting I booked my ticket.
El Bolsòn is an attractive town in which to while away a day or so. Its name means ‘The bowl’. Mountains surround it and the geographical bowl it is situated in gives it a warm microclimate in which temperate fruits thrive. Its specialities are jams and other conserves, but there is also an organic brewery that produces interesting fruit beers, a local ice cream company, and a craft market with excellent handwork on sale and a number of good restaurants to serve the requirements of passing tourists.
On Friday morning at 11am I boarded the tour minibus with half a dozen other tourists for the drive to El Maitén. The journey took almost three hours, half on unpaved roads twisting through the mountains. El Maitén is situated in a wide, flat valley and we entered town past a row of identical houses built by the railway to house its workers. As we approached the station a train hauled by Baldwin 2-6-2, Number 6, was waiting in the platform. This time the tickets had no coach and seat numbers. There were no more than twenty passengers on the train. Once we boarded our expectations were overturned by the train commencing its journey by reversing out of the station, past the Works and long lines of derelict locomotives and over a substantial steel viaduct over the Rio Chubut before stopping on an embankment immediately adjacent to the bridge. We were asked to climb down from the train, as this was the opportunity to take photographs. The now empty train then pulled back onto the viaduct and the passengers walked onto a parallel road bridge over the Rio Chubut to take their snaps. Mission accomplished, the train returned to its previous position, the passengers boarded once more, and we began our journey in conventional style, passing back through the station once more and onwards to the pampas. Beyond the station, in the yard, were long sidings full of locomotives and wagons in various stages of dilapidation, an unsightly and sad indication of the decline of the railway that ultimately cumulated in its closure, but these were soon left behind as the train raced through the arid countryside. Distant snow capped mountains on either side framed the view of a bleak but epic landscape of enormous fields, wire fences, scattered cattle and few trees or signs of habitation. Initially the line ran straight and was paralleled at a distance by a gravel road but after roughly half an hour we curved through an area of low hills into an area of scrubby, thorny shrubs. On the train the few passengers wandered from carriage to carriage via the balconies. People chatted and a young man played the guitar and sang for the tips he could collect. I spoke to an elderly man who could remember travelling to Bariloche on the broad gauge train as a youth and saw La Trochita at the junction in Ing Jabocci when the line was new. Finally, after about an hour, the train slowed and stopped at Desvio Thomae. Here was a passing loop, isolated in the middle of the pampas, without platform or sign of habitation, surrounded by thorny scrub. This was our terminus and the complex rearrangement of the train for the return journey began. The passengers descended to the line side and a lengthy shunting operation began. The patient engine crew provided ample opportunity for photography as the train was reassembled for the return.
Once the journey began I made my way to the dining car where I found tables decorated with hand made tablecloths with appliquéd La Trochita motifs in the corners and small vases of flowers. I ordered a coffee and pastry but did not understand the Spanish names of the pastries on offer. I was taken into the pantry to choose, where an array of homemade cakes was on display. I picked a typically sweet bun, paid, and sat at one of the small the tables to eat. When I finished it I complemented the attendant on her baking and was promptly presented with a paper bag containing more items from the pantry. I was told they were a gift from La Trochita.
The journey back to El Maitén was quickly completed and it was time for the museum, workshop and shed tour, but there was a surprise in store on the platform. It was teeming with an excited and youthful crowd. The local football team had been promised a short ride on the train as a reward for their endeavours on the field and were eagerly awaiting their treat.
I went to the small but excellent museum. It has been set up with finance from the province and includes well-displayed artefacts and information about the line’s history and the important role it played in the community. The employees in the large and well-equipped workshop were home for the weekend but we were able to see a carriage that had been stripped down to its timber framework for a thorough restoration and a Baldwin locomotive undergoing a major overhaul and reduced to its frames. Outside the locomotive shed was Baldwin 2-6-2 number 1, the only spare locomotive I saw available for work on the line. Time for investigating further was limited by the need to board the minibus for the return trip to El Bolsòn, but it had been an interesting and worthwhile day.
The survival of La Trochita is a continuing miracle. The challenge to save a 400 km working narrow gauge railway is immense and Argentina’s current economic difficulties have not made the task any easier. There is a local support organisation that has been permitted to do maintenance work on the line within the province of Rio Negro where there is no scheduled service. The Province of Chubut, through which the operating sections of line run, has invested in vital publicity and improved visitor facilities including the museum and new toilet blocks at Esquel and El Maitén, but the continuing national economic crisis must continually make claims on this funding tough to justify. Conversely, for visitors from Europe and North America, Argentina is now a very cheap country to visit and the expense of the long flight there is mitigated by the advantageous exchange rate and low cost of living. There are direct flights to Buenos Aires and onward connections to the resort town of Bariloche. From there frequent buses depart every day to El Bolsòn and Esquel. Outside of the Christmas to March high season accommodation in all price ranges is plentiful. In November it is their late spring and the weather is at its best, although the train service on offer is more limited. The published timetable, which can be seen at www.latrochita.org.ar, shows a more frequent service during high season with occasional scheduled trains making the nine-hour trip from Esquel to El Maitén. There is also an extended return service from Esquel to Leleque, where there is an excellent museum founded by the owners of Argentina’s largest hacienda, the Italian clothing company Beneton.
La Trochita is a fascinating railway to visit. Its continued survival cannot be guaranteed, as the challenges are formidable. With the current economic situation so favourable to visitors from Europe and North America I would recommend travelling to experience it as soon as possible.