By Rail Through Paraguay, Chile & Argentina 1995
- Submitted by: Colin J. Churcher
- Submission Date: 15th Feb 2005
I rode the Paraguay Railway as part of the Trains Unlimited tour in November 1995. We rode the entire main line from Asuncion to Encarnacion where there is a connection across the Parana River to Posadas in Argentina. There is now no regular passenger train service over the entire line. The Paraguay Railway is quite moribund and operates with a fleet of wood fired steam locomotives. For many years travellers have reported that the railway is on its last legs and cannot carry on for much longer. It is still running although there is now another factor to be taken into account. There is a hydro-electric dam under construction on the Parana River which will raise the level of the river and will flood the railway. Already the water level was about three feet over the tracks in some parts during the rainy season earlier this year. We travelled during the dry season (!) and the water was some two feet below the rails in places.
We started our trip from Asuncion behind 2-6-0 #152, a baggage car, two wooden coaches and a wooden diner. It was raining heavily and we made good progress through the outskirts of Asuncion and into the countryside. The villages have very wide red mud streets and there are many horse drawn vehicles to be seen. Paraguay has a delightful, slow pace of life and it was interesting to talk to people in the stores during our frequent stops. One advantage of taking the railway is that it runs away from the highways through rural Paraguay. #152 was a strong engine and we made good progress to Sapucay where we visited the 19th century workshop. Steam locomotives #60 and #101 (both 2-6-0) were under heavy repair in the works while tank loco #5 was in steam in the yard. The works are powered by an ancient steam engine using a couple of steam locomotive boilers. There is an extensive system of overhead belts and pulleys snaking over our heads as we walked around on the mud floors.
The maximum speed on the railway is around 20 mph and we made it to Villarica that evening where a bus was waiting to take us to our hotel. The engine put up a great display of sparks from the hardwood logs which are burned in the locomotive. It is a good job that the country is quite wet as this minimizes the chance of lineside fires.
Next morning we boarded our train at Villarica for the long trip to Encarncaion. #152 made good progress through ground fog. The countryside is lush, I even saw oranges growing wild on the right of way.
At San Salvador we had an engine change. The only good thing about #59 was the bright red paint job. It had a serious steam leak in the pipe leading to the backhead but we set off in high spirits for Encarnacion. #235 was on washout in the shed while #524 was dead. It quickly became evident that #59 had a problem with the front bearing. It needed about 20 minutes attention every hour so we lost time - big time. The group was not dispirited with the prospect of a very late arrival however as there was plenty of food and beer in the dining car (Comedor).
We finally staggered into Bogado at 22:15 (60 miles from Encarnacion) to find that #54 had been sent out to rescue us. A bus also turned up to take some of us to the hotel.
The next day we had a look at the Encarnacion yard where we found #58, #102 and #104 in steam, #53 and #291 and #334 were dead. #54 was working trips to the interchange with the Argentine Railway. We were lucky as we saw the departure of the once weekly freight train to Asuncion. There was now only one freight train each way a week - and this in the dry season. This must be one of the few railways that uses a calendar instead of a timetable.
The next day we had a charter freight train from Encarnacion to Bogado and return. In several places the water was very close to the tracks. We found a 2-8-0 #52 on a work train at Bogado.
Many people have said this before but the railway cannot last much longer! The critical factor is the flooding of the line. The parts that are likely to survive are the interchange across the bridge to Argentina, containers are put on road in Encarnacion, and the irregular commuter train in the outskirts of Asuncion.
Although the Trains Unlimited tour in 1995 covered northern Chile as well as the southern section, my wife and I only participated in the southern part. The group took the overnight train from Santiago south to Temuco where we transferred to a steam charter to Osorno. After visiting Patagonia we returned by rail from Osorno to Santiago.
We took the overnight Rapido, train #1017, from Santiago to Temuco. We left Santiago, on time, at 20:30 for the 699 km run to Temuco which we were due to reach at 08:00 next morning. We had a compartment in a sleeping car, built in Germany in the mid 1920's. These cars were modernized at one time with exterior sheeting but they still have the outline of heavyweight sleepers. On the outside they are badly rusted and the paint job is peeling off in many parts. I thought the windows were dirty but the lexan was so opaque that no amount of cleaning would make it easier to see through. Inside the original wood inlay finish looks good. The loading gauge on this broad gauge (5'6') is very high and there is a great deal of room - it is a big climb into the top bunk!
The inside of the car was filthy. The porter who made up the beds wore a face mask. He said he had allergies but it they had cleaned the car a little better he might not have had such a problem. The car did not ride very well on the indifferent track. Speeds were reasonably high as the line is electrified all the way to Temuco.
Just as we were turning in for the night there was a scraping sound along the roof of our car and the train drifted to a halt. It turned out that the pantograph on the locomotive had disintegrated and pieces of metal scraped along the entire train, bouncing between the train and the overhead wire with lots of flashes and sparks. There was then a long delay while the crew examined the roof of the train and the catenary to see if there was any damage. This was the opportunity I needed to drift off to sleep.
When I woke next morning one of the crew told me that we were about two hours late. Somewhere during the night the 32 class electric locomotive had been replaced by a GE shovel nosed diesel.
The delay gave us more time to get breakfast, ham and eggs, in the diner before arrival at Temuco.
At Temuco we were given a quick visit to the roundhouse where some 15 steam locomotives are stored in varying states of decrepitude.
We travelled from Temuco to Osorno behind steam locomotive #714, an Alco built 2-8-2. The weather was wonderful and this being spring (October) the countryside was at its best. It is 263 km from Temuco to Osorno and, with a number of runpasts, this took all day. This was the first time a steam locomotive had ventured so far south over the main line for thirty years and the local people greeted us with a holiday atmosphere. At one station the entire school was out to greet us. The children were lined up by classes with their teachers, little kids at the front and the bigger ones behind so that everyone could see the locomotive and trainload of gringos.
Just after this, while we were in full cry, a police car chased us with its lights flashing and siren on. We ground to a quick halt to find that the policemen had brought along one of the group who had been left behind! Everyone took it in great part.
At several stations the locomotive was watered by the local fire department. The firemen were all turned out in their uniforms looking very important.
It was a very happy day.
The line between Osorno and the end of the line at Puerto Montt is out of service because of a landslide so we took a bus to the hotel that night.
We returned a week later to Santiago over the same route. At Osorno we saw #534, a North British built 4-6-0 in steam in the yard. This 1908 locomotive had just been released from overhaul.
This time we travelled in the sleeping cars on service train #1024 all the way from Osorno to Santiago. We started with a GE shovel nosed diesel as far as Temuco and an electric to Santiago where we arrived about an hour late.
The final part of my trip with Trains Unlimited Tours in 1995 covered the fabled Old Patagonian Express. We crossed the Andes from Puerto Montt in southern Chile to Bariloche which is located in the Argentine lake district. This Lakes Crossing is a great experience as there are rides over three beautiful lakes. Our day was made more memorable by a virtual absence of clouds. The mountains soar above the lakes and, at one point, we saw condors gliding in the air currents many hundred feet above us.
We had been told that there might not be a great deal of food available in the next three days of so, so we purchased cans of smoked seafood, crackers, bananas etc. in Bariloche the next morning. Bariloche has a great number of chocolate shops - a chocaholic's delight.
We took a charter train on the broad gauge from Bariloche to Ingeniero Jacobacci, the beginning of the narrow gauge Old Patagonian Express. The train was very comfortable which was a good thing because about half of the group had to sleep on it as there were not enough beds in Ing. Jacobacci for everyone. The line to Ing. Jacobacci runs through semi arid country. The weather was fine and our pictures were very good with the snow capped Andes in the background. The main occupation is cattle ranching with the occasional settlement.
Late in the afternoon we arrived at the junction where the narrow gauge (95 cm) line from Esquel joins with the broad gauge. There is then dual gauge trackage from there for the 15 km into Ing Jacobacci. This switch with no moving parts represented something that many of us had travelled half way round the world to see. A lone switch set in the bald prairie with just a station building in the background together with some abandoned narrow gauge freight cars.
Ingeniero Jacobacci was approached with some trepidation because Paul Theroux wrote very disparagingly about it. It turned out to be a delightful little railway town. The couples all had rooms in the hotel and my wife and I enjoyed our clean room as we ate our corned beef and watched satellite TV, having given up the opportunity of a steak dinner in the interests of getting an early night.
Next morning we showered early and were back at the railroad station for 05:30. Our charter consisted of two 2nd class and two 1st class cars together with a baggage car and Baldwin #3 (a 2-8-2 oil burner). We were off before sunrise so that we could be out in the desert to take advantage of the early morning light. This part is semi desert with some open water from which small flights of ducks took off as we passed. #3 did quite well and we made good time to Cerro Mesa which is the first division point.
At Cerro Mesa a continental breakfast was provided in the local school - the trouble was that it was then close to lunch time. It had been quite cold in the morning and we were glad of the small stove in each car. The problem was to find fuel for it. I solved the problem by bringing in dry cow chips at each stop. These burnt quite well and kept the small car nicely warm.
At Cerro Mesa #3 was replaced by #19 for the run to El Maiten. (#19 is also a Baldwin 2-8-2). This was hard railroading and the small engines worked pretty hard up the long grades. As we approached El Maiten the snow capped Andes came into view and provided a dramatic backdrop to our pictures. There is no traffic potential on this line. The small stations are provided for railway purposes (train orders and water). At several points along the line it was possible to purchase food such as pastries (pastillitos) and we really didn't need the supplies we had brought from Bariloche. At one point we stopped for water and were rewarded by a couple of men on horseback who posed for our 'gaucho shots' while the local children looked on.
Our approach to El Maiten was quite dramatic. We climbed a long hill to see a wide valley below us with a river running through it. There was much grass and trees while many of the meadows were covered in yellow dandelions.
The 237 km from Ingeniero Jacobacci to El Maiten is owned and operated by the state of Rio Negro while the rest of the line to Esquel (at km 402) is owned and operated by the state of Chubut. There is not a great deal of cooperation between them and we had to change trains at El Maiten where a Chubut train was waiting with a Henschel to take us on to Esquel. It was getting late and a bus was provided to take the non-hard core types directly to Esquel. My wife and I took the bus. The last we saw of the train that day was a tiny train in a great wide valley against the sunset through the Andes with a wild Patagonian sunset.
Esquel is a pleasant town with a good hotel. We found a good restaurant to wind down from the day's adventures and were able to satisfy our craving for gnocchi which are very good in Argentina.
Next morning we boarded another charter train for the run from Esquel to El Maiten. This time we had a double header with Baldwin #4 and Henschel #114. #4 is painted blue with Old Patagonian Express on the tender. The train is also known as La Trochita or La Trencita. We had a freight or work train ahead of the passenger consist. The day was wonderful with some dramatic scenery, the Andes forming a wonderful backdrop to our west. At Lepa the two trains were split and the passenger train ran ahead of the freight with the Baldwin. I rode the engine as far as Leleque. The engineer knew his engine well and managed to get the most from it. I was surprised in that we ran with no brake for the first part as we were climbing a grade. He only created the vacuum as we approached the summit when he knew he would need his brakes. I suppose he saves steam that way.
At El Maiten we took a bus to stay overnight at El Bolson. This completed our adventure on the Old Patagonian Express. There was another charter the next day between El Maiten and Cerro Mesa. My wife and I decided to go directly to Bariloche. This turned out to be a good decision as the train ran out of fuel 18 km from Cerro Mesa and the crew just got off the train and walked away. The group were stranded for several hours before being rescued by a bus which came looking for them.
This 95 cm gauge line is living on borrowed time. The only potential is for tourists and as the line is so remote this will not to support any large traffic. I understand that the state of Chubut has agreed to keep the southern section going for at least another year.
The one lasting memory which sticks in my mind is looking towards an angry sunset as we approached El Maiten. The wind was creating wispy clouds through the mountain peaks and we saw flights of scarlet ibis made a deep red against the setting sun.