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Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap

The government has announced huge new investments in Argentina’s ailing rail network. Charlie Foley reminisces about one of South America’s most impressive engineering projects – the Transandine Railway across the Andes.

Possibly the most astonishing train journey in the world would have been the crossing from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso in Chile. The landscape is spectacular, the rolling pampas land turning into the lush verdure of Mendoza; where the colossal Andes rise up next to the fields of vines like a slumbering giant.

The greatest of shames then that this journey is no longer. In 1984, after a long period of difficult relations between Argentina and Chile, the Transandine Railway closed. It had begun in 1887, with Juan and Mateo Clark, British brothers from Chile setting to work on a connection over the perilous Andes. The decision had been reached that a railway from the Atlantic coast, 888 miles to the Pacific would be beneficial both for the transport of freight, yet also to allow for a South American passage that did not involve the Polar waters of the south. “across mountains that turned into graveyards”

The passage over the Andes; until the advent of rail, had been limited to mule and cart, which was both arduous and dangerous. Nathaniel Bishop in his book ‘The Pampas and the Andes: A thousand miles across South America’ writes about the journey, “A youth not long since came from Chile to visit a relative on the Argentine side…He had with him experienced guides, and a favorite mule…

On the Cumbre pass, at an elevation of twelve thousand feet, a temporal struck the party, and one by one the mules became buried in the snow…The boy never lived to leave the valley, there he lies, –pointing to the cross” Many such stories came from these journeys across mountains that turned into graveyards.

However, not until 1910 did the rail link open, following the old mule track through the Uspallata Pass and the Cacheuta Springs (still in existence today) before reaching its loftiest height of 3,176 meters at Los Caracoles. Many of the sections were covered by snow sheds or tunnels; as protection from the avalanches. The most famous tunnel is the Cumbre, hewn out of the cloud-wreathed mountains. This tunnel was used for road vehicles in the late 1970’s, but the tunnel was so narrow that two-way traffic was impossible and restrictions were put in place.

For 67 years the Transandine railway locomotives merrily chugged across the dizzy peaks; the passengers in the comfort of the buffet carriages, as described by Koebel in `Modern Argentina´, “One has gazed on the tormented river, over five or six courses of a meal, and has peered downwards into the yawning gorges through the comfortable vapour of coffee steam and cigar smoke”.

At its height in 1920 there was 47,000 kilometres of track transporting 45.5 million tonnes of cargo; all on the ingenious rack and pinion system (huge pins which allowed trains with a high gear to engage for maximum grip).

“47,000 kilometres of track transporting 45.5 million tonnes of cargo”

The building of the Transandine railway had another benefit; the birth of skiing in the Andes. The British and Dutch engineers who surveyed the route over the Andes had used skis to get about. When the train first began in 1910, it was being used as a sort of ski-lift, allowing people to ski between Caracoles and Juncal.

Along the journey across the mountains the passengers would have noticed a statue of Christ the Redeemer with the enscription ‘Sooner shall these mountains crumble into dust than the people of Argentina and Chile break the peace which they have sworn to maintain at the feet of Christ the Redeemer’.

However in 1977 relations between the two countries did collapse, and the Transandine railway went with it. Problems had been building up since 1948 when the Argentine government privatised the rail network and the industry was weakened by competitive bidding. This bidding meant that the railways became freight and not customer orientated but with cheap competition from road transport and the last of the customers evading fares; the railway was left on its knees.

The finishing blow was the tensions between Argentina and Chile over the Patagonian borders, and the Transandine railway was suspended. The last locomotive to steam over the snow-capped peaks was in 1984. There have been many promises of investment and that the revival of the railway network is forth-coming; but as yet the tracks, snowsheds and tunnels are passengers to no-one, save the Andean condors.

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