Train and Bus Riding in Chile and Argentina
May 27-June 15, 2007
Background. Between May 27th and June 15th wife Jody, youngest son Robert and I traveled to Chile and Argentina. I lived in Chile from 1961 through 1963 and this was a nostalgia trip. Chile extends along the Pacific from Peru to the tip of South America. The middle third, the "central valley", where most people live, is similar in climate and terrain to the west coast of the USA and Canada.
Chile currently has 4164 miles of railroad lines. Several function as "conveyor belts" moving minerals from the Andes in Northern Chile and Bolivia to the sea. The country's principal railroad traverses the central valley from north to south. Constructed to a gauge of 5 feet 6 inches in the 19th and early 20th centuries this rail system was one of the few in Latin America built to serve the people rather than exporters. A branch between the port of Valparaiso and the capitol of Santiago was electrified in 1950; there was talk of electrifying the rest because of abundant hydro-electric power. During the early 60s diesels replaced steam locomotives with American-style cow catchers.
I have fond memories of traveling on the overnight Santiago-Concepcion train to the city of Chillan where I worked. I rode in a super-comfy lower birth in a heavyweight sleeping car. In the morning an attendant brought fresh orange juice, coffee and a roll-breakfast in bed. When sleeping car space was sold out I rode a heavyweight coach with 1920s era plush seats. Hard plush was compensated for by friendly traveling companions who shared wine and picnic fixings. Twice a week the "Rapido", a streamlined day train, traveled the line. I only rode it twice because it sold out weeks in advance.
My most memorable experience was crossing the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina. At the foot of the mountains we transferred to the 3 foot 3/8 inch gauge Trans-Andino line one of the world's highest railroads. It was completed in 1910 at enormous cost but reduced travel time between Santiago and Buenos Aires, Argentina from 11 sailing days around Cape Horn to 36 hours.
Our electric-powered train wound through numerous tunnels into the spectacular, massive Andes to the Argentine border 10,500 feet above sea level. Snow-covered Aconcagua, at 22,000 feet the highest mountain in the western hemisphere, was in plain view. Near the border the grade was 8% and the train was hauled up on a rack adhesion third rail.
At the border crossing we changed to an Argentine train of well maintained wooden narrow-gauge coaches pulled by a 1930s Beyer-Garrett steam locomotive built in the UK. I think it was a 2-6-6-2 or a 4-6-6-4. I took lots of pictures all of which are lost. En route to Mendoza we were served a marvelous steak dinner on fine china. The meal began with minestrone soup and salad and ended with a bowl of fresh fruit. Red and white wines were on the table in crystal decanters. I recollect we finished the meal with a glass of brandy. My traveling companion was a cigar salesman so cigars were smoked without interference from public health police. I have never eaten so well on a railroad dining car, before or since. And to think, this train ran every day back then.
Unfortunately, I was unable to replicate that trip. The Trans-Andino was abandoned in 1984. The electric line from Valparaiso to Santiago is now freight-only. I had read that even the main north-south line was freight only leaving Chile without passenger rail service. However, a website check revealed that the government had re-established passenger services from Santiago to the south.
A commuter-regional service called MetroSur runs 80 miles south to the city of San Fernando. MetroSur uses 16 Spanish-built MU electric trains for 27 daily runs in both directions. It's doing well judging from the number of passengers coming and going through Santiago's venerable Alameda station. Another regional service connects the town of Victoria with the city of Temuco in the southern lake region. An antiquated "bustrain" still runs on narrow gauge rails from Talca, south of Santiago, to Constitucion, a minor seaport and resort on the Pacific. I missed that one unfortunately.
TerraSur, the only long distance service, utilizes 5 electric inter-city train sets with a top speed of 140 KPH. They were purchased second hand from RENFE, the Spanish national railways. TerraSur operates 8 round trips a day between Santiago and Chillan. TerraSur originally ran further south to Temuco but service was cut back to Chillan in 2006. This was due to "unsustainable" deficits and high maintenance costs for the aging trainsets.
Rail and Bus Journeys. Our initial rail experience was exploring Santiago, a city of 5 million, by subway. The "Metro" subway trains run on rubber tires (except for one steel-wheeled line). They are bright, clean, fast, and full day and night. Four intersecting lines run throughout the city. Two more are planned. I had a "back to the future" experience riding the Metro. I saw young men give up their seats to women.
On June 6th we ambled into the open-air train shed of the Alameda station an hour before train time. The Chilean state railways (Empresa de los Ferrocarriles del Estado or EFE) has constructed a busy shopping mall adjacent to the early 20th century station. Only 5 of the original 10 station tracks are now in use. At 2:30 PM we boarded the afternoon TerraSur for Chillan with first class (coche preferente) tickets. Ours was the only first class car. We sat in first-class airline-type seats in a 2 and 1 arrangement. The train also carried three 2nd class cars one of which had a café-bar. Second class seating resembled airline executive class. Our car left three-quarters full and filled up at the next stop. Surprisingly second class cars stayed only half full for the entire trip.
Just out of the station we passed a small freight yard used by private freight carrier FEPASA (Ferrocarril del Pacifico). Ancient looking box cars were next to big covered gondolas and tank cars. Further south we passed a big intermodal yard with stacks of containers and FEPASA diesels. Next was a slum I remembered from the early 1960s. It was much reduced in size and adjacent to new middle-class housing.
Outside the city speed increased to a smooth 70MPH and we came alongside a 6-lane limited access highway full of cars, trucks and buses. About 40 miles out the highway narrowed to 4 lanes and toll booths appeared. On-time at 3:30PM we pulled into San Fernando where MetroSur regional service ends. Off to the right stood the bright red-colored steam-powered Wine Train (Tren de Vino) that carries tourists to a tour of nearby vineyards.
As I started for the café-Bar an attendant entered taking lunch orders for consumption at one's seat. Of three meal options I chose a beef dish with French fries, salad and bottle of cabernet. I was soon eating off china on a white-cloth covered tray table. The excellent Chilean wine induced a mellow mood and I meditated on the good times during the early 60s.
Rolling south the valley became a lush agricultural paradise of grapes, fruit trees, vegetables and wheat. The spiffy brick interlocking towers I recalled from the 60s were now decrepit and mostly abandoned. Around 4:30 the sun fell behind the coast range. Twilight on the red and yellow leaves of poplar trees was like late November in Birmingham. People on the ground wore sweaters and jackets.
At Talca, over halfway, I spied a streamlined electric locomotive with a cab at each end in blue and yellow lettered for FEPASA. It looked like the "Little Joe" (Stalin) GE electrics made for the USSR after W.W. II. Arrival at Chillan was on-time. Passengers for Concepcion, Chile's second city, transferred to a bus and the train loaded for a return trip to Santiago.
Chillan's 1963 population had doubled to 150,000. The old central market was next to a 3-story American-style indoor mall. Shoppers resembled frenetic mall rats in the USA; the government says Chile's poverty rate is down to 16% and by 2010 Chile will be a "first-world" nation. In rural areas I saw lingering poverty but many small farmers had satellite dishes perched on their homes and Japanese pick-ups in the yard.
Two days later we took a bus south to the end of the central valley. Soaring gas prices may goose the government to restore rail passenger service from Chillan to its old terminus in Puerto Montt where Chile's Alaska-like fjord region begins and extends toward Antarctica.
Our bus was 100% more comfortable than a Greyhound. Reclining seats were like airline first class. Movies were shown on video screens. A coffee bar was manned by an attendant. Five private bus companies provide this kind of service in Chile. One (Linea Azul) offers bar service. Our waiter on the train to Chillan complained that bus companies receive government subsidies to keep fares low and don't pay tolls on the freeways -"unfair competition" he said.
Across the Andes by Bus in a Blizzard. We booked passage on an international bus line linking Chile with Argentina. On this double-decked bus we sat upstairs in cozy comfort and watched Fall become Winter. Sleet became heavy snow and we drove into a full-fledged blizzard. The bus struggled behind a convoy of heavy trucks headed by a snow-removal machine. Eventually the huge bus began slipping and sliding so that a long-stop ensued while the attendants tried to put chains on 18 wheels. Success came after 2 truck drivers, who were passengers, forced the chains in a virtual white-out. They were rewarded by sitting in the driver's cabin and smoking.
On the plus side the snow-covered mountains, canyons, rivers, and lakes were awesome when they could be seen. We arrived 6 hours late into the resort town of Bariloche but we did arrive. This alpine-like Argentine city sits beside a lake surrounded by snow-covered mountains. If North-Americans were dropped there without foreknowledge they might think they were in Europe. Our $50 hotel room for three included heated tile flooring, a continental breakfast and dinner. The free hotel dinner was a first and to my surprise good-a salad bar and choice of main course from 3 entries and dessert. Wine was extra.
The railroad that once ran north from Bariloche to Buenos Aires is now a regional short line. Mixed trains run several times a week to nearby towns from a nice old stone depot with wood interior furnishings. Passenger coaches parked nearby were in good condition but offered minimal comfort. A small freight yard was empty except for three boxcars being loaded from a warehouse. The operation seems to exist on borrowed time, a slowly dying victim of new highways.
The Road to Buenos Aires. We departed Bariloche for Buenos Aires (BA) on a double-decked overnight bus. We lucked out by sitting upstairs in front row seats with a great view on three sides. Seats and leg rests reclined almost flat. En-route we stopped for a pasta dinner included in the price of the ticket. I bought a bottle of wine to pass the night hours and after sharing it with wife and son I slept off and on until we stopped for a free breakfast-2 tasteless croissants and good coffee. By 8AM we were on a wide expressway in slow-moving traffic at the entrance to sprawling BA.
We stayed in a moderately priced hotel-free breakfast-in the city center. Two days were fully occupied touring on foot and via the 80 year-old subway. The city center looked European down to sleek cafés, stylish shopping and people on the street. I located BA's monumental passenger station "El Retiro" next to a seaport area. It is now used almost exclusively by commuter trains. The stone and wooden interior is in good shape and houses an elegant café-bar. Hordes of passengers arrived and departed on blue-cream electric and diesel MU trains.
The commuter network--TBA (Trenes de Buenos Aires)--is a spider web partially electrified and emanating out 100 miles. The TBA website mentioned a newly-restored long distance service from BA to Rosario, Argentina's second city, and to nearby Santa Fe but there was no mention of schedules or equipment.
However, while exploring the station I came upon a sign for intercity service on the FerroCentral railroad. It advertised tickets for 3 classes of service-"Turista" (2nd class coach),"Pullman Primera" (1st class coach) and "Cama" (bedroom) on two trains. One departed BA at 9:40AM for Tucuman in the far northwest on Mondays and Fridays, returning Wednesdays and Saturdays. Round-trip fares were: $68, $85, and $370. Another train went to Cordoba in the central region on Mondays and Fridays returning on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Fares ranged from $47 to $280. The ticket office was closed so I couldn't obtain a description of the equipment. A second sign indicated the train to Tucuman was completely sold out until July. Not everyone wants to ride the bus.
Among many memorable sights was Eva ("Evita") Peron's mausoleum in the Recoleta cemetery. She is remembered fondly by Argentina's working folks for her generosity and reforms. Fresh red roses were attached to the front. This is said to occur frequently since she died in 1953.
Also memorable was a distinguished-looking, elegantly-attired gent in a restaurant at lunch time. He was finishing a small coffee as we entered. As he got up he answered his cell phone. A lively conversation of a business nature ensued and ended with our man semi-shouting expletives. He sat back down and ordered a bottle of red wine and seltzer water. Drinking the wine he made a long call that was equally unsatisfying. He then ordered a bottle of champagne. As we left he was sipping and staring into space. That's one way to handle a bad day.
After arrival in Miami on June 15th we took TriRail commuter train P-620 from the airport to Delray Beach. We rode in new hi-level cars with reclining seats and a glass roof on the upper level. Downstairs the car had bike racks, and a handicap rest room. We were protected by 2 security guards, one of whom checked tickets. The cars are experimental and made by Colorado Railcar, the company sponsoring "Grand Luxe" service on several Amtrak trains. A nice ride.