The International Steam Pages

The Old Patagonian Express 1995

Colin J. Churcher reports:

The final part of my trip with Trains Unlimited Tours covered Patagonia. We crossed the Andes from Puerto Montt in southern Chile to Bariloche which is located in the Argentine lake district.

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, 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 Inginiero 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 (750mm) 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.

Inginiero 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.

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. We solved the problem by bring 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 an 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 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 Inginiero 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 and we found a good restaurant to wind down from the day's adventures.

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. 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. It seems that the state of Rio Negro has no arrangements to buy fuel at El Maiten.

This 750mm gauge line is living on borrowed time. The only potential is for tourists as the line is so remote that this is not going 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.

After that - who knows!

Rob Dickinson