The International Steam Pages

A Hobby to Die for?

Ian Thomson, long term South American resident celebrates his survival to see in another New Year.

1. RAILWAYS CAN BE DANGEROUS.   Railways are potentially lethal things, for a string of reasons, such as trains not being able to stop in a short distance, drivers running rearwards not having a clear view of whither they are going, there being no way to swerve to avoid an obstacle on the road ahead, etc.; hence the strict regulations' manuals and rule books drawn up by railway companies for implementation by their employees. Railfans are not specifically covered by such instructions but should abide by them and others, such as signs forbidding entry to workshops, yards and suchlike. But often we ignore them, sometimes with the blind eye or even verbal approval of local railway staff, who are normally not authorized to give any such approval. As a result, we are often expose ourselves to considerable danger.  It sometimes surprises me that there are not more serious accidents involving railfans.

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Representative of the kind of idiotic things we all do instinctively is cramming ourselves on the tender of a locomotive as it jerks across an overpass.
I have been very lucky at least three times so far (and quite lucky on a number of others). The lesson has been learnt that I should be more careful, and I trust that I will not have to be so lucky a fourth time. The tales to tell are as follows, arranged in chronological order. 

2.1. MISUNDERSTANDING WITH THE MILITARY IN ARICA. Before telling the first one, I should say that I have the utmost respect for the Chilean Army, and the Armed Forces in general. As a defence force they are second to none. Moreover, without the enthusiastic support of Brigadier General Jorge Correa, who in the early and mid 1980s was Director General of Chilean State Railways (EFE), my attempts to form the Chilean Railway Conservation Society (ACCPF) would surely have ended in vain. The following string of events resulted from a misunderstanding, but the kind of one that potentially can have unfortunate consequences. 

In March 1987, I was in the first half of a decade-long spell as President of the ACCPF. At the tail end of January and beginning of February, the management of EFE's Northern Network had been good enough to run for our members a Schindler-built railcar and trailer from La Calera, the Network's southernmost terminus and not far from Santiago, to Caldera, a port some 950 km further up the line, at the end of a branch from Copiapó which was the first railway to be built in Chile. The trip included a visit to the Coquimbo workshops and was very enjoyable, due in part to the Schindler units themselves, with their plush seats, air-conditioning, on-board kitchen and bar, etc.. Virtually the whole route traversed has now been out of service for more than ten years, and the workshop is all but closed.

The Schindler set was the only one remaining in operation of a fleet delivered in the mid-1950s for service over three of EFE's meter gauged divisions, i.e. the Northern Network, the Transandine Railway and the Arica to La Paz line. The one we travelled by, comprising motor unit ADZ-1049 and trailer AZ-1119, had been refurbished to run between Antofagasta and Salta, in Argentina, but the the corresponding project never got past the starting post. So EFE decided to transfer the set to the Arica to La Paz Railway (FCALP), which entailed a delivery trip through Bolivia, since the FCALP has never been connected in to railways further south in Chile through sovereign territory. I politely asked the Northern Network's Manager if ACCPF members might be allowed to accompany it, receiving in return a very welcome positive response. An article, entitled “Railtour, South American style”, on the ensuing journey, was published in June 1989 edition of the magazine “Railway World”.

In Arica, which is a frontier town close to the border with Perú, I had a task to carry out, i.e. to try and negotiate the sale to the non-profit making organization running the Santiago Railway Museum of one of two ex-Antofagasta to Bolivia Railway (FCAB) 0-6-2Ts belonging to a certain Mr. Raúl Pey, now sadly deceased. Mr. Pey had been a partner in a company which in 1961 had won the contract to modernize and expand the port of Arica, involving the construction of a new wharf. In order to carry materials to the site, he bought the 0-6-2Ts, which chuffed their way to Arica along the same route (and under their own power), through Uyuni, Oruro and Viacha, that we had travelled over in the Schindler set. They were Hunslet products of 1908 vintage, maker's numbers 945 and 949, FCAB's 21 and 25. After working their guts out for around three years, they were taken to Mr. Pey's yard, in Arica's industrial zone, and left there, and there they still were in 1987, albeit in a very shabby state.

Mr. Pey invited me to lunch at Arica's very nice Yacht Club, at which he calculated the sale price, setting it at what he had paid for each locomotive in 1961 plus inflation during the ensuing 26 years, with a 25% reduction for what he justly considered to be a worthy cause. At that point, the the conversation switched to other things, since there was no way we could afford to pay anything close to the price he was had estimated.

But I asked him if I could go and see the locomotives, and he readily agreed. But when I reached the front gate of his extensive yard, all attempts to attract the attention of the caretaker failed, whether by ringing the bell, hammering on the gate, or verbal screeching. So I decided to take a long walk round to the far end of the yard, which backs onto the FCALP main line. A wall enclosed the back end of the yard, but by heaping up a pile of rubble and stepping onto it, I managed get my head and camera over the said wall. After a few photos were taken, I trekked on down the FCALP track as far as the nearest street crossing, and there waited for a bus to get back to the downtown hotel into which I had checked after arriving with the rest of the gang on the Schindler. A bus duly appeared, I boarded it, sat down halfway down the left hand side and observed Arica street scenes through the window.

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This photo was scanned from the slide film developed by my military captors, and duly sent on by regular mail to my home address.  It shows the two ex-FCAB tanks, plus another unidentified locomotive, seemingly of German origin.
Two hundred meters or so further on, an Army vehicle overtook the bus and cut in, obliging the driver to pull up. Two uniformed soldiers, machine guns in their hands, stepped up, and one made straight for me, asking me to accompany them to an undisclosed destination. It seemed fitting to accept their invitation. The destination turned out to be an Army base of some kind. I was walked, with at least one arm attached an Army officer, to a room where I was told to kneel down, stare at the wall and not move, since were I so to do I would be shot. 

The contents of my shoulder bag were unpacked behind me, and examined. Amongst these were my passport and my United Nations laissez-passer, neither of which seemed to impress my hosts very much. The camera was taken away for further examination and then a question and answer session began. I was asked where I lived and to describe the neighborhood, what I was doing in Arica, when I last travelled to Perú and Argentina – Bolivia didn't seem to interest them as much - and, of course, what was the motive behind taking the photos of such strategic objects as eighty year old abandoned steam locomotives. All questions were duly answered, but it was made clear that I should not expect to catch the evening Ladeco flight on which I was booked to get back home to Santiago.

I remember not being very comfortable, but neither being very scared, considering that the string of events was rather incredulous. In January 1970, clad in a heavy duffle coat which hid a camera, I had knowingly taken clandestine photos of steam and electric locomotives in the snow around Belgrade; were I to have been detained by the Yugoslavian Army I would have been a lot more worried than I was in Arica that November in 1987.

The question and answer session went on for an hour or so, and then I was left alone to look at the wall, apart from a junior officer, with whom I exchanged the odd word or two. A few other military personal came and went. Then the interrogators returned and a few more questions were posed and answered. I tried to veer the conversation towards matters of common interest, such as girls and football, and this seemed to have a positive effect. I was still kneeled and looking at a wall with a gun pointed at me, but the environment got to be as best it can under such circumstances. Maybe the slide film in the camera had been already developed and the slides examined, but I cannot vouch for that.

After around three hours so positioned, I was told I could get up and leave, with my bag and all its contents apart from the film in the camera. By that time I was on reasonably good terms with my captors and we shook hands as we parted. I made the flight back, just, and a week or so later, the developed film arrived by mail at my house in Santiago.

Since then, and indeed before then, I have got on well with the Chilean Army. I have stayed at the Fort Baquedano military base, inland from Iquique, and in July 2008, with two colleagues from the National Monuments Council, was guided by an Officer from the Rancagua Regiment, which is based in Arica, to the top end of the erstwhile Tacora Railway, which for decades seems to have been the highest point reached by a railway anywhere in the world. (See: “The Tacora Railway, for over forty years the highest in the world”, in the autumn 2008 edition of "The Narrow Gauge".) To get there, we had to skirt a minefield and then make a detour into Perú.

Looking back, I don't think I behaved stupidly in taking photos of the locomotives, although to an outside observer I may have appeared to have been acting strangely. Even though Chile was then under military rule, it didn't occur to me to request prior permission from the Army to take the photos, and were I to have done so I am sure I would have gotten in exchange some weird looks. Since Arica was a frontier town and Chile and Perú had been quite close to armed conflict towards the end of the previous decade, I would not have opted to take photos of anything of military significance. I guess the Army chiefs had ordered to be taken in for questioning anybody seen taking photos of suspicious objects, and in Arica what could be more suspicious than a pair of ex-FCAB 0-6-2Ts.

The locomotives are still where they were in 1987, at least they were up until a few months ago, albeit in a very shabby state. I have spoken with Mr. Pey's son, whose Christian name is also Raúl, on having at least one of them preserved in a dignified matter, the entrance to the port area being selected as the most appropriate site to display it. But financing from the local development corporation has not been forthcoming and movement from the National Monuments Council not very agile, and the project is currently on hold. I own a flat in Arica, in a block located on Raúl Pey Avenue. From the terrace, regularly at 07.55 hrs., the morning railcar arrives from Tacna in Perú, sounding its horn on approaching a pedestrian crossing, thereby obviating the need for my buying an alarm clock. The vehicle is historically interesting as it was originally steam-powered, made by the Sentinel Waggon Works for the Peruvian Corporation.

2.2. LYING FLAT ON A BRIDGE AT RÍO BLANCO AS A TRAIN ROLLED OVER. I have forgotten the exact date when the events described in the following paragraphs happened, but it was probably in November 1991. Every now and then at the ACCPF we ran a 1926-vintage railbus, known locally as the “góndola”, over the remaining part of the old Transandine Railway, from the town of Los Andes up to Río Blanco, close to the La Andina copper mine. There we used to sit in the back yard of a pseudo restaurant and had a good time drinking wine, eating empanadas and enjoying the view.

The said remaining part of the Railway receives at Río Blanco station trains bringing copper concentrates down a short branch from the mine, and from thence they carry on 30 kms or so to Los Andes, where the tubs containing the concentrates are transhiped from meter to broad gauged wagons for the rest of their journey to the refinery at Ventanas, which is on the coast north of Viña del Mar. From Río Blanco upwards, the next section of the line was racked equipped and climbed at a grade of 8%, but it had been out of operation since June 1984.

In 1990, from the station at Río Blanco only a short stretch of line was used in the uphill direction, crossing a bridge over the international highway to Argentina and continuing for a few metres on the other side, stopping short of where the rack started. This stretch was basically used for head shunt movements. The rule book requires somebody to ride on the wagon furthest from the locomotive, to guide the driver whilst conducting such head shunts.

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I have failed to locate a photo of the bridge at Río Blanco, but this one shows the “góndola” in the station, on 30th November, 1991, which I think was the date of the incident, which came within centimetres of being an accident.
In order to inspect the state of the rack section, I decided to stroll up to it, crossing the bridge, which had no sidewalk, by carefully stepping on the sleepers, between which one could see the roofs of vehicles passing underneath. After having a look at the rack and observing its sorry state, I returned by the same route, looking down at the sleepers so as to step on them and not place my foot into the intervening voids. On reaching the middle of the bridge, some six meters or so above the bed of the highway, the structure started to shudder, so I stopped and looked up to see what was going on.

What was going on was a long string of flat cars carrying tubs for the copper concentrates being pushed towards me and guided by nobody on the leading wagon. It would have been hazardous to jump down onto the highway, even were I to have been lucky enough land in a gap in the traffic, so instinctively I lay myself flat down across the sleepers outside the rail on the Los Andes side of the bridge, praying and hoping the axle boxes and everything else would pass over my head and other anatomical parts. Thankfully they all did. I lay there, generating anguished looks and shrill screams from my lady friend who was watching events from the station side of the bridge, until the train shunted back, now in charge of a driver who was taking extra care since the screams brought to his attention my predicament.

I have since been back many times to Río Blanco, refraining from bridge walking activities on each occasion.

2.3. THE DARK AND MURKY INSPECTION PIT AT TEMUCO. In February 1994 I was coming to the end of the ten-year spell at the helm of the ACCPF, just as one of our proudest projects was coming on stream, i.e.  the Temuco Railway Museum.

In 1989, the then Director General of Chilean State Railways (EFE), Mr. Roberto Darrigrandi, decided to sell both the land occupied by the locomotive roundhouse and surroundings at Temuco for urban development and its collection of some fourteen steam locomotives for scrap. In order to save them, I dispatched a letter to the Executive Secretary of the National Monuments Council, requesting that the depot and its contents be declared a National Monument. That was in the days of the military government, which had its faults, but one of them was not hanging around doing nothing once having decided to act, and within a month or so the request had been approved and the corresponding decree signed by General Pinochet, head of the reigning military junta. Mr. Darrigrandi avoided me for many months afterwards, but we are now once again good friends.

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Here I am, all dressed in white, giving the speech in the inauguration ceremony.  Not long afterwards, shirt, jacket and face were not quite as white.
The locomotive depot had now been saved for posterity, but in Chile declaring something a National Monument assures no financing at all towards its restoration or upkeep. However, each year, the National Foundation for Culture and the Arts (FONDART) organizes a competition to select the most worthy projects for financing, and in 1993, the ACCPF decided to take part, submitting a bid for the Temuco locomotive depot. This was successful, and we were allotted some twelve million pesos, if I remember correctly, equivalent then to 30 000 U.S. dollars, to tidy the place up, conduct emergency repairs, paint over the worse cracks and open the place for visitors as a museum.

The work was carried out in the latter half of 1993, mainly by the late Mario Fuentes, the Association's representative in Temuco, and Enrique Rivera, then one of its directors. All was ready by early 1994 and an inauguration ceremony was set for the evening of 15th February, after nightfall. It was quite a moving affair, with 2-8-2 № 714 lit up and with enough steam to shuffle around the depot and have a few swirls on the turntable. I had to give a speech to the assembled crowd. After doing so I think it was Temuco's Mayor who had to give one too.

My speech was duly delivered, and I started to make my way back to the seat from which I had upped before taking the stage. I didn't want to pass in front of the Mayor whilst he was speaking, so I decided to walk between two of the Museum's type 80 4-8-2s, make my way inside the perimeter wall and then on to the seat between two other locomotives. Away from the stage and in the shadow of the 4-8-2s, I could see absolutely nothing, but felt my way around by touching bits of one of the locomotives. That was enough to guide me in the horizontal plane, but not on the vertical one.

Upon getting to the end of the 4-8-2, I moved in a direction parallel to the wall, and promptly fell headlong into an inspection pit excavated between the rails. At the bottom of the ditch there was grease, coal dust and water, the latter being life-threatening in the prevailing circumstances. Had I been knocked unconscious by banging my head on the side of the ditch whilst falling, I would have probably drowned at the bottom of the pit. But luckily I remained conscious, although immobilized, and after some fifteen minutes or so, was able to shout loud enough to attract attention.

I was duly dragged out of the ditch and taken to the city hospital's emergency department, where X-rays showed that no bones had been broken, although of bruises and muscle damage there were plenty. I had to take medical leave from my job for two weeks, but after that there were no serious aftershocks.

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Riding on a wood-burning steam locomotive in Paraguay was hardly life threatening, but it can threaten eyes, if a wood spark creeps under one´s eye lid, a fate which befell me on one occasion.
After operating for two years or so, the Museum fell into a state of neglect, as a result of differences of opinion between the ACCPF's directors and its representation in Temuco. The situation was only corrected once the Temuco Municipality took care of the Museum, investing in it a lot more than the ACCPF had ever been able to do. The Museum was reopened ten years later, this time by not by the President of the Association but by the then President of the Republic, Mr. Ricardo Lagos.

3. OTHER INCIDENTS. Of other incidents with an element of risk and arguably of stupidity, there have been plenty, some moderately amusing. For instance, whilst others were listening to the speeches delivered in the ceremony, held in October 1991, to celebrate the centenary of the 100 metre high Malleco viaduct, I decided to walk across it, getting halfway when a strong wind picked up. I waited in a lay-by and hung onto a post, until the centennial train kindly stopped where I was stranded to pick me up.

In August 1985, instead of riding through the 4½ km long Las Raíces tunnel in the cab of the 2-8-2 hauling the “Tren de la Araucanía”, which the ACCPF operated between Temuco and Lonquimay, I thought I would emerge looking less like a black spider monkey by perching on the foremost part of the footplate, in front of the smokebox and, hence, in front also of the smoke. I emerged looking nothing like a monkey but feeling like a penguin or a polar bear, since it was extremely cold in the tunnel and very blustery due to air swirls created by the progress of the train. I had to speak with the Mayor upon arrival at Lonquimay, but couldn't since my lips had frozen.

Maybe deep sea diving might be more interesting than being a railfan, but I doubt it.

Rob Dickinson