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Slow train to nowhere in Argentine Patagonia

I had heard that the southernmost rail journey in the world began in Río Gallegos. I asked around but my questions met with quizzical looks and firm directions to the bus station. No one seemed to ride the railroad anymore.

At the offices of YCF, the state-owned company which operated the railway and the coalmine it served, a balding man of sixty unfolded a map and with his finger traced the track west across the tip of continental South America to the coalmining town of Río Turbio, near the frontier with Chile. He puzzled a while over the paperwork, made a phone call or two, and sold me a ticket to Río Turbio, where I was minded to visit the mine.

‘How long does it take?’ I asked.

‘It depends on the load,’ he replied. ‘If the wagons are empty, about eight hours. A loaded train left this morning. I’m not sure about this one, but it leaves at midday.’

Book coverThe YCF man seemed at a loose end. It was eleven in the morning and he had run out of maté. His office door was open. He asked me questions, shuffled papers, and joked with colleagues passing down the corridor. My presence was an unexpected novelty, worth prolonging it seemed.

‘We’re to be privatized,’ he said. ‘Companies in Spain and Chile are potential buyers. The mine has been losing money. It may even be closed. It’s ironic – they reckon deposits will last for centuries.’

‘Many came down to Santa Cruz Province over the years to work in the coal industry,’ he said. ‘High wages lured them south. With the plans for privatization, they’re laying people off. Some return north. Others have children, grandchildren even, and seek work hereabouts. A YCF training is well thought of in the public sector. We’re much sought after.’

I was unsure just whom he was trying to convince. It sounded like brave talk in the face of distressing rumours: the mine was working at one-quarter capacity; if no buyer came forward, it would be closed; more lay-offs were imminent, redundancy payments derisory.

Down at the narrow-gauge track a 1950s Mitsubishi locomotive was steaming. A single passenger carriage was hooked to the end of a string of empty wagons, almost as an afterthought. I boarded the train and stared at two dozen vacant seats. An iron stove stood in the middle of the wooden carriage, its pipe piercing the roof.

I looked into the yard to see a man in large boots walking towards the carriage. At the end of thick forearms his hands balanced a shovel live with glowing coals. The stoker climbed aboard, said, ‘Buen día,’ and tipped the fire into the stove. He shovelled ebony rocks from a scuttle and showered them onto the embers. ‘It’s mild now,’ he said, anticipating my question, ‘but out on the pampa the evenings are cool.’ I asked him about the locomotives. ‘They’re good quality,’ he replied, ‘but old, so upkeep is costly. There’s no Mitsubishi workshop to hand, of course, so we draw up the plans, make moulds and do the casting. We fire the engines up every day, even if they’re not going out. It keeps them in running order.’ The stoker spoke with patient affection, as to a loved but refractory child. The locomotives were his passion. He had tended them from his first day, since when thirty years had passed. Man and machine had matured together. They formed a team. Now, it seemed, they were supernumerary, locked into decline.

‘I remember the days when the passenger carriage would be full,’ he said, stepping down onto the track. ‘The future was over the horizon then. Trouble is, we’ve arrived now. And it doesn’t look good.’

At the last minute a teenager clambered aboard. He was raw-boned and seemed to have lost the knack of coordinating his limbs. Beneath a mop of lank hair, his features were undecided between truculence and sullenness, the daily dilemma of adolescent boys. He mumbled an acknowledgment to my greeting and went to stare upline through the window.

The train rolled from the siding and through a ramshackle part of town. Three dogs ran yapping alongside the track but bolted when the driver let off steam on the approach to a level-crossing. Two small girls covered their ears and grinned. A ten-year-old lobbed something in our direction, but his gesture was half-hearted and the pebble fell short.

The adolescent left the window and sat, his head nodding forward. I walked over, scuffing my feet so as not to startle him from his drowse. He opened his eyes and looked up.

‘Going all the way to Río Turbio?’ I asked.

‘No, just to Gobernador Moyano.’

As we stumbled into fluency, the mask of adolescence fell and the boy emerged taciturn but engaging. Carlos was the eldest of five children. His father worked on the railway and lived with two of the children at Gobernador Moyano. His mother had found a job in Río Gallegos, where she looked after the others.

Book coverCarlos had been to primary school at Gobernador Moyano. ‘There were forty of us in my day,’ he explained. ‘Now there are twenty-four. People are leaving.’ ‘I come up to Moyano at weekends. Odd jobs around the house. Feeding the chickens. Father goes to town to be with Mama. When I’m done, I go fishing for trout and smelt in the Gallegos River. Sometimes a friend comes to stay.’

Rubbish tips rose and fell beside the track and peaked in a yard of wrecked and rusting vehicles. Shanties of grey blocks and corrugated iron straggled along the way. A blue-aproned woman was leaning over a gate talking to a neighbour, her open front door revealing the unexpected riches of a kitchen unit, washing machine, spin drier. A polished crimson Fiat stood outlandish in the yard.

We left behind the city’s jetsam and crossed a plain of yellow fescue mottled with black thorn bushes. Uplands rose chalky and green to the south. On the northern skyline, refracted light played with the hilltops, stretching them on stalks. Some lifted free and floated like great airships along the horizon.

The train jolted into the first station and Carlos ran to pick berries. The purplish fruit of the calafate, the box-leafed barberry, was sour and seed-laden. ‘The saying goes,’ said Carlos, ‘that someone who has tasted them will always return.’

We moved on, scattering rheas and sheep before us. Heavy grey and white cloud seemed to slow our progress. The plain had become verdant and thornscrub was sparse. A tree-circled hollow cradled the russet roofs of an estancia in a limitless sweep of pampa.

I wondered how these wilds weighed upon their occupants, whether the opposing desires for escape and withdrawal were held in delicate balance. Flight from isolation stayed by shrinking from the hostile vast. Like the two wings of a bird—if one strains harder the storm-tossed creature spirals down and crashes to earth.

Three hours from Río Gallegos Carlos left the train at Gobernador Moyano. We shook hands and I watched him walk away. His form dwindled to a silhouette and I turned and sat in the empty carriage.

Two hours later the train saltated into Cappa and expired. Unsure whether delay generated opportunity or exasperation, I jumped down and looked around. Buildings clustered about a station of sorts. Clumps of poplars and bushes stood incongruous in the treeless wild. The red of tin roofs and bricks caught my eye and drew it back from the vertiginous race of pampa and sky. On a stretch of wasteland, a group of shirtless men was kicking a football back and forth.

By evening the mechanic had decided it was hopeless. We were still some hours from Río Turbio, and anyway the workshops there were not up to much. ‘We’ll try and make it back to Río Gallegos,’ he said. ‘The repairs should hold.’

We crept into Gobernador Moyano two hours later. A man of forty entered the carriage with his daughter. He was stocky, with thick brown fingers and black hair. His outdoor complexion suggested vigour, but he had a beaten look about him. ‘I work in a railroad gang,’ he said. ‘You know, laying sleepers, checking the rails, replacing bolts.’

‘My wife has a job in Gallegos, but it’s still difficult to make ends meet. We can’t even afford presents this year. It’s her birthday today.’ He nodded at the girl. ‘Her brother had nothing either.’

‘I might have met him this morning,’ I ventured. ‘A boy called Carlos came up in the train with me. He got off at Gobernador Moyano.’

‘That’s him,’ said the man. ‘He’s looking after his brother and sister while we go to Gallegos. I’ve had to take him out of school. We can’t manage without his help at home. She’ll leave too,’ he said, turning to his daughter.

Carlos’s father was resigned. He spoke of corruption in high places, of opportunism and deceit. The people were on edge. He’d read in the newspaper of a shooting the previous day. ‘Long-time neighbours,’ he said. ‘An argument over nothing. One lost his temper. Shot his neighbour dead. La gente está mal.’ ‘People are in a bad way.’

Book cover‘I’d leave if I could,’ he said. ‘But where would I go? I can read and write but that’s about it. Learning a foreign language now would be hard.’

Upland geese passed overhead, their sunlit wings clipping the evening air. A small lake swarmed pink with flamingos. The Gallegos River meandered like a ribbon of turquoise silk flung across the golden plain. A lone gaucho rode the grasslands, his dog trotting at the horse’s feet.

‘We have to put up with solitariness in Patagonia,’ said Carlos’s father, as if stirred by the distant figure. ‘The cold, the wind, the solitude.’

Soon after nightfall the train faltered again. A man appeared outside in the dark and called to us. ‘You won’t get back before midnight,’ he warned. ‘Better come with
me.’ As we walked to the pick-up, Carlos’s father turned to me. ‘Readiness to help,’ he said. ‘Typical of Patagonia.’

We arrived in Río Gallegos in time for dinner. I later learned that the train had reached town at dawn. At the YCF offices next day I asked for a refund.

The ticket-seller was apologetic. ‘You were unlucky,’ he said. ‘Give us a second chance. The train generally gets through.’ I felt awkward. Somehow the train’s failure was also mine, had made me censorious, an uninvited witness of hard times. I was almost tempted to try again.

But I had no desire to spend another day coming and going across the plains, so I pocketed the money and walked to the bus station.

Extracted from David Marsh’s excellent new travel book ‘Last Tango in Buenos Aires‘, also available on Amazon.

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