Friday, April 1, 2011

The Non-Patagonian Express

Every so often, I hear from readers who hope to travel by long distance train in Argentina and Chile. Reluctantly, I have to tell them that, with few exceptions, they don’t want to take trains in either country. Those in Argentina are agonizingly slow, poorly maintained and serve few destinations, while those in Chile, especially since the February 2010 earthquake, reach only to Talca, about four hours south of Santiago. In both countries, buses serve many more destinations with greater frequency, are far more comfortable, and are reasonably priced.

In Argentina, it’s probably the faux romance of Paul Theroux’s overrated opus The Old Patagonian Express that makes so many people want to travel by train there, but today’s La Trochita is only a short-line tourist train - fun for what it is, but it’s not transportation. In Chile, though, there is one train I highly recommend: the narrow gauge short-line that runs twice daily from the city of Talca to the coastal town of Constitución, a distance of only 88 km. This is not a tourist train, but it is entertaining.

Oddly, the Ferrocarril Constitución is a two-car train whose locomotive (also the lead car) is a 1961-vintage FerroStaal railbus. Even more oddly, it operates on a route that mostly follows the north bank of the Río Maule; most of its stations (many of them such as Corinto, pictured below, sadly deteriorated) serve villages and whistlestops with no other public transportation, and few roads of any sort. Just east of Constitución, it crosses the river to the south bank of broad Maule estuary.

Most of its passengers are peasants with no other means of transport, and they often carry chickens and other farm animals; the main topics of conversation are grapes, melons and pastures. With no trucks or cars at many if not most stations, dogs here have no alternative but to chase the train.

Last Sunday, I rode the Ferrocarril for the first time in ten years, in the company of three German tourists who were also returning from Constitución to Talca, but everybody else on board was a local; at a maximum speed of 40 km per hour, it took us more than three hours to cover the distance from the coast to the city. For that reason, I usually recommend taking the train one-way and returning by bus, which takes about half the time.

We almost suffered an additional delay: as we approached Talca, a woman stalled her compact car at the edge of the tracks and, despite the train’s shrieking horn, she did nothing to get out of the way, nor even to flee the vehicle. Fortunately, the alert engineer managed to stop just inches short of contact; had we hit her, it probably have done nothing more than spin her vehicle around. After she finally managed to get the car off the track, she stepped out with a smiling wave to the engineer.

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