Saturday, January 28, 2012

Argentine Trains Off the Rails, So to Speak

A couple weeks ago, at work, my wife was to participate in a lunchtime game that required each person on her team to disclose a fact, anonymously, that nobody would expect about him or her; in turn, the team would try to match the fact with the person. When she asked me to suggest what she might reveal, I told her she should offer that she had once hitched a lift on a freight train, which the two of us did from the northwestern Argentine town of San Antonio de los Cobres to the international border, before continuing on toward Antofagasta on a Chilean freight.
That was in 1985, on the route now known as the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds); to the best of my memory, it was the last time I rode a long-distance train – as opposed to commuter and tourist trains - in Argentina (or Chile, for that matter). It was enormous fun, as the crew let us sleep in the caboose and, during the daytime, the engineer even invited us up to the locomotive.
Still, I’m often asked about trains in Argentina and, reluctantly, I tell everybody that, unless you’re a fanatical trainspotter or perhaps even a foamer, it’s best to stick to the bus or plane. In the 1980s we often took the train, most notably on our honeymoon from Retiro (pictured above) to Mendoza, a trip from hell that took place during Argentina’s July winter holidays of 1981. We were on a budget, in “Pullman” seats that reclined only slightly, and our car filled up with military conscripts who, at that time, traveled for free as long as they remained standing on a 24-hour marathon. It was not fun.
That no longer happens, partly because there is no more conscription in Argentina but mostly because there are so few trains, and except for the one that runs between Constitución (Buenos Aires, pictured above in early days) and Mar del Plata, they’re pretty dismal. According to the city daily Clarín, a rail network that stretched some 37,000 km in 1950 now covers only 7,500 km, and freight has priority on most of the remaining track. Trains like El Gran Capitán, which until recently connected the capital with the northern city of Posadas, are by all accounts something to avoid (especially in summer, when the weather is brutally hot and humid). It’s theoretically possible to travel by rail from Constitución to Bariloche, but that requires crossing the Río Negro from Carmen de Patagones to Viedma and then waiting six days for the connection.

Yet the trains are full, and that’s because they’re cheap. To quote Clarín, “According to the level of service, the bus can cost nine times more than the train,” which is the only option for many poorer Argentines. The train to Córdoba, for instance, costs 30 pesos (about US$7), while the bus can cost 250 pesos (roughly US$64). For that reason, the trains sell out early: “In high season, it’s better to buy 90 days ahead of time – the rest of the year 15 should be sufficient – and departures are few: the train departs only Monday and Friday.”

That’s why I discourage anybody but the truly determined from taking long-distance trains in Argentina. My friends Darek Przebieda and Analía Rupar of Eureka Travel recommend the Tren Patagónico from Viedma to Bariloche but, even then, they have to admit that the 18-hour trip averages only about 45 km per hour, and a comfortable sleeper bus would cover the distance in half the time. For my part, I’ll stick with an excursion on Esquel’s La Trochita.

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