From 'Port Desire'
Rail rolled new for the Patagonian construction in 1910 is still in place at Fitz Roy station in 2011.
A trunk line aiming for Lago Nahual Huapi
The original intention was that this would be the main trunk route through Patagonia heading towards the far north-west where it would join the line from San Antonio somewhere near the present day resort of Bariloche. En route it would meet the Comodoro Rivadavia line on its way west to Lago Buenos Aires. There might also have been branches, perhaps to Trevelin or to Esquel.
The various laws and decrees which led up to the construction and opening of this railway.
The surveys for the line were undertaken from 1908 to 1910. By a decree of January 20 1910 the first 120 km. was approved as an estimated cost of 21,210 gold pesos per km. In fact construction had started before that, in May 1909. The engineer appointed to oversee the main works was one Juan A. Briano. Sections of his diary have been published, edited by his son (1).
A telegram to Ingeniero Guido Jacobacci, the presiding engineer in Patagonia for the Ministerio de Obras Públicas., the progress made in construction during the week preceding 3rd September 1910. It should be noted that during this week 464 staff were directly employed and there were in addition 476 sub-contractors.
By the time war broke out in 1914 the railway had reached Colonia Las Heras, 178 miles inland. Worked stopped there never to be resumed. The financial and political reasons for this have been discussed in the first page of this chapter. By then a dozen or more locomotives and some hundreds of wagons had arrived, only to find themselves immediately redundant. Much of this equipment, listed on the next page, was second-hand from other Argentinean lines and in worn condition. I suspect that a lot of this was scrapped once it was realised that the line would go no further.
One of the FCE Haine St Pierre or Cockerill pacifics with a passenger train at Las Heras in the late 1920s, as pictured in the 1930 FCE passenger timetable booklet. The front two coaches are by Harlan & Hollingsworth, and the third is one of the ex FC Andino vehicles built by Lancaster.
It was intended that the railway be extended to Lago Buenos Aires (480km from Puerto Deseado) with a connection to the Commodore Rivadavia line. However, it never happened.
The picture shows the first short muelle, with a buffer stop clearly visible. The frigorifico at this point had its own narrow gauge line until about 1972 though no details have yet emerged.
Two photos follow showing more complex facilities at the port. The upper annotated one appears to have been taken from the roof of the goods shed in the lower one. The cars in the second picture suggest a 1920s date, and the railway tank wagon no. 28 is almost certainly one of the Ringhoffer built 1910 batch. These two pictures are reproduced by kind permission of the Archivo General de la Nación in Buenos Aires.
The tracks led east from the port, around the foot of the town. They then turned north into the main station site. The station was very substantially built in stone, for the builders expected this to be a major terminus of a 500 mile (800 km.) route down from the north-west. There was a loco shed, turntable and the necessary warehouses and other equipment, but no major workshop facilities because it was anticipated that locos and rolling stock could run via Lago Nahual Huapi to San Antonio for overhauls. Of course this never came about.
The new station building at Puerto Deseado around 1912.
The turntable at Puerto Deseado with the loco shed behind. Whilst most mainline track survives (2001) many of the sidings at the terminus have been removed.
The region is extremely arid and like the routes of the other Patagonian broad gauge lines is mostly used for low density sheep-rearing. It climbs quickly from the coast to Tellier and sets off westward across an almost empty plateau rising very gently to Las Heras at a height of about 330m. (1,082 ft.) An itinerary of the places and features passed is on an appendix page.
Jaramillo station building above and water tower below. Jaramillo and Fitz Roy are the two main halfway stations and even they are adjacent to villages of only perhaps a couple of hundred people.
To the eyes of an outsider the emptiness of the landscape is the most striking feature. Reading a time-table one sees that in the 60 miles (100km.) after Tellier there are stations at Pampa Alta, Antonia de Biedma, Cerro Blanco and Ramon Lista before reaching Jaramillo and Fitz Roy. This seems reasonable - a station every 20km. It is only when actually traversing the route that one realises that that is precisely what was created - a passing loop and station house every 20 km. and absolutely nothing else in sight. In fact you can travel the full 100km. without noticing a single other house, except perhaps a sheep estancia or two visible through a pair of binoculars.
Pico Truncado, at 202 Km. almost became a junction when a branch was proposed to the oil wells at Cañadon Seco. This might well have been the route chosen if the Puerto Deseado line had been linked up to the Comodoro Rivadavia railway, as was also proposed at one point.
Las Heras station. A pacific is is on a train and a four-wheeled van is also present. Typical Patagonian farm carts are on the left. These, and the kerosene headlamp, suggest that this was certainly taken pre-war.
The track was laid with 8, 10 and 12 m. rails of between 31 and 37 Kg. per m. on wooden sleepers. The maximum gradient was 1.7% near the coast. The line was obviously single track throughout with fairly basic equipment. There were warehouses at four stations in total and a wagon weighbridge at Puerto Deseado. Water supply was from wells using windpumps.
The opposition in its early days. A convoy of Dodge trucks arrives at Puerto Deseado from the west sometime in the 1920s (2). Wool bales are piled on several of the lorries.
Gun-fights at the stations
The passenger timetables for 1928, 1930 and 1936 follow.
It will be noted that by 1936 one of the two weekly trains had become a coche motor.
Rodney Long's 1926 report (4) lists the following figures for merchandise carried in 1915 and 1923:
Notice that there is relatively little livestock haulage. Mr. Long comments that the estancia owners continued to drive their animals on the hoof to the frigorificos.
A second table, below, shows that in its early years the line did sometimes get into the black, but as soon as road transport started to develop I suspect receipts must have plummeted.
The pattern through until the 1940s can be gleaned from the annual Estadística reports:
The 1947 history of Argentinean railways (5) sets out basic cargo and passenger figures for the early 1940s:
Freight traffic clearly rose substantially in 1942-4, possibly as a result of increased road fuel prices during a period of wartime fuel shortages.
The itinerario (working timetable) for 1946 has been studied, and also the public passenger timetable for late 1955 which is available on an appendix page. In 1946 there was solely one mixed train per week, departing from Puerto Deseado at 0900 on a Monday and reaching Las Heras by 1730 that evening. It returned on Wednesdays.
By 1955 this had been replaced by a thrice-weekly coche motor, outwards from Puerto Deseado at 13.30pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and in each case returning the following day. It should be noted that the cocke motor took 5 hours 45 minutes for the uphill journey, compared to the 8 hours 30 minutes of the steam train. In both cases the downhill run was thirty minutes shorter.
The 1973 report (6) summarises freight traffic during the 1960s as follows:
It is obvious that goods traffic had fallen significantly since the '40s though the (admittedly poor) passenger figures had held up much better. The principal goods at the time was lead and zinc brought by road across the border from Puerto Cristal near Puerto Aisen in Chile. Wool and sheepskins was the second largest category.
Passenger railcars by the 1970s were operating once or twice a week in winter and three or four times in summer, returning the following day.
Three of the tickets are for 'Clase Unica' the standard class of the railcars. The second one however is 'Primera Clase' . Whether the railcars had a small first class compartment or the irregular freights maintained a 1st class coach is not clear.
The price has been left blank on the first two tickets, a wise measure in a country subject to high inflation and where the ticket might not be issued for several years!
The third card has a fixed price and the 'use on day of issue only' is emphasised. This ticket looks almost like a day return that has been redesigned as a single.
Finally the fourth one is an employee's privilege single the whole length of the line.
A long-drawn-out decline and closure
The telegram which announced the closure of the line (8).
Since the final closure of the line in January 1979 there have been intermittent calls for its reopening. A detailed report was produced at one point, and a bimodal wagon was tried out on the track. Because of all the discussion the tracks have mostly been left in place, though often covered by sand or dug out to ease a farm crossing. Much of this track was second hand in the first place and it would not carry much after sixty years of neglect and another twenty of abandonment. However, perhaps its continued existence has prevented other landuses from encroaching on the trackbed!
The view along the track - at Fitz Roy, December 2000.
Locos and stock
There is a brief history of this railway and a few photos in the following website. Click on the links below to go to the text and to a gallery of photos.
There is also a page by Humberto Brumatti dealing with the railway's postal service. Click on the link below:
The FCE broad gauge network