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Spare equipment builds a new line further north

A number of proposals were made for broad-gauge railways to access the lower and middle parts of the Río Negro valley. The FC Sud was awarded concessions at various times – to unite San Antonio with Rio Colorado in 1908, and to link San Antonio with Choele-Choel in 1912 (1). Neither of these came to fruition. In 1929 a further proposal was made by the Sud to run a railway up the valley, from Patagones to Darwin on their Neuquen line. This met opposition from the shipping interests on the river and it too failed to get off the ground. It was left to the narrow gauge to fill the gap, albeit inadequately and with little success.

Sugar beet on the Río Negro
In the late 1920s Don Juan Pegasano and Don Benito Raggio promoted the development of a sugar beet industry in Rio Negro province. They set up a company (variously known formally as the Cia. Industria y Agricola San Lorenzo Ltda. or the Cia. Industrial San Lorenzo Ltda.) to build a refinery at San Lorenzo just east of Conesa on the Rio Negro river. Machinery was imported from Skoda in Czechoslovakia and three beet producing 'colonies' were established, at San Lorenzo itself and at La Luisa (to the east) and San Juan (to the west). They seem to have come to an arrangement with the FCE to construct a railway joining these locations with the new 'ingenio' and with the FCE broad gauge at Estación Gral. Vintter east of San Antonio. The rails and rolling stock were to be provided by the state railways from the 75cm gauge stockpile at Puerto Madryn, but the civil engineering and buildings were by the San Lorenzo company, thus explaining the individual design of stations as mentioned below.

The various laws and decrees which permitted the construction of the Rio Negro 75cm gauge branch are set out in this summary found in the Retiro railway museum. It will be noted that the original suggestion was for the line to set off from Nueva Leon station on the broad gauge, rather than Gral. Lorenzo Vintter, the next station west, which was eventually preferred.

LawsdecreesRioNegro

A share certificate for the beet refining company who built the railway (11).

RioNegro2011K

A new line to the refinery
In the early 1930s therefore, a certain amount of the spare 75cm. gauge equipment was sent north to to build a 66 mile (105km.) line to provide access to the refinery. The line commenced on the broad gauge east of San Antonio at General Lorenzo Vintter station, and ran north and then north-westwards up the Rio Negro through the town of Conesa and on to San Juan, which later became Coronel F. Sosa. 15 August 1935 was the date of completion, though trains were running to the ingenio by the end of the previous year. The Ferrocarriles del Estado were the operators (2). There was some local muttering at the time about the inadequacy of the ' trocha conómica' (economical or narrow-gauge track) (3). The official opening may not have been until July 1937 (4).

RioNegroingeniobuildings

Above are seen narrow gauge vans outside the principal buildings of the refinery, whilst below high-sided open wagons ('bordes altos') are being emptied of the raw sugar beet which is being deposited in big concrete troughs which still exist amongst the derelict remains of the ingenio (). The frames over the wagons suggest that the beet was protected from the weather during its journey.

RioNegrounloading

Initially, before the completion of the route beyond the main refinery, the timetable allowed a path for a daily goods train each way, crossing at Km 39 and taking about four hours for the journey to San Lorenzo. At this stage there were no scheduled passenger trains.

The plaque unveiled at the opening of the refinery (11). Maybe the winged wheel held by one of the figures at the top is supposed to represent the railway, but if so it is unfortunately unflanged and so perhaps a harbinger of the whole project heading off course in later years.

RioNegro2011L

Problems in the beet fields
It was intended that the narrow-gauge should be extended to Choele-Choel, however it soon became apparent that beet production was not doing too well. Whilst local opinion is that the cane producers of the north applied pressure through the government to impose an inadequate quota of 2,000 tonnes per year of beet sugar from Rio Negro, it is also true that disease and weather conditions also hindered the new industry. Irrigation costs, and the gauge change at General Vintter cannot have helped. Whatever the reasons, the 'ingenio' (refinery) ceased operations in 1941 and the equipment was sold. (5) The local communities have not forgotten the good years, however, and in some ways seem to regard the 1930s as their time of glory.

The railway seems to have staggered on for some years. Whilst half of the wagons had been transferred to the newly-built Esquel line by 1945, 67 or so remained to be worked by two out of the original 6 Henschel 2-8-2s.

There are various dates quoted for the line's closure, from 1960 onwards, but the closure of stations did not appear in a supplement to the Manual de Estaciones until 1965. The Rio Negro newspaper reported the lifting of the track in 1968 (6). An itinerary of locations along the line is available in an appendix page.
 

Tracing the route using Google Earth
Readers who have the Google Earth program can right click (control-click on a Mac) on the following link:

Linea angosta Rio Negro on Google Earth.zip

Save the file to your desktop and double-click to decompress it. Open the folder and drag the KMZ file onto Google Earth's Places palette. You will now find that you have placemarks for each of the main locations along the route, and a path to enable you to 'fly through' the route as if in a helicopter. Select this and click on the start button to commence the flight.

Ferrocarril trocha angosta Rio Negro A flight along the route from the junction with the broad gauge at General Vintter, northward to the Río Negro and then north west to the terminus.

Generally the route is clearer without the overlying vector path being checked and visible, but with the appropriate station placemarks checked. Flights or 'tours' in this website are best done with the Google Earth touring preferences set to a camera tilt angle of about 60 degrees, and a camera range of about 300m.

"Fly-throughs' on such long routes as this one can be extremely tedious unless the Google Earth preferences are set to a fairly high speed. If looking for a particular location you might be better advised to click on a named placemark. However, the monotony of following the trackbed across the bare pampa for many miles does at least give a clear impression of the problems of making such a railway pay its way.

Locomotives
The FCE working timetables and appendices suggest that at least six Henschels (including nos. 136, 137, 138, 141,144 and 149) went to General Vintter initially, together with one of the crane tanks for use on construction trains. However, after the closure of the ingenio in 1941 several engines were taken elsewhere, leaving just two Henschels (136 & 141) to work the remaining traffic.

The photo below shows Henschel 2-8-2 no. 138 in original condition at General Vintter on 22 November 1937 (7). This was a couple of years after the line began operating. Note the rather puzzling coupler, with a long link stretching over the extended cowcatcher (pilot). Other interesting early features include the original sandboxes, the individual brass numbers and the traversing jacks. Broad gauge wagons stand in the background.

In 1934 whilst the route was still under construction, three of these Henschels had been recorded as coal-burning, whilst the other three including this one were oil-burners as proved by the tank mounted on the tender.

HGenlVintter1

 

A loco on a long train, but surprisingly not made up of 'bordes altos' for the beet traffic. The tank wagon behind the tender may well have carried additional loco water.

 

A27RioNegroline034

 

A photo exists showing six Henschel 2-8-2s without tenders and standing on mixed gauge track (8). This might have been at San Antonio works, either for this line or for the Ingeniero Jacobacci - Esquel route, or they may have been photographed at General Vintter on their initial unloading.

Wagons and one coach
Rolling stock was from the Puerto Madryn and San Antonio stockpiles. The FCE 1934 stocklist (9) gives a total of 116 wagons - including 22 vans, 38 high-sided, 15 normal length platforms, 27 extra long platforms, 8 water tanks and 7 oil tanks. By 1945 however this was reduced to a total of 67, including 5 livestock wagons which had arrived later. There was also a single composite or 'mixto' carriage, converted from 2nd class coach no. 1223 and there from the start. An initial complement of 7 furgons had been reduced to one by 1945.

A poor photo, but showing beet being transferred from a lorry to high-sided wagons. for shipment to the refinery.

A27RioNegroline035

Timetables
The 1934 and 1946 working timetables are fortunately available and have been studied. At the earliest date the route was still under construction but there was a 'carga condicional' daily except Sundays from Genl. Lorenzo Vintter to Km 74, departing at 8.00am and taking four hours for the journey. The return journey ran every day except Monday, perhaps implying that the loco stayed overnight at the railhead.

The 1936 passenger timetable is displayed below, showing that a 'Mixto' ran twice a week in each direction, taking almost five hours outward from General Vintter and slightly shorter in the return direction. Of course there may well have been additional goods only workings, particularly during the 'remolacha' or sugar beet season.

FCPtimetable1936RioNegro

By 1946, of course, the sugar-beet processing 'ingenio' had been closed and the trains running through to Coronel Fransisco Sosa were limited to a goods train as necessary ('condicional') on a Tuesday and returning on a Wednesday, and a 'mixto' on a Saturday returning on a Monday. The goods train took around six hours for the journey, whilst the mixto ran somewhat quicker and took about four and a half hours.

The railway nowadays
This route has left few traces, for it ran across flat pampa with few earthworks, and further north the road parallel with the Rio Negro has swallowed some of the remainder in the usual expansive way of Patagonian roads.

Nevertheless, there are a few remnants to be found. At the southern end the broad gauge station at General Vintter is largely derelict, and whilst the narrow gauge tracks were clearly removed fairly efficiently in the late 1960s, there are still items of interest related to the station's role as a junction.

The station nameboard is difficult to read but the building behind remains fairly sound.

RioNegro2011E

The corral for transferring livestock has been stripped of its fencing but the raised platform beneath still stands.

RioNegro2011D

As does the end-on loading bay, with a broad gauge siding still in place beneath it.

RioNegro2011B

There were oil tanks here for locomotive fuel as well as water tanks. It is therefore not clear precisely what purposes this pumping station fulfilled.

RioNegro2011G

However, outside, the water tower stills stands.

RioNegro2011F

Somewhat puzzlingly, this fence is constructed from a multitude of 60cm gauge steel sleepers, possibly a remnant of the construction railway when the broad gauge was being built.

RioNegro2011C

A few hundred metres east of the station, the route to the Rio Negro valley turns north, by way of one side of the loco turning triangle. The trackbed here is still less vegetated that the surrounding pampa and can be identified fairly easily.

RioNegro2011A

Towards the other end of the line, San Lorenzo station remains sufficiently intact for a visitor to appreciate the Spanish colonial style of architecture chosen by Messrs. Raggio and Pegasano not only for the railway but also for their own villas in La Luisa and General Conesa. The roof has largely gone but the walls and platform edge give a feeling not only for the original design but for the isolation that must have prevailed here most of the time even when the line was nominally in operation.

RioNegro2011J

Just north of this station a triangle gave access to a branch running at right angles towards the river. This led to the sugar beet factory. To cross an irrigation ditch next to the main road it required a substantial truss bridge. This still stands, even carrying most of the original wooden sleepers. A water tank and the shell of a pumping station also remain, perhaps to provide water to the station for locos.

RioNegro2011I

The factory was efficiently stripped and demolished in the 1940s to prevent its use as a refinery. However, one can still see the big troughs into which the beet was tipped from the rail wagons alongside.

RioNegro2011H

The station at General Conesa was apparently demolished in the 1970s. The picture below shows it in its last years (6). The similarity with the building at San Lorenzo will be obvious.

GralConesastation

Other sections of trackbed may remain but have not been examined in any detail.

References
1 El Gran Libro de la Patagonia. 1997. Editorial Planeta Argentina SAIC. Page 165.
2
Historia de los Ferrocarriles Argentinos. 1947. published Ferrocarriles del Estado
3 Patagonia y sus Problemas. 1935. General José Maria Sarobe. Reference to dissatisfaction of Rio Negro provincial government on page 301.
4
Opening date given in Estadistica de los Ferrocarriles Argentinos, 1941 issue.
5 Río Negro daily. Issue of 9 April 1968.
6 Pueblos del Norte de la Patagonia 1779-1957. 1983. C. A, Vapnarsky. Centro de Estudios Urbanos y Regionales.
7 Photo provided by Christopher Walker, original source unknown.
8 San Antonio Oeste y el Mar - Orijen y Destino. 1996. Hector Juan Izco, publisher unknown.
9 FCE Patagonian lines working timetable no. 62 1934-5, and appendix to working timetable 1945. Buenos Aires.
10 Pueblos del Norte de la Patagonia 1779-1957. Op. cit.
11 The share certificate and celebratory plaque are held by the Museo Regional in General Conesa, to which thanks are due for permission to photograph them.
12 Both photos ...

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Estancia & frigorifico lines

Chapter 7

The 1922 75cm gauge empire

Glossary

Site map

RAILWAYS OF THE FAR
RAILWAYS OF THE FAR

Main pages

Grandiose plans

The 1922 locos

The 1922 rolling stock

Railcars

FCCC extensions

FCCC reconstruction photos

FCCC operations

FCCC extra photos

The line to Esquel

Esquel route construction photos

Esquel operations

More Esquel line photos

The Río Negro line

Com. Rivadavia to Punta Piedras

More photos at Com. Rivadavia

Other users of equipment

Appendices

1 List of locos

2 Rolling stock lists

3 The FCCC itinerary

4 The Esquel itinerary

5 The Río Negro itinerary

6 The 1942 FCCC timetable

7 1960 working timetable

8 Plan of Trelew

9 Track layout photos at Ing. Jacobacci

10 Perez report 1925

11 1955 report

12A 1957 report part A

12B 1957 report part B

12C 1957 report part C

12D 1957 report part D

12E 1957 report part E

12F 1957 report part F

13 1959 report

14 Calculos report

15 1961 report

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