Getting the coal to the coast
That there were coal deposits to be mined in the far south, was known back in the 19th century. On the Chilean side of the border there were small mines near Punta Arenas as is described on the Mina Loreto page. Other deposits have been listed on the Overview page, together with a number of schemes for railways to aid in their exploitation.
Whilst there were deposits on the Argentinian side of the border they suffered from the difficulty of not being able to get the product out easily without crossing Chilean territory. This had also been a difficulty in the development of agriculture further north, in for example the Río Baker area. I suspect this was the reason why it was not until the 1940s that exploitation started in the Río Turbio district of Santa Cruz province.
Coal from Río Turbio
It was the war-time shortage of coal that prompted the new excavations. Argentina had relied heavily on Welsh coal that rapidly became unavailable as the U-boat war developed. The country experienced a serious fuel crisis, despite increased oil production and the use of wood and other 'biomass' fuels for locomotives up in the north. At any rate Río Turbio was producing coal by 1943, under the supervision of a new division of the state petroleum producer, YPF, known initially as the División Carbón Mineral, and later as Combustibles Sólidos Minerales. At this stage costs were vastly higher than receipts but this was accepted as a necessary stage in the development of a new industry.
Sentinel steam wagons
The next difficulty was to get the coal out to an Argentinean port from whence it could be shipped north. In 1949 retired Admiral Juan A. Martin of the Argentinean Navy was quoted as saying that 'Under no circumstances would Rio Turbio coal be shipped out via Puerto Natales' (1). For the first few years petrol lorries were used, consuming incidentally more energy than they actually carried and often being abandoned on the road for lack of parts to repair them!, but in 1950 they received a fleet of 'S' type undertype (ie with cylinders below the frame) steam lorries from Sentinel of Shrewsbury, England. These were the last steam lorries to be built for commercial use anywhere in the world, and one commentator suggests that the Argentine state never completed the payments for them! (8). Under the technical supervision of a Mr. McKay from the Falklands they operated in convoys of 10-15 taking 12 hours for the journey to Rio Gallegos (7). They were relatively modern in design but still used a substantial proportion of their load during the 320 mile round trip and it became obvious that only a railway would do the job properly. One of the Sentinels is preserved at Río Turbio, and another lies at Lujan zoo near Buenos Aires. They were known colloquially as 'los chufi'. Recent reports suggest that some of them remained in use until 1959 (6) (8).
A small coal washing plant was also brought into use in 1950, another stage in the transformation of an experimental facility into a practical production plant.
The surviving Sentinel lorry is shown below, as it is now at the Rio Turbio mining museum. The other photos show the Sentinel name cast into the undertype engine housing and the wheel hubs respectively.
The first proposals had been to build a line via El Zurdo across to Santa Cruz. This idea was postponed when estimates of the coal reserves were reduced. However, in 1946 revised estimates of 100,000,000 tons provoked further thought. A new route was surveyed using the río Turbio and río Gallegos valleys. This was only two-thirds the length of the Santa Cruz line but a new port would be needed at Río Gallegos. The new course would also be less steep and would suffer less from blizzards (2) (6). A 1949 report suggests that the final change of plan was only made at a very late stage; this was possibly after additional survey work had proved that steep gradients would not in fact be necessary along the route to Rio Gallegos. Earlier work by FCE engineers had suggested that a practical route could not be found (8). Land for sidings had been bought at Santa Cruz and in 1949 there were engineers there awaiting the 'go-ahead' on the original route (1).
The mine owners, at that stage Argentina's national petroleum company (Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales or YPF), cast around for an easy way to build the line. The solution was to use some of the 75cm. gauge equipment and stock that was still lying at Puerto Madryn, unused since the abandonment of the ambitious 1922 plans. 300km of 17.36 kg/m rail were available there, with another 90 km of similar material at Rio Grande for the Ministry of Marine's abortive Tolhuin railway.
Given the Patagonian climate, all work had to be completed during the months of October to April. However, unloading of equipment onto the beach at Río Gallegos began in May 1950. 50,000 tons of equipment arrived in this way for Río Gallegos still had no port as yet (2). 250,000 broad gauge sleepers were sourced from the FCNGR, making 500,000 narrow gauge ones when sawn into two. A variety of fittings, such as point levers, also came from various parts of the newly-nationalised rail system.
Ing. Atilio Cappa was the engineer, an employee of the Ministry of Public Works. In a departure from traditional practice motor lorries were used to transport material beyond the railheads. By May 1951 all but two miles were complete, with the finishing touches made in September, after the worst of the winter.
These two black and white photos are of the first days of the line. The one above is supposed to be of the very first train to run right through - hauled by a Henschel 2-8-2 and made up mostly of four-wheeled wagons. The picture below was taken on the opening day, when the Minister of industry and commerce, Don José Constantino Barra, cut the tape to allow the first official train through in November 1951.
The formal opening was on 25th November 1951 (3). The railway was initially known as the Ramal Ferro Industrial Eva Peron (RFIEP or Eva Peron industrial railway line) which appropriately carried coal from the 'Yacimientos (mines) Juan Peron'. However, after the military coup in 1955 President Peron and his wife were not quite the flavour of the month and the railway was renamed the RFIRT, or Río Turbio industrial railway line.
A few wagon axlebox covers survive showing the original initials of the RFIEP. Observant readers will notice that this one was actually fastened on upside-down, as evidenced by the oil build up at the top as well as the dandelion top right!
The new line was laid with 17kg./m. rail from the stocks at Puerto Madryn (soon replaced with 24 and 32 kg./m.), and ten locomotives and a large number of wagons and cars were also shipped south from Puerto Madryn to operate the new link. The next pages describe the stock in detail.
Until a new muelle was opened at Río Gallegos in August 1952 all materials brought in and coal sent out had to use the beach. In fact the CSM, after first using the steamer Bahía Aguirre of the Comando de Transportes Navales ( a fleet auxiliary service supplying Patagonian establishments), purchased two tank landing craft from the US Navy.
The principal customer for the coal was the new San Nicolás power station in Buenos Aires province. There were others, and during the first few years the Perón government applied pressure to encourage the use of Río Turbio coal by for example the frigorifico in Pto. Deseado, but it was difficult to find willing private customers and throughout the life of the mine the vast majority of the coal has gone to government users.
As the railway gradually ceased to be the bottleneck limiting production, so output rose. A new coal washery opened in 1958 lifted throughput to 250 tonnes per hour. New ships were purchased, and at the same time coal moved out from under the shadow of the petroleum industry through the creation of Yacimientos Carboniferos Fiscales to take over the responsibilities of CSM including the mine and railway.
The route in detail
A detailed description of the features to be seen along the line can be found in Appendix 1. In summary, the route is 262km. long with ruling grades of 1 in 330 (0.3%) eastbound (loaded) and 1 in 160 (0.6%) westbound (empty). There were initially stations with passing loops every 15km. or so, but over the years many of these have become unmanned or even abandoned altogether. There are few big earthworks but there are three major river crossings. It must be emphasised that despite its narrow gauge, this was serious railway construction for heavy trains over a long distance.
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:
El RFIRT 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.
• RFIRT, Río Gallegos a Río Turbio A flight along the trackbed from Río Gallegos to Río Turbio.
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 hundreds of miles does at least give a clear impression of the problems of making such a railway pay its way.
1 Report dated 1949 by a Mr. Vaughan-Russell preserved in the National Archives/Public Record Office, Kew, London. Folder no. FO371/74320.
2 Fernando Carnero's webpages on the RFIRT were the source of many of the facts on this page.
3 Argentina Austral magazine, issue no. ???
4 The loco photo above is by courtesy of Andy Kirkham, 1995.
5 The Punta Loyola tippler photo is by David Sinclair, 1996.
6 An anonymous report in a website about the RFIRT, possibly written with the aid of Señor Alexis Boichetta.
7 A Report by Hector Perez Morando in el diario Rio Negro 10 April 2004.
8 Con corazón de carbón, by Sergio Garcia, a comprehensive study of the RFIRT in Todo Trenes magazine no 68, June 2009.