More recent changes
For many years the railway ran without any attention from the outside world. xxx Coal was obviously the main traffic, but there were also passenger coaches and diesel railcars for mine staff. A description of the line's operating procedures is given on a separate page. By the 1970s, however, the idea of a 75cm. railway running trains of 1000 tons plus attracted increasing numbers of enthusiasts.
However, there were warning clouds building up. It had always been difficult to find sufficient customers for Río Turbio coal, and in fact a big stockpile had been built up in the hope that new buyers would eventually appear. For many years this did not matter, for the YCF as a nationalised industry was not obliged to be profitable. As an example, in the mid 1970s roughly 500,000 tonnes of coal per annum was sold whilst anything up to 1,500,000 tonnes had actually been produced. In fact YCF by then was making more than half of its income from the sale of 'petroleum coke' produced by YPF from its wells in Neuquen, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. This whole scenario had led to an atmosphere of complacency throughout the organisation, epitomised by there being 3,000 office workers as compared to 1,300 miners in Río Turbio!
However, Argentina, in common with many other countries, was increasingly turning to oil and gas for its energy. Winds of privatization were already blowing through other industries such as the state railways and petroleum. In 1988 YCF gave up running its own shipping fleet, and in an idiosyncratic and fairly meaningless gesture the railway altered its name to the Ferrocarril Industrial Río Turbio, a change easily made by just deleting the initial 'R' from RFIRT., though there were alternatives as the photo below illustrates.
Then in 1994 came privatization of the mine and railway. In fact the government would probably have liked to close the mine completely, but could not face the political consequences, so like many governments elsewhere, they decided to off load the unpopularity onto others. A ten year concession to run both mine and railway was announced, to a consortium to be known as the Yacimiento Carboniferos Río Turbio SA or YCRT. The nature of this arrangement can be gathered from the annual subsidy of $US22,5M and the obligation on the operator of the San Nicolás power station to buy Río Turbio coal at well over market price for the ten years!
There were instant changes. The mine replaced its hundreds of tub wagons with a conveyor belt system, and the railway its twenty steam engines with four ex-Bulgarian State Railways diesels. As Sergio Garcia commented in his comprehensive article in the Todo Trenes magazine in 2009 (1), this did not just reflect improved efficiency but more importantly the vast reduction in the traffic being carried. There was a lot of comment in the enthusiast press about an efficient fleet of steam locos being laid aside, but the practical reality was that spare parts were difficult to find and steam crews and fitters difficult to recruit.
The one positive step was the construction of a new port at Punta Loyola south-east of Río Gallegos, necessitating the building of a new branch line. Punta Loyola had been suggested as the railway's coastal terminus back in 1950, for the water depth can cope with ships of 25,000 tonnes rather than the 10,000 tonnes of Rio Gallegos. At that stage however, the decision had been made to avoid the extra track mileage needed to reach Punta Loyola.
A new bridge on the branch, over the río Chico, utilises a span rescued from the closed broad gauge line out of Comodoro Rivadavia. Punta Loyola is also notable for its wreck of an iron sailing ship, the Marjory Glen , illustrated in an appendix page.
This photo shows the wagon tippler at Punta Loyola (5). On the extreme left is the tractor which pulls short rakes of wagons onto the tippler. As the railway does not use rotating couplers each wagon must be uncoupled before tipping.
In the years after the new port came into operation, the original route to Río Gallegos initially declined in importance and was then closed. All railway maintenance is now concentrated at Río Turbio and the workshops in Río Gallegos have been closed and the site cleared. The best of the steam locos, and other useful stock, were moved to the western end of the line where vandalism is less likely, and by 2011 the remaining derelict locos and wagons had been concentrated in a small compound adjacent to the Ferro-afficionados club-house.
With hindsight the YCRT was not trying to maximise business and turnover, but merely to minimise costs. The inevitable result was the run-down of skills, maintenance and the state of the equipment. By the year 2000 the railway was characterised as being merely a linear scrapyard, with just one train a week. There was also a serious accident in the mine, with fourteen miners losing their lives.
This had not gone un-noticed. In 2002 the government rescinded the concession and took back the operation of the mine and railway, prompted finally by the San Nicolás power station operators breaking their contract and starting to import coal from South Africa.
The long term future of of the mine is still not certain, but initial moves have been encouraging. Further diesels have arrived from Bulgaria; new wagons have been ordered, and even a pair of new passenger coaches.
Coal railways including the RFIRT