A comprehensive plan - never completed
Broad gauge pacific no. 355 sits in the shed at Comodoro Rivadavia in 1975, awaiting its leisurely weekly jaunt up to Sarmiento.
The failure of the great majority of these schemes to come to fruition resulted from several factors: The Argentine economy was slow to grow during the 1890s; the heated boundary disputes with Chile made potential investors wary of Patagonia until the settlement of 1903; some proposals were in the nature of political bargaining counters rather than serious private enterprise construction schemes; and some relied on mineral resources later found to be less than had been hoped for. Latterly there was also bureaucratic footdragging, for once the government realised that it might have to build the railways itself then any potential competitor (including the FCCC's proposed extension westwards to the cordillera) became a threat to be headed off.
A proposed state-funded broad gauge network
"As early as 1908 therefore, the government had decided to build a number of 'Ferrocarriles de Fomento' (development railways) in the National Territories, powers being granted by Act 5559. These comprised three broad gauge lines, running from Atlantic ports to settlement zones inland, together with links between them to create an integrated network. The northernmost was to run from the port of San Antonio to San Carlos de Bariloche, on Lake Nahuel Huapi, with a branch to Colonia 16 de Octubre (later known as Trevelin) to the south of Esquel. Further south lines would run from Comodoro Rivadavia (an important naval port) and Puerto Deseado, westwards towards Lago Buenos Aires, whence a link would head north to Colonia 16 de Octubre.
Construction of all three lines commenced in 1909, and by 1914 – when work came to a standstill - the San Antonio line had progressed 307km. to somewhere near the present-day Los Menucos, the Comodoro Rivadavia line had reached Colonia Sarmiento (194km.) and the line from Puerto Deseado, Colonia las Heras (287km.). As far as the two southerly railways were concerned, this was destined to be as far as they ever got.
Fired by the possibility of connecting up with the Great Southern (FC Sud) , and providing a through broad gauge route all the way from Buenos Ayres, work continued on the San Antonio line and this reached Viedma in 1925. At the western end of the line, construction had reached Cumallo, only 100km. from Bariloche, by 1924, after which it slowed dramatically, and Bariloche was not reached until 1934."
The original proposed network
[The engineer Guido Jacobacci was buried amongst many notable people in the cemetery of La Recoleta in Buenos Aires. However, in 2004, his descendants decided that his resting place should be in the town which bears his name. As a result his remains were moved by train on 14th September 2004 (2A).]
Views of railways being constructed are not very common, but Señor Ricardo Vallmitjana's archive in Bariloche does contain a few interesting ones.
This view shows a small tank engine and two side tipping muck wagons. The view was taken right at the start of the works at Puerto San Antonio Oeste.
Because of the remoteness of the works it was necessary to hold comprehensive stores of all sorts of things as this view inside a warehouse shows.
One of the engineers on the project was Ing Emilio Frey, who later went on to become Director of the national park centred on Bariloche. Here he's at work in his office, an old railway carriage. . .
…and relaxing with colleagues in the same office, which was equipped with modern devices such as the portable typewriter, bottom left, and a continuously reading barograph, to the right of Ing Frey's head.
However, domestic arrangements were a bit less sophisticated, as this view of his newly-wed wife sitting outside the family home shows.
Taking the line across a plain started by moving boulders from where the track was to be laid.
And here is a view taken from the same cart of the track stretching into the distance with the boulders placed at either side.
As there were no roads which could be used for getting men and materials into the area, the priority was very much to get a line across any declivities as quickly as possible. Here cribs of sleepers have been built to support the line prior to the formation of the embankments and the bridge.
Here a small steam crane, looking rather precarious, has been advanced along the temporary track to assist in the construction of the next crib. On the far side can be seen small tipper wagons engaged on the formation of the embankment.
Once the railhead at Pilcaniyeu had been reached, through traffic could be conveyed the final 45 or so miles by motorcar along a hastily prepared road with timber bridges…
…unless the width was too great when fording was resorted to. While the site of this ford is not noted. I suspect that it is the Río Limay a short distance downstream from its leaving Lago Nahuel Huapi.
A view at the rail head at Pilcaniyeu showing passengers transferring to the waiting road vehicles.
The government at the time was interested in extending the San Antonio line across the cordillera and into Chile to create a coast-to -coast route. An American geologist, Bailey Willis, was commissioned to report on aspects of the area's hydrology and development potential and on possible transport routes. His first report appeared in 1912 (3) but a change of government and subsequent economies meant that his contract was not renewed. Railway routes suggested by Willis included lines from Bariloche to Esquel and north-eastwards to San Martín, Junín and the FC Sud at Zapala. The focus of these was to be a new industrial city at the end of Lake Nahuel Huapi east of Bariloche.
Lack of money and political will
The curtailment of the original plans was not solely due to a lack of cash during the First World War. Dr. Ramos Mexía had resigned his ministerial position in 1913 and his successors lacked the drive to push the proposals to completion. In addition, his original scheme had involved the ministry of agriculture in plans to encourage the settlement of the areas alongside the railways. The ministry of public works, in charge of the railway proposals, never really took this on board so the anticipated growth of traffic just did not materialise.
Three sections built
Beyond Ingeniero Jacobacci, where the line passed through the foothills of the Andes, the original pacifics were hard-pressed to handle the heavy FC Sud through coaches and double heading was resorted to. Note how each engine has a tanker behind it for additional water.
The original plans for a network linking each of these lines were recast in narrow gauge form after the First War as is explained in Chapter 7 – 'Trocha Económica' or Economic Gauge as the local expression had it. The trans-Andean dream was still very much alive in the 1920s but had reverted to a more northerly course from Zapala, rather than from Bariloche (4). It seems to have been the world depression of the late '20s and early '30s which finally put paid to that proposal.
On the nationalisation of Argentina's other railways in 1948 the San Antonio line naturally joined the FC Sud in the new FC General Roca whilst the other two were combined with the erstwhile FCCC to become the FC Patagónico. The latter was really too small a unit to be operated economically and during the 1950s it too came under the Roca's umbrella.
The letterhead from an FCP form, kindly provided by Sergio Barral, shows how the railway was entitled from 1948 onwards.
Semi-desert, but almost deserted too
The two southernmost lines, like the FCCC, have always suffered from their isolation. To be of any use they must carry goods to and from the cities of the north. This they can only do with the aid of the coastal shipping services, as lorries have no need to transfer their loads to the railway for the last portion of the journey. Unfortunately the shipping services were slow, irregular and unreliable. Goods suffered in transit and there was a distinct lack of user-friendliness about the whole complicated system. Railway reports in the 1950s and '60s continually bemoan (albeit politely) the impossibility of working with the shipping lines. In contrast, lorry services were increasingly seen as fast, reliable and offering a flexible door-to-door service.
An advertisement from Argentina Austral magazine shows the three broad gauge routes plus the FCCC and the connecting bus service to Esquel. The ad. is promoting passenger journeys by sea between Patagonia and the Federal Capital.
A north-south coastal railway?
With hindsight of course, the single north-south coastal railway is exactly what should have been built at the start. Once reliable road services began to compete nothing else had a hope of surviving. A trunk line through each of the coastal towns - perhaps as far as Rio Gallegos - would still have a useful purpose.
Calls for the 'Trans-Patagonian' railway to be constructed continue to be made by politicians to the present day, but there seems little hope of the government having that sort of money available, particularly for an area offering so few votes in return.
The rest of this chapter
Ministro Ezequiel Ramos Mexía, the architect of the intended Patagonian broad gauge network.
The FCE broad gauge network