The Old Patagonian Express in Argentina. . . . . .
I remember it was a cool summer’s day in Hammersmith. Wandering down a side street I found the travel agent’s office. Inside, the woman at the desk said he was out and nodded across to a desk with the name ‘Roberto Meyer’ on a large sign next to a pile of papers with a dead fly on top. When he came in we had a long chat and I explained I wanted to find ‘the Old Patagonian Express’ made famous by Paul Theroux in a book of that name. Theroux had set out from Boston to see how far south he could get through the Americas by train – he finished with the ‘OPE’.
Later that year, 1998, I stood on a dusty, rock strewn car park in front of the railway station of El Maitén, deep in Patagonia, Argentina’s south. The place looked like a scene from a spaghetti western, Clint Eastwood likely to walk round the corner at any moment.
It was a long wait until a small black Baldwin oil burner wheezed into the station at the head of a string of green painted museum age coaches, ready for the 2 pm to Esquel. It was lovingly tended by the crew who set about oiling every part and polishing the red flashes on the paintwork. The coaches were battered and weather worn but comfortable enough, even the wood slatted seats in the open coaches. Along the side was the legend ‘La Trochita, El Viejo Expreso Patagonico’ - found at last! There weren’t so many passengers but I noticed they were loading two Harley Davidsons into a box car towards the back. Could La Trochita have been discovered by others too?
In the early afternoon heat, the Baldwin sweated as much as its crew but inside the cab was a wonderful arrangement of red painted hand wheels and levers, polished pipes – old maybe, but well cared for. Theroux hadn’t see it quite that way in the 1970’s ‘.... a kind of demented samovar on wheels, with iron patches on its boiler and leaking pipes on its underside and dribbling valves and metal elbows that shot jets of vapour sideways. It was fuelled by oil so it did not belch black smoke, but it had bronchial trouble, respirating in chokes and gasps on grades and wheezing oddly down the slopes when it seemed out of control...’
We set off, slowly working our way across, first, flat and dusty landscapes full of birds and a few trees. But this was the eastern edge of the Southern Andes and soon the line was looping and weaving about between low hills, crossing streams on rickety bridges. Each stop was a gentle halt as steam hissed, water was sloshed into the tender, furious oiling of the motion went on and then another gentle nudge forward in the hot sun. It was idyllic, it was hard to believe I was actually travelling on an almost deserted OPE. I picked up my book and read a slightly worrying piece about the journey, all 402 kilometres of it:
‘August 9th 1959; Passenger train derailed by effects of a gale.’
‘May 12th 1967; Passenger train derailed by gales near Lepá, km 315. Driver Mr Bovino.’
‘September 20th 1979; Passenger train derails at km 243 because of cow on the tracks, locomotive number 131.’
The idea of a line to Esquel had originated early in the twentieth century, and converted to legal form in 1909. They started building it in 1922 but ran out of money and stopped again in 1929. Then they started again in 1933 after half the route had been washed away in floods but it was only on 25 May 1945 - Independence Day - that the line finally reached Esquel. It was a surprisingly short life. It was to be used to carry wool out of Patagonia and bring settlers and construction materials in but almost before it was finished, roads had made it obsolescent. La Trochita never had a chance; it was over before it had started. By December 1993 they had formally closed it down, only to be reincarnated a few years later. A lot had happened since Theroux’s visit.
As the long afternoon faded into dusk ‘La Trochita’ pulled into the terminus at Esquel and a very satisfied passenger got off and stared up at the mountains around. He was proud and pleased – but then he thought, how do I get home?
I’m sure some readers will want to know more about that mysterious Baldwin and the railway; others of you will probably think of Patagonia as being ‘off limits’ in your lifetime, but the real point of the story is about the pleasures of train travel almost anywhere in the world and how railways intertwine with many different landscapes, and many different histories to create stories which last a lifetime for a traveller.
Today I have a poster, framed and on my study wall. It shows ‘Viejo Expreso Patagonico’, blasting up a gradient on the edge of the mountains, oily smoke trailing behind it. The perfect image of the steam train in the landscape.
You can see and read more about the Old Patagonian Express here.
John Swanwick has a lifetime interest in railways, beginning with trainspotting days in the East Midlands in the early 1960’s. After returning from a management career interspersed with travel around the world, John settled down to develop a more extensive interest in railway history. After completing a Masters degree in Heritage Interpretation/Museum Studies at Leicester University, John began collecting oral histories for the proposed railway museum at Birstall on the former Great Central route through Leicestershire. The oral histories contain the recollections of many who worked on, or used, the Great Central route prior to its closure in the 1960’s. The outcome is a series of recordings held in the archives of the National Railway Museum and the East Midlands Oral History group at Leicester.
The human interest in historical material is a particular interest for John and has led to writing several books and articles drawing on such material. John has also written several books about his travels and is currently researching and writing about trees in the landscape of Yorkshire and Leicestershire.
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