right to the photos of the Transandine Railway / A las fotos del Ferrocarril
Trasandino, pulse aquí/here.
Foto: The Tail of the Hemisphere, by Frank G. Carpenter
The Transandine Railway was completed in 1910, or at least the Cumbre tunnel
was opened in that year, allowing rail transport from the Atlantic port
of Buenos Aires to the Pacific port of Valparaiso, Chile. That was
not an unbroken connection, since the Transandine was a narrow gauge and
flatland trains had to be crossloaded. By the time I first saw the Transandine
in 1978, when I rode my motorcycle through the Cumbre Pass tunnel, the
railroad had nearly ceased operations, in large part due to the highway
over the Andes at this point.
highway insulates modern travelers from the rigors of travel across these
mountains, and the greater difficulties that existed before the coming
of the railroad. It is valuable to recall some of those stories,
to reflect with admiration on the hardiness of others, and to remember
that you cannot achieve a proper perspective while standing on the dry
pavement during the summer.
Consider the tragic story of attempting to pass this way, over the Cumbre
Pass, in the days of the mule-paths, before the coming of the train....
[Chilean] youth not long since came from Chili to visit a relative
on the Argentine side of the Cordillera. His stay was protracted, for he
had met with a beautiful maiden, far lovelier than those of his native
country; and when he left, it was only to receive the permission of his
friends to return again, and claim her as his own. He crossed these mountains
to Chili; but the fierce temporales from the south had commenced before
be reached the main range on his return, where the risk is greater in effecting
a passage at such a season than on any other part of the road. He had with
him experienced guides, and a favorite mule carried his wedding garments
and the presents that he intended to offer his future bride.
On the Cumbre pass, at an elevation of twelve thousand feet, a temporal
struck the party, and one by one the mules became buried in the snow.
"The boy worked like a hero (I was with the company), and during the storm
his orders were obeyed by the muleteers with alacrity, for they loved him
well.But all exertions proved unsuccessful; not an animal escaped; and
the weary party descended the Cumbre into the valley, worn out with their
tremendous labors. The boy never lived to leave the valley; there he lies,
'--pointing to the cross,--- 'buried in his chosen spot. The guides
piled stones upon his body, to keep the condors from devouring it. See!
There is one now watching the grave."
I looked to the place designated, and saw upon the opposite cliff a huge
dark-colored bird, that stood sentinel-like, a solemn watcher above
the unfortunate Chileno's grave."
"The Pampas and Andes: A Thousand Miles' Walk Across South
America." Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1869
The photograph below shows a Garret
locomotive that was used on the Transandino.
Here is an excerpt from
"Railways and Geography" by A.C. O'Dell, former professor of Geography
at the University of Aberdeen (published in 1956):
Transandine railway crosses the Andes and is a link in the communication
chain between Valparaiso and Buenos Aires. The ascent is made from the
west in 50 miles whereas on the east double that distance is used. In the
45 miles from Los Andes is a metre-gauge line which has adhesion working
on gradients of 1 in 12-1/2. The meter-gauge continues across the
frontier to Mendoza. The total journey of 888 miles from ocean to ocean
by this rail route, which uses the Uspallata Pass, requires about 36 hours.
When the line was opened throughout in 1910 it was made possible to travel
from Hamburg to Valparaiso in less than 20 days: Hamburg to Genoa by rail
2 days, Genoa to Buenos Aires by mail steamer 16 days and thence by rail
to Valparaiso 1-1/2 days, and this compared with a sea journey between
Buenos Aires and Valparaiso via the Magellan Straits, of about a fortnight.
The line was closed from 1934-44 by the rupture of a glacier dam which
released a flood of water and destroyed stretches of the line on the Argentine
side. There is a plan to lower the present summit of 10,466 feet by boring
a thirteen miles long tunnel under the pass. While this is the most direct
route across the Andes it is also possible to make a detour north through
Bolivia, using the British-owned Antofagasta line, to the Pacific or to
make a detour to the south. From Buenos Aires express trains run via Bahia
Blanca to San Carlos de Bariloche (1,082 miles) and then by lake motor-vessel
and bus the journey may be made to Puerto Varas whence there is a diesel
service by rail to Puerto Montt and Santiago: this roundabout journey
takes 5-1/2 days.
The history of the Transandino railway has some interesting sidebars.
In 1887 the Chilean government contracted an English engineering company
to made a study of the possibility of running a railroad across the Andes,
to allow a freight and passenger link between the Chilean central valley
and the Argentine city of Mendoza. This would then allow a rail connection
to Buenos Aires. The English, faced with snow conditions which covered
much of the proposed route for most of the year, contracted with some Norwegians,
who spent about two years surveying the area on skis. The ski business
thus started in Chile, since in 1889 the Chilean government hired 14 Norwegians
to carry the mails over the Andes to Argentina. Unfortunately, this
did not prove to be enough of a success to continue for long.
Nevertheless, during the construction of the railroad, skiing became a
popular pastime with the English engineers, and skis also served them in
their work of getting around. When the railway was completed in 1910, skiing
had caught on to the point that the train was being used as a sort of ski-lift,
allowing people to ski between the area now called Caracoles and Juncal.
This route passed through Portillo, which of course subsequently gained
international fame as a ski resort.
The Transandino Railway was once considered one of the greatest railroad
rides that you could take, and it represented one of the greatest
challenges to railroad construction in the world, due to the steepness
of the grade and the ravages of avalanche. It was expensive to build
and expensive to maintain, and did not succeed as a money-making enterprise.
And there are many historians who have suggested that the location was
unsuitable, and that perhaps if it had been located in a better place that
it would have seen a greater degree of success.
The final Cumbre tunnel is at an elevation of over 10,000 feet and is about
a mile long. During 1978, and the tensions between Chile and Argentina
of the ownership of the Beagle Channel islands, passenger service on the
Transandino was suspended, and in 1982 the use of the railway for freight
also came to an end.
as I ride along the abandoned and disintegrating rails and snowsheds, there
is a certain sadness. No doubt this is something that real railroad
fans know well, and increasingly so, as more and more of the world's
great mountain railroads fall into oblivion. As in the story of the
unfortunate Chileno, the scavengers now hover over the remains of these
For more photos of the current state of the Transandino rails and subsquent
other Transandine Railway photos new and old, click