Go 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 (1925).




      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. 
     But the 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.... 
 "...A [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."
 

Nathaniel Bishop, "The Pampas and Andes:   A Thousand Miles' Walk Across South America."    Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1869
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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):
The 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.  

         

     But now,  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 marvelous railways.


 
 
 

      For more photos of the current state of the Transandino rails and subsquent other  Transandine Railway  photos new and old, click here.
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