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British Enterprise in South America

The Activities of Two Important Systems


An interesting comparison between two types of locomotive on the Buenos Ayres Great Southern Railway

THE OLD AND THE NEW. An interesting comparison between two types of locomotive on the Buenos Ayres Great Southern Railway. On the left is an old passenger engine built in 1902, while on the right is a modern express “Pacific”. The earliest section of the railway system, now operating over 5,000 miles, was opened in 1865 between Buenos Aires and Chascomus, a distance of 71 miles.

THE opening up of South America by railway is one of the great achievements of modern times. In Argentina the develop-ments largely due to the railway have made the republic one of the great food-producing countries of the world. In Chile, on the other side of the continent, the pioneering work of the railway engineers has been valuable in numerous other ways.

Some of the important Argentine railways are described in the chapter “By Rail in the Argentine”. Particulars of the largest British-owned line in Chile, the Antofagasta railway, will be found in the chapter “The Magic of the Andes”.

The privately owned railway with the most extensive mileage in Argentina is the Buenos Ayres Great Southern Railway, which is a British concern. It is closely associated with another British-owned railway, the Buenos Ayres Western Railway. Both lines are on the 5 ft 6-in gauge, and serve one of the most important districts in South America.

The total mileage of the Buenos Ayres Great Southern is 5,085 (including allied Companies), and it serves the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires, with one line extending across country to the National Territory of Neuquen, near the Andes. It links the most important ports of the country, including Buenos Aires, the capital, Bahia Blanca, and Carmen de Patagones. The Buenos Ayres Western Railway has a total mileage of 1,930, and serves the western part of the province of Buenos Aires and part of the Pampa Territory. Both railways have highly important suburban sections in Buenos Aires.

Rolling stock of the Great Southern comprises 850 locomotives, over 1,400 coaches, and about 17,000 other vehicles. The locomotives include twenty-one three-cylinder simple “Pacific” express engines, with 6 ft 6-in coupled wheels, seventy-five other three-cylinder simple engines, 480 goods, engines (each engine and tender weighing 160 tons in working order), twelve “Garratt” locomotives, sixty-three 2-6-4 three-cylinder simple tank engines weighing 98 tons each, and a large number of two-cylinder compounds.

The Western Railway has 290 locomotives, 540 coaches, and about 7,500 other vehicles. The locomotives on this line include six up-to-date 4-8-0 two-cylinder express engines, and a large number of compounds. About 500 of the Great Southern engines are fitted to burn oil fuel, as are also a large proportion of those of the Western Railway.

An intensive suburban service is maintained between the Buenos Aires terminus of the Great Southern, Plaza Constitución, and the suburbs of Temperley, Quilmes, and other stations farther out. There are four tracks between Buenos Aires and Temperley.

The terminus of Plaza Constitución deals with over 400 trains daily. Although the local service is mainly steam-operated, good average speeds are maintained, and the numerous expresses which run to the popular suburbs of Banfield and Lomas cover the distances of eight and nine miles in thirteen and fifteen minutes respectively. The locomotives employed are the sixty-three tanks referred to above, and forty-two 2-6-2 two-cylinder tanks. There are also in service five Diesel electric train sets, three of eight coaches and two of five, as well as two smaller Diesel electric locomotives. The introduction of these trains has made it possible considerably to accelerate and thus to improve certain services. Plaza Once is the Buenos Aires terminus of the Western Railway. The local service is electrified on the third-rail system as far as the suburb of Moreno, and runs in conjunction with one of the main underground railways from the centre of the city, a frequent and fast service being maintained.

On the main lines of the Great Southern the principal towns are served by day and night trains provided with restaurant and sleeping cars. In the summer months the main line to the seaside resort of Mar del Plata is much used. Although it is only a single line from a point fifty-five miles from the capital, as many as two ordinary slow trains, five day expresses, and five night trains are run daily. Mar del Plata has been called the Brighton of Argentina.

On the opposite side of Argentina is the lovely Lake Nahuel Huapi, which lies 2,500 ft above sea-level, under the snow-capped peaks of the mountains near the Chilean border. This beauty-spot has been made accessible by the recent compl-etion of a State Railway line from San Antonio to the town of San Carlos de Bariloche. A fairly heavy tourist traffic has been attracted to this picturesque district, despite the long distance, about 1,087 miles, from the capital. The traffic between Buenos Aires and Carmen de Patagones over the Great Southern line has benefited, and trains of nearly 900 tons are run at relatively high speeds.

A 1,700 horse-power Diesel electric locomotive has been employed on express night trains between Buenos Aires and Olavarria (to the south) and back, running the 206 miles outwards and returning the same distance after waiting less than twenty minutes for the turn. Extended locomotive runs are common, and trips of 400 and 422 miles are performed daily.

The principal goods station of the Great Southern is Sola, in the southern part of Buenos Aires city, and from it train-loads consisting mainly of general merchandise are sent to all parts of the system, while trains arrive with produce. Bahia Blanca is the most important grain-shipping centre. A large proportion of the vast bulk of wheat and oats grown in the province of Buenos Aires finds its outlet through these two ports.

Telephone Train Control

Other important traffics are livestock, stone from the Tandil and Olavarria districts, potatoes from the Balcarce and Mar del Plata zones, and petroleum and its by-products from the oil-fields at Challaco and Plaza Huincul, and from the ports of Buenos Aires, La Plata, and Bahia Blanca. In addition, there are cement and lime from the Azul-Olavarria district, hay and fruit from the Rio Negro Valley, and salt from the Bahia Blanca district. Grain, cattle, wine, and general merchandise form the bulk of the goods traffic on the Western Railway.

Both railways are equipped practically in their entirety with telephone train control, with divisional control offices in Plaza Constitución and Once (Buenos Aires) and Bahia Blanca. The Great Southern has eight locomotive operating districts, and the Western has four; the largest is at Remedios de Escalada, seven miles from Buenos Aires, where over 200 engines are stationed.

Bahia Blanca, the “White Bay”, is about 397 miles from the capital, and has a population of over 100,000. It is some twenty miles from the Atlantic on an inlet resembling an estuary. It has two ports, Puerto Ingeniero White, built by the Great Southern Railway, and Puerto Gal van, constructed as an outlet for the Bahia Blanca North Western Railway, which is under the management of the Great Southern.

Both ports are operated as one, serving the whole of the southern part of the large and fertile province of Buenos Aires, and the rapidly developing territories of the Pampa and Rio Negro. The bulk of the export traffic consists of grain, principally wheat, of which up to two million tons have been shipped in a year. In addition to this, up to half a million tons of other classes of grain, chiefly barley, oats, rye, and linseed, have been exported through Bahia Blanca.

To cope with the increasing grain traffic, in 1908 the Great Southern built two elevators at the port of Ingeniero White, with a jetty providing berthing accommodation for four steamships. Each elevator has a storage capacity of 13,216 tons. As time went on and grain production increased it became necessary to add to these facilities, and in 1932 a modern central elevator of 80,000 tons capacity was built. It has up-to-date discharging, handling, and loading plant, as well as cleansing, separating, and clipping machines. The site selected was sufficiently close to the other elevators to enable the new one to be connected with them by belt-conveyers. The new elevator is served by a jetty with four loading berths.

EIGHT-COACH DIESEL ELECTRIC TRAIN on the Buenos Ayres Great Southern Railway

EIGHT-COACH DIESEL ELECTRIC TRAIN on the Buenos Ayres Great Southern Railway. Diesel electric traction is employed on some of the company's suburban lines. There are five Diesel electric train sets in service; three of eight and two of five coaches. There are also two Diesel electric locomotives for lighter work.

The figure of 80,000 tons is the storage capacity, the handling rate on the incoming side being 1,200 tons an hour, while on the outgoing side six steamships can be loaded simultaneously at the rate of 1,000 tons an hour each ship. This elevator is claimed to be the largest in South America. The equipment includes 120 conveyers, and there are over twelve miles of conveyer and elevator belting. The 80,000 tons of wheat are equivalent to about 3,000,000 bushels.

Grain wagons are unloaded in a shed 602 ft long and 134 ft wide; it is open at either end, and has six railway tracks of 5 ft 6-in gauge running through it. Each track has a line of eight unloading hoppers with a handling capacity of about 50 tons of grain each. The working-house section of the elevator contains 126 bins of a total capacity of 20,000 tons, while in the main storage section there are 196 bins, with a total capacity of 60,000 tons.

The present extensive system of the Great Southern Railway has grown from the original concession to build a railway about seventy-one miles long from Buenos Aires to the town of Chascomus, the line being opened in 1865. Chascomus is a centre for livestock, dairy farming, and maize-growing. The lines were later extended to Ayacucho, and then to Tandil, 200 miles from the capital, a healthy city and the centre of a dairy and agricultural district. There was a further extension to Bahia Blanca and to Mar del Plata. A line was afterwards built from Bahia Blanca westward to Neuquen, in the north-western corner of Patagonia, 740 miles from Buenos Aires. Some time later the line was extended to Zapala, 856 miles from the capital, the train journey taking thirty-one hours. The line passes through the Plaza Huincul oilfield, on its way to Zapala. The most southerly line of the Great Southern goes south from Bahia Blanca to Carmen de Patagones, a distance of 175 miles. It crosses the Rio Negro by a railway and road bridge to Viedma, the capital of the territory of Rio Negro, 577 miles from Buenos Aires.

Ambitious Reconstruction

Irrigation works constructed by the railway for the Government in the territories of Rio Negro and Neuquen, in conjunction with the building of the lines in these regions, have transformed a large stretch of wild country into a fertile area producing crops and fruit. Thus, at one end the railway operates in one of the great cities of the world, transporting the business man from his office to his home in a suburb, while at the other it is taming the wilderness and making it fit for settlers. The railway has also made ports to enable the settler to ship his crops to Europe.

The Great Southern has undertaken such diverse tasks as making a canal seventy-five miles long, establishing experimental farms, and operating steamships, building elevators, jetties, and ports. It enlarged and remodelled its terminal station at Plaza Constitución, Buenos Aires, at a time when 125,000 passengers were using the station daily, without incommoding the passengers or disorganizing the traffic. During this period 42,000,000 of the 53,000,000 passengers carried yearly by the Southern used this terminus. The quadruplication of the lines as far as Temperley gave a great impetus to building operations in the outer suburbs.

Repair shops of the Great Southern at Remedies de Escalada, seven miles from the terminus, are the largest in South America, and employ nearly 3,000 men. Although primarily for repair work, the shops are equipped to make every part of a locomotive or a railway carriage. The railway controls and works the South Dock, Buenos Aires, at the mouth of the Riachuelo River.

Another terminal port is at Rio Santiago, about five miles from La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires, thirty-five miles from the metropolis of Argentina. La Plata, with population of nearly 200,000, has sprung up since 1882, and is now one of the finest cities in the country.

Miramar, Necochea, and Quequen are seaside resorts served by the Great Southern, Quequen being about two miles from Necochea across the Quequen Grande River, and 307 miles from the capital. Quequen is also being developed as a port for cattle and grain.

HEAVY GOODS ENGINE of the “Beyer-Garratt” employed on the lines of the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway

HEAVY GOODS ENGINE of the “Beyer-Garratt” 4-8-2+2-8-4 articulated type employed on the lines of the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway. The leading dimensions of this locomotive are: cylinders (four) 17½ in by 26 in, diameter of coupled wheels 4 ft 7½ in, boiler pressure 200 lb per sq in, total heating surface 2,649 sq ft, and total weight in working order 165½ tons.

The issued capital of the Southern is more than £72,000,000, and it is one of the most notable examples of British railway enterprise in South America.

The Buenos Ayres Western Railway operates west of the capital between the zones of the Great Southern and of the Buenos Ayres and Pacific Railway. The system extends in the direction of the Andes across an agricultural and cattle country to the vine and fruit region of the province of Mendoza. It has the distinction of being the oldest railway in Argentina, as it includes the first line, opened in 1857, between Buenos Aires and Flores, a distance of six miles. In those days Flores was a separate town, but it is now in the centre of the municipal area of Buenos Aires.

This line decided, in a curious way, the gauge question. The equipment was made for use in India for the broad gauge there, but when the Crimean War broke out in 1853, the lines and rolling-stock were shipped to the Crimea. After the war they were bought by the railway pioneers of the Argentine to solve their transport troubles in crossing the low-lying country at the back of the capital.

The first locomotive was a veteran of the siege of Sebastopol, and was named “La Porteña”, when it arrived. The original rolling-stock consisted of this locomotive and one other, live coaches, and a few goods wagons. No fewer than 15,000 passengers were carried in the first fortnight, and the line was such a success that within less than a year two more locomotives, forty wagons, and a “super” carriage to seat sixty passengers were ordered, fares were cut, and monthly tickets were issued. Thus the Crimean War, now half forgotten except by historians, accidentally decided the gauge of the railways of the vast republic of Argentina. It is also a curious coincidence that the 5 ft 6-in. Indian gauge is also the gauge of Spain, the mother country of Argentina.

Between Two Rivers

Another British line is the Entre Rios Railway, which operates in the province of that name, which means “Between Rivers”, and is bounded by the rivers Parana and Uruguay. The mileage is 810, and the gauge 4 ft 8½-in. This line does not run into the capital, but is linked with it by a ferry-boat service from the river port of Ibicuy, on the Paraná, to Zarate. Zarate is fifty-six miles from Buenos Aires on the Central Argentine Railway. The Entre Rios system extends north to Concordia, on the right bank of the Uruguay River, the chief town in the province, and links Concepción del Uruguay with Paraná, the capital of the province, which is on the Paraná River, and is 364 miles from Buenos Aires. This line is worked under one administration with the Argentine North Eastern Railway, the offices being at Concordia. The North Eastern operates 753 miles of 4 ft

8½-in gauge. This British company made an effort in the early days to install the standard gauge in Argentina, and succeeded.

The original concession granted in 1864 for a line, now forming part of the system, was for the broad gauge, but the railway company persuaded the Government to alter the gauge to standard, as the lines in the neighbouring countries of Uruguay and Brazil were of standard gauge. The system is part of the through route from Buenos Aires to Ascunción, the capital of Paraguay. It goes north from Concepción del Uruguay and Concordia to Monte Caseros and on to Posadas, on the Paraná River opposite the town of Villa Encarnación, in Paraguay. From this point trains go to Asunción.

NEUQUEN BRIDGE, on the Buenos Ayres Great Southern Railway

NEUQUEN BRIDGE, on the Buenos Ayres Great Southern Railway, is typical of the many fine engineering works to be found on this system. In the Neuquen territory irrigation works have been constructed for the Government by the railway in conjunction with the laying of lines in this district, and the region has been converted into a productive agricultural area.

Another line of the system goes from Monte Caseros to Corrientes, capital of the province of that name near the confluence of the Rivers Paraguay and Paraná, and 750 miles from Buenos Aires.

French enterprise also has contributed to the railway development of the country, the principal French company being the Province of Santa Fé Railways, which owns over 1,250 miles of metre-gauge lines.

The Argentine State Railways control 5,764 miles of lines varying from the broad gauge to 2 ft 6-in, the principal line being the metre-gauge Central Northern, which serves the country north and west of Cordoba. The Patagonian line is broad gauge, and runs west from the port of San Antonio to Bariloche, the mileage being 469.

OVER 400 MILES of standard gauge track in Chile are operated by the Nitrate Railways CompanyChile is an extraordinary country geographically, as it consists of a ribbon of land from between sixty and 180 miles wide running down the Pacific Coast of South America for about 2,800 miles, from the tropics to stormy Cape Horn, and affording a striking variety of altitudes and temperatures. For a great part of its length it is hemmed in on the east by the mighty Andes. It is bounded on the north by Peru and on the east by Bolivia and Argentina, the Pacific Ocean forming the western boundary. The area is about 289,810 square miles, and the population at the 1930 census was about 4,287,000. The language of the country is Spanish.

OVER 400 MILES of standard gauge track in Chile are operated by the Nitrate Railways Company. The construction of the railway was begun about 1865 and taken over by the present owners in 1882. The system, linking the nitrate ports of Pisagua and Iquique, constitutes one of the chief arteries of transport in the nitrate area of Northern Chile.

British railway enterprise has played an important part in the development of the country, and particulars of the largest British line, the Antofagasta Railway, are given in the chapter “The Magic of the Andes”, as stated earlier in this chapter.

The oldest nitrate-carrying railway in Chile is the Nitrate Railways Company, which is British, and operates some 400 miles of 4 ft 8½-in gauge track in the province of Tarapacá, the most northerly province of the republic. This system carries passengers as well as nitrate, and connects with the principal trunk lines.

When the railway system in the province of Tarapacá was begun about the year 1865 the territory was Peruvian, but, after the war between Chile and Peru and Bolivia in 1883, the provinces of Tarapacá and Antofagasta were ceded to Chile. The deposits of sodium nitrate are found only in north Chile, and the primary purpose of the railways was to bring the nitrate expeditiously to the coast, since the progressive increase in the exportation of nitrate and soda had made it apparent that the transport of the commodity by mule carts, a method which had existed since about the year 1830, was no longer adequate for the needs of this industry.

At one time these nitrate deposits made Chile one of the most important countries in the world, as nitrates are essential for the production, among other things, of high explosive and fertilizers; but since the war of 1914-18 methods of producing synthetic nitrates have been invented by scientists, with the result that the whole economic position of Chile has altered.

As Tarapacá, with its still valuable deposits of nitrate, is a rainless desert, the railway pioneers had always to contend with the problem of water, in addition to that of gradient, because of the hilly nature of this part of the country. The cost of water is considerably in excess of that incurred by most railways, although, on the other hand, the company is not harassed by the wash-outs which afflict the British companies operating in Brazil, on the other side of South America. Therefore, while the engineer in Brazil is worried because a downpour has left part of the track hanging in the air, a member of the same profession on the same latitude on the other side of South America is anxious about the water supply for his locomotives.

The original concessionaires transferred the lines in 1873 to a company known as the National Nitrate Railways of Peru, which was later, in 1882, reconstituted as the Nitrate Railways Co, Ltd. The system is worked under four separate concessions, the principal terminus being at Iquique, one of the chief ports of Northern Chile, with a population of over 37,000. It hardly ever rains in Iquique, and water has to be brought sixty miles from the oasis of Pica. The railway company has a condensing plant at Iquique capable of supplying distilled water from sea water at a rate of 200 tons in twenty-four hours. Water for the locomotives is also supplied by the Tarapacá Waterworks through a pipe-line about fifty-seven miles in length from the Andes Mountains.

STANDARD FLAT WAGON used in Chile for carrying nitrate

STANDARD FLAT WAGON used in Chile for carrying nitrate. Fitted with wooden sides, this wagon is capable of holding 28 tons of nitrate in bulk. Nitrate was formerly conveyed in sacks, but this method has been largely discontinued in favour of bulk transport.

About half the total mileage of 400 is main line, single track, the other half consisting of branch lines to the nitrate-producing establishments. Iquique is the principal station, and the main repair shops are situated there, the shops being equipped to deal with all classes of heavy and light repairs. The locomotive shop is capable of dealing with eighteen general locomotive repairs a year.

The carriage and wagon shop accommodates about 180 wagons, and the locomotive running shed has a capacity sufficient for fifteen locomotives. The yard at Iquique has four weigh-bridges each of sixty tons capacity; after being weighed the cars run by gravity to the reception sidings. The marshalling sidings can hold 538 vehicles. The main stores and coal depots are also at Iquique, where there is also a first-aid station for accidents. The total trackage in the yard, including sidings to the nitrate and goods warehouses, is about sixteen miles.

The mole at Iquique is equipped with two electric travelling cranes of two and five tons capacity respectively. A forty-tons gantry crane, also operated by electricity, deals with heavy loads from the lighters, which enter a dock at the mole-head. There are facilities for shipping up to 3,000 tons of nitrate from cars to lighters.

Pisagua, the northern terminus of the railways, was at one time as important for shipping nitrate as Iquique, but all exportation from Tarapacá to-day of the nitrate is through the port of Iquique.

A Reversing Station

The first section of the system involved some problems, as the line has to climb directly it leaves the terminus at Iquique. About four miles from Iquique there is a reversing station, and the track climbs up to Molle, ten miles south of Iquique and 1,611 ft above sea-level. The gradients on this section vary from 1 in 75 to 1 in 24, and the minimum curve radius is 280 ft. Molle is situated near the coast, but at this station the track turns inland to the east through Carmen to Las Carpas Station, nineteen miles from Iquique and at an altitude of 3,068 ft.

The line as far as Las Carpas forms the Iquique Bank Section, some of the gradients being more than 1 in 25, with sharp curves uncompensated. After Las Carpas the line is much easier, as it passes through Huemul (twenty-five miles) to the junction station at Central (twenty-nine miles), the maximum gradient being 1 in 75.

Central, which lies at an altitude of 3,220 ft, is the junction of the La Noria and Lagunas line with the Pozo Almonte and Pisagua line. It is also the station for trains going from Iquique to these two divisions, and for trains meeting on their way from different branches to Iquique. There are an engine shed and a workshop for minor repairs, and engines are stationed there for work on the nitrate pampa. Beyond the station the line divides, one track going north and the other south.

On the line going south the first station is La Noria (thirty-three miles), about 3,336 ft above sea-level. The line continues south to Alto de San Antonio, where a branch to the west strikes off into the Soledad (“Solitude”) district. This branch ends at a nitrate oficina, or works, called La Gloria, fifty-eight miles from Iquique.

San Antonio is one of the principal railway junctions of the system, and main-line trains are marshalled there as well as the convoys to and from the nitrate plants. From San Antonio the main line continues in a southerly direction, until it reaches, the summit-level of San Pablo. Thence it descends by an easy gradient to Gallinazos Station, which lies on the edge of the salt marsh of Pintados.

AT THE PORT OF IQUIQUE, on the lines of the Nitrate Railways Co

AT THE PORT OF IQUIQUE, on the lines of the Nitrate Railways Co, Ltd. Although the railway was primarily constructed for the conveyance of nitrate, a large number of passengers travel on the system, which possesses twenty-five first-class coaches, eighteen second-class, and three Sentinel Cammell steam coaches. The above illustration shows the passenger section of the station at Iquique.

From Gallinazos to Buenaventura, a distance of thirty miles, the line is almost level. After passing Mosquitos Station, from which three short lines serve three nitrate plants, Pintados (sixty miles) is reached. This station is the junction for the Longitudinal Railway which goes to the south of the Republic of Chile.

The Nitrate line turns south to the terminus at Lagunas, eighty-eight miles from Iquique, where are situated nitrate plants known as North, Central, and South Lagunas. Further details of the Longitudinal Railway of Chile are given at the end of this chapter.

The line going north from Central Station climbs to Montevideo, thirty-seven miles from Iquique, which is the highest point on the Nitrate Railways, the altitude being 3,812 ft. The line descends a few hundred feet to the important station of Pozo Almonte, where there are a workshop and an engine depot. A spur line runs south connecting Pozo Almonte with Gallinazos.

The northern line gradually rises to Huara, sixty-four miles, an important town on the pampa, with a number of branch lines serving the nitrate plants, Four miles farther, at Tres Marias, the Pisagua Section begins. The line reaches the second highest point on the system, 3,756 ft at Primitava, and then begins to descend gradually as it proceeds through Negreiros, Santa Catalina, and Dolores. Dolores, ninety-one miles from Iquique, is an important water depot, the railways company owning two wells. Water is pumped up and carried by pipe-line to all stations on the way to Pisagua, which is thirty-three miles distant, and the town of Pisagua is supplied by the wells at Dolores.

Waterless Territory

Zapiga (ninety-four miles) is a marshalling depot, and has an engine shed and a workshop. At Jaz Pampa (one hundred miles) the line turns to the west to gain the coast. Nivel (105 miles) at an altitude of 3,608 ft, is situated at the top of the steep Pisagua Bank, and is a depot and watering station. From this point the railway descends rapidly. At Cuesta Arenal (2,224 ft), there are some large rock cuttings, and the gradients vary between 1 in 40 and 1 in 21. From Hospicio, the next halt, the line zigzags, with three reversing points, down to the seashore at Pisagua, which is 125 miles from Iquique.

The rails vary from 85 lb to 62 lb, the service sidings to the nitrate plants being laid with the 62 lb rails. Train movements on all sections of the system are controlled by telephone from the Central Movement Office in Iquique. The Nitrate Railways have played a vital part in the development of this remarkable region, which is one of the strangest in the world. In addition to the handicap of perpetual drought, all food and fuel have to be imported, so that the railway has to bring supplies to the oficinas, or nitrate works. There are vast stretches of country where there is no vegetation. Under the surface, however, lies the caliche, as the crude nitrate of soda is called. This is extracted and taken to the plant where it is crushed, boiled, filtered, and crystallized. The oficinas are surrounded by the dwellings of the workers, and form villages in the desert.

At one time many thousands of workers and their families lived in this region, but the production of synthetic nitrates altered the economic position, and a large number of works went out of production. Recently, however, there has been a partial revival in the consumption of Chilean nitrate, and railway traffic has improved.


NITRATE WAREHOUSES at Pisagua, showing the rails and some trucks alongside them. The railway has played a vital part in developing a region of perpetual drought, where food and fuel have to be imported and brought to the nitrate workings by rail.

The nitrate plants and the railways locomotives use considerable quantities of fuel. Formerly, imported coal was consumed and then imported petroleum, but recently the coal mines of Chile have been much developed and so Chilean coal is displacing oil. This change has had an important effect on the railway company, as it owns 198 petroleum tanks, for which there is now little use, because the demand for petroleum has fallen off. At the same time numerous locomotives have been converted to coal burning.

Another change was due to the fact that, whereas the nitrate was formerly carried in sacks, this method has been largely discontinued in favour of bulk transport. Since the wagons were designed to carry nitrate in sacks, that is to say, they were flat cars without sides, many of them had to be altered to carry not only this commodity in bulk, but also coal.

There are sixty-seven locomotives, these being built in Great Britain and the United States, and including some powerful types, such as a 4-8-4 tank engine built by the Yorkshire Engine Company, having a weight in working order of 110 tons; the Baldwin 2-8-2, type, weighing 132 tons in working order; and the “Beyer Garratt” 2-8-2 +2-8-2, weighing 187 tons in working order.

The principal traffic is nitrate, after which come fuel, passengers, perishables, parcels, general merchandise, and live stock. The weight carried in 1934 was some 440,000 tons, and the number of passengers, first and second class, over 120,000. There are twenty-five first-class coaches, eighteen second-class, and three Sentinel Cammell steam coaches. In addition, there are nine post office vans, three luggage vans, and a number of service vehicles. Goods wagons of all types total 1,270, including 198 petroleum tanks, 600 iron and steel wagons, and 214 wooden platform cars.

The Longitudinal Railway

A few years ago the Government extended the Longitudinal Railway, which is of the metre gauge in this part of Chile, from the former terminus at Pintados to Iquique, and thus entered into competition with the Nitrate Railways. This Longitudinal Line is part of the Chilean State Railways, and now traverses Chile from Iquique to Puerto Montt in the south. Some 3,445 of the 5,530 railway mileage of Chile is State-owned. As the coast line is so long and provided with many harbours, sea transport is easy, but for strategic reasons the Chileans began a policy of railway construction in the ‘fifties of the last century. A trunk line, parallel with the mountains and the sea, runs between them for the greater length of the country; this line serves every port of importance in Chile by means of spur lines.

The State Railways are of metre and 5 ft 6-in gauge, and about 181 miles are electrified, There are 683 locomotives, including forty-three electric locomotives, 851 coaches, 107 vans, and 9,549 wagons.

Santiago, the capital, is 116 miles from Valparaiso, the principal port of Chile, and the railway is electrified, expresses taking three hours for the journey. The trains climb from Valparaiso to 1,700 ft, at which altitude Santiago is situated. From the city can be seen the snow-clad Andean peaks, rising some 13,000 ft into the clouds more than a hundred miles away. The city is the fourth largest in South America, the population being about 750,000, and its railway connexions are good. The route across the Andes to Buenos Aires is described in the chapter “The Magic of the Andes”, already cited.

Santiago is the focal point for the State Railways. Projects have been sanctioned to provide additional railway links with Argentina. Chile's rail development is of importance to Bolivia and to western Argentina, as the Chilean ports provide an outlet for trade.

NITRATE TRAIN hauled by a powerful tank locomotive

NITRATE TRAIN hauled by a powerful tank locomotive. The Nitrate Railways own some sixty-seven engines, including such heavy types as the “Beyer-Garratt”. In 1934 the weight of freight carried amounted to 440,000 tons, and as many as 900,000 tons of nitrate in one year have passed over the company's metals.

 You can read more on “By Rail in the Argentine”, “A Gateway to Brazil”,  “The Magic of the Andes” and “Main Lines of Brazil” on this website.