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The Trains of Uruguay

Extensive Developments in a South American Republic


THE CENTRAL STATION AT MONTEVIDEO, owned by the Central Uruguay Railway

THE CENTRAL STATION AT MONTEVIDEO, owned by the Central Uruguay Railway, is one of the finest stations in South America. It was built in 1878, cost £140,265, and covers an area of some 15,250 sq yds. Montevideo is the most important railway centre in Uruguay.

RAILWAY development in the South American Republic of Uruguay owes much to British enterprise. Nearly all the lines in the country are on the standard gauge of 4 ft 8½ in. The total of standard gauge lines is 1,746 miles, and of this total only 260 miles are owned by the Uruguayan State Railways, the remainder being the property of British companies. There is also a narrow-gauge line on the 75 cm (2 ft 6 in) gauge, the Piriapolis Railway, with a mileage of twenty-eight.

Uruguay, after Paraguay, is the smallest of the South American republics, the area being 72,153 square miles, compared with the 50,874 square miles of England, while the population on December 31, 1933, was 1,992,037, or about a quarter of that of London. The names of Fray Bentos and Paysandu are probably far more familiar to British people than the name of Uruguay, as the names of these two towns are carried all over the world on tins of corned beef and other forms of canned meat. It is possible that some people think that the towns are in Argentina, but they are on the Uruguayan side of the Uruguay River, from which the country takes its name.

Uruguay is famous for its cattle and its grain; in 1932 cattle numbered 7,372,000 and sheep 15,405,000. Almost the entire country is given up to grazing. The four cold storage depots of the country dealt with over 1,107,000 sheep and 816,161 cattle in 1933, and cattle wagons of the latest type are, therefore, a feature of the railways.

On the north and north-east the country is bordered by Brazil. The Atlantic and the wide estuary of the River Plate bound it on the east, southeast and the south. On the west the Uruguay River forms the boundary between the small republic and the much greater one of Argentina. The climate is healthy, and nearly all the inhabitants are of European origin. As the country is not mountainous but undulating, the task of the railway engineers who built the lines was comparatively easy compared with the problems of rough country that were found in Brazil. It should, however, be realized that the Brazilian State of Rio Grande do Sul, which borders Uruguay, is geographically similar to Uruguay, and the division is political and not physical.

A range of hills, the Cuchilla Grande, comes down from Brazil to Montevideo, the isolated mount, the Cerro, giving Montevideo its name. The capital is a handsome city, with a population of about 667,200, and is an important port on the estuary of the River Plate. It lies east of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. The two capitals are connected by a steamship service across the River Plate, the distance being some 120 sea-miles. The city is also connected by ships with Rio de Janeiro, and with European ports, while smaller vessels afford transport to the canning towns on the Uruguay River.

A “wash-out” on the lines of the Uruguay Central early in 1914

SEVERE FLOODS have presented the railway engineer in Uruguay with some difficult problems. This photograph shows a “wash-out” on the lines of the Uruguay Central early in 1914. In the background is a steel viaduct under construction.

Montevideo is the centre of a system of connected railways which cover the country in the manner of the veins of a leaf. There are no odd lengths of lines as there are in Brazil. With excellent railways, some of the best roads in South America, and steamer services that ply over sea and river, the transport of the country is highly competitive and well developed. Sea-going vessels ascend the Uruguay River to Fray Bentos and to Paysandu, and river steamers go higher up to Salto, where further progress is impeded by rapids. Above the falls, river craft proceed to the Argentine-Brazilian frontier.

The River Negro and its tributary, the Yi River, flow across the country from north-east and east, and join the Uruguay. There are many similarities between Uruguay and Argentina, but the small republic has a definite individuality and the Uruguayan does not like being confused with the Argentine. The history of the country is stormy and bloodstained. In 1515 Juan Diaz de Solis landed on the coast and was promptly killed by the Indians. Ferdinand Magellan and Sebastian Cabot visited the country a few years later at different times, but did not stop; they were sailors and had other work to do. In 1680 the Portuguese founded the town of Colonia, and in 1726 the Governor of Buenos Aires, a Spaniard, of course, founded Montevideo. There followed a long rivalry of bloodshed.

The early Spanish settlers were Basques and immigrants from the Canary Islands, while those who settled in what is now the Argentine were from other parts of Spain. Those who are interested both in literature and in Uruguay cannot do better than to read W. H. Hudson’s “The Purple Land that England Lost”, which reveals the romance of this country and will help the reader to understand that a Uruguayan is neither a Brazilian nor an Argentine. La Banda Oriental was the old name of the land and the people called themselves Orientales. For long years the land was a bone of contention, first between the Portuguese and the Spanish, and then between the Brazilians and the Argentines. After a three-years’ war between Argentina and Brazil, which ended in 1828, Uruguay became nominally a buffer state, but her troubles were by no means over. There were wars of all kinds - civil and with other states - but the independence of Uruguay dates from 1830.

Railway map of Uruguay

1,746 MILES OF STANDARD-GAUGE TRACK have been laid in Uruguay, and of the total 1,486 miles are controlled by British interests. The above map shows the routes of the three chief systems - the Uruguay Central, the Midland Uruguay, and the State Railways of Uruguay

The railway history of the country dates from 1868, when the construction was begun of the first railway, now a part of the most extensive system of railways in Uruguay. This is the Central Uruguay Railway Company of Montevideo and Associated Lines, which has a total mileage of 980, made up as follows:

Central Uruguay (including North Eastern Line), 273 miles; Central Uruguay Northern Extension, 185 miles; Central Uruguay Eastern Extension, 311 miles; and Central Uruguay Western Extension, 211 miles. This company has also a controlling interest in the Midland Uruguay Railway and Associated Lines. The Midland Uruguay lines total 506 miles, and are composed of Midland Uruguay Railway, 285 miles; Extension Railway, thirty-five miles; Uruguay Northern Railway, seventy-three miles; and North-Western of Uruguay, 113 miles. The headquarters of the Central lines are at Montevideo, and those of the Midland are at Paysandu.

PASSENGER BAGGAGE VAN built in 1907 at the shops of the Central Uruguay Railway

PASSENGER BAGGAGE VAN built in 1907 at the shops of the Central Uruguay Railway. These shops are situated at Penarol, seven miles from the Central Station at Montevideo.

The State Railways of Uruguay have 260 miles of track, and the headquarters are at Montevideo.

The Central lines form the main traffic artery running north from Montevideo to Rivera, near the border of Brazil. This links with the principal towns and ports of Uruguay as well as connecting with the Brazilian railways, so that there is a direct rail route to Sao Paulo, Santos, and Rio de Janeiro. In addition to this connexion with the Brazilian railways there is another which is on the Midland lines, referred to later in this chapter. The Central Uruguay Railway is the parent railway system. The company was formed in London in December, 1876, to acquire the railway of the same name which had been established in Uruguay to work a concession granted by the Government in 1866, A line 127 miles long was to be built from Montevideo to Durazno, on the Yi River. Thence, after bridging the river, it was to proceed northward. This line was built to Durazno, and the next section of thirty-nine miles to the Rio Negro was opened in July, 1886, although the bridge across the Yi River was not completed until January, 1887. The next step was the building of the Northern Extension from the Rio Negro to Rivera, now a town of 9,000 inhabitants. The total distance from the capital is 351 miles.

FIRST-CLASS CARRIAGE owned by the Central Uruguay Railway

FIRST-CLASS CARRIAGE owned by the Central Uruguay Railway. With its associated lines, this railway company operates some 120 passenger vehicles. The coaches are lighted by electricity.

In 1886 the company bought a line which had been built from Station 25 de Agosto, thirty-nine miles along the main line, to San Jose, now a town of 13,000 inhabitants, on the river of the same name, and sixty miles by railway from the capital.

In 1889 the North Eastern was acquired. This line goes north-east from Montevideo to Pando and Minas, a length of seventy-seven and a half miles. Along this line, at Toledo, fifteen and a half miles, a branch, now the Eastern Extension, runs to Nico Perez, 143 miles, and to Treinta y Tres, on the Olimar River, and 196 miles from Montevideo. Treinta y Tres is a town of 7,500 inhabitants. The State Railways are now building a line from this town to Rio Branco, on the Brazilian border. From Nico Perez, the junction station at Mile 143 on the line from Montevideo, a branch runs up to Melo, 260 miles from the capital. Melo has 12,000 inhabitants, and is the centre of a mining and an agricultural area

The Central, having - as stated above  - bought the line which runs from the main track to San Jose, purchased the Western Railways in 1899, and thus became the owner of the line which had been built from San Jose to Puerto Sauce, the port west of Montevideo. The distance by rail was 125 miles. It also acquired the concession to. build lines to Colonia and Mercedes. These lines were built. The track leading to Puerto Sauce and Colonia leaves the line from Montevideo to Mercedes at Mal Abrigo, eighty-two miles, and bifurcates at Rosario, 112 miles, one line going south to Puerto Sauce, 125 miles, and the other south-west to Colonia, 150 miles, which is a seaside resort on the River Plate estuary opposite Buenos Aires, about thirty miles away. Mercedes, 186 miles, is an agricultural and livestock centre, with a population of nearly 25,000. It lies thirty miles above the confluence of the Rio Negro with the Uruguay River.

There is only one tunnel on the whole of the Central lines, and this is on the trunk line to Rivera and Brazil. It must not be supposed that Uruguay is a dull country because it has no mountains of heights exceeding 2,000 feet. The landscape is varied. On the way to Rivera the line passes through pretty scenery, especially in the Department of Tacuarembo, where the tunnel occurs, at Banado de Rocha; the tunnel is 250 yards long. Los Tam-bores (“Valley of Rocks”) and the lovely Valley of Eden are beauty spots in this locality, but they are farther south. Near Minas, in the south-east, there are attractive hills and mineral springs, while farther south towards Maldonado, on the coast, rises the rugged Pan de Azucar (Sugar Loaf) hill. The Sosa Hills, near Nico Perez, form another picturesque region. On the Rio Negro at Paso de los Toros (“The Bulls’ Passage”) are lovely landscapes. On the line to Colonia, in the country around Colonia Suiza, a little place founded by Swiss as a colony and called the Switzerland of Uruguay, the neat, well-cultivated homesteads are a delight.

RACK RENEWALS in the yard of the Central Uruguay Railway Station at Montevideo

TRACK RENEWALS in the yard of the Central Uruguay Railway Station at Montevideo. The track seen above is spiked in accordance with the general American practice. The lines converging on the city of Montevideo carry a heavy suburban traffic.

In such a well-watered pastoral land bridges are necessarily numerous; these total several hundred altogether. The Rio Negro is the longest, with nine spans of 128 ft and twenty-two of 60 ft, having a total length of 826 yards. The Yi Bridge has forty-one spans of 50 ft, and a total length of 681 yards. The Santa Lucia Bridge, near Montevideo, has five spans of 170 ft, three of 85 ft, and seventeen of 50 ft; its total length is 651 yards.

The Central Station at Montevideo is a handsome structure. The workshops are at Penarol, seven miles from the terminus. The first engine used on the line was built in 1867 by Manning and Wardle, and was a saddle-tank six-wheeler, the six-coupled wheels being 3 ft 6-in in diameter, and the diameter of the cylinders 11 in. The boiler pressure was 120 lb, the total heating surface 346 sq ft, the weight 16 tons 14 cwt, and the tractive effort 4,700 lb.

There are now 129 locomotives, most of which were built in Great Britain. Twenty-eight are of the eight-wheels coupled type, and seventy-two of the six-wheels coupled type. The locomotives are oil-burners. There are 119 carriages, eighty-four brake vans, and 2,222 wagons. Twelve of the carriages are sleeping cars and thirteen are restaurant coaches.

Paysandu is the headquarters of the Midland system, which links with the Central at Rio Negro and Piedra Sola. Paysandu, with a population of about 31,000, is the biggest town in the Republic after Montevideo. The relationship between the railways and the Uruguay River is interesting. In addition to Paysandu there are two other towns of importance on the Uruguayan side of the river, these being Salto, the third city in the country, having a population of 30,000, to the north of Paysandu, and Fray Bentos to the south. The river is navigable up to Salto, above which vessels from Montevideo cannot proceed because of the rapids. The railway, however, proceeds roughly parallel with the river but some distance from it northwards to Santa Rosa on the Brazilian border, and establishes contact with the Brazilian railways, Cuareim being the town on the other side of the border. The metre-gauge Brazilian line follows the eastern bank of the river for some distance. On the Argentine side of the river railways follow the river all the way down to Buenos Aires. It is proposed to build an international bridge across the river between Libres, in Argentina, and Uruguayana, in Brazil. Uruguayana is a junction on the Brazilian side of the railway which runs up from the border town of Cuareim. From this junction a line, which crosses the Brazilian State of Rio Grande do Sol, runs to the Atlantic coast more or less parallel with the Uruguayan border.

The trunk line from Montevideo to Santos and Rio de Janeiro intersects this line at a point rather more than a third of the way across country, while at a point much nearer the Atlantic coast the Uruguayan State Railway is being extended from Treinta y Tres towards the border, whence a line is projected to join the Brazilian railway at the town of Bazilio. The gauges of the Uruguayan lines and those of the North-East Argentine Railway are standard and the language of both countries is Spanish. The Brazilian Rio Grande do Sul Railway gauge is one metre.

At the time of writing the engineers considering the proposed bridge across the River Uruguay are consulting as to whether the track on the bridge should be metre or standard gauge. It is proposed to build a bridge about a mile and a quarter long, with provision for a railway track, motor vehicles, and foot passengers. The cost is expected to be about £1,000,000. The bridge will have a marked effect on the transport of the area, as Rio Grande, the port at the other end of the line across Brazil, is one of the chief ports of that country.

Connexions with Brazil

The line of the Midland Uruguay Railway goes east from Paysandu to Algorta (forty-four miles), the junction for the line to Fray Bentos, a distance of eighty-seven miles. Continuing east to Tres Arboles, forty-six miles from Algorta, the passenger for Montevideo goes south to Paso de los Toros, where he crosses the Rio Negro by boat and joins a train of the Central main line, the distance from Tres Arboles to the river being thirty - two miles. Tres Arboles is the junction for a line that runs north-east for thirty-six miles to Piedra Sola, which is on the trunk line of the Central system leading to Brazil.

Northward from Paysandu the line runs to Salto, sixty-nine miles. From Salto the distance to the junction station at Cabellos is seventy miles. One line goes north-west to Cuareim in Brazil, the distance from Salto to Cuareim being in miles, and to Uruguayana, where the bridge is proposed, 158 miles, the change being made from standard to metre gauge at Cuareim. From Cabellos Junction the other line to Brazil goes north-east to Artigas, 140 miles from Salto, and 506 miles from Montevideo. Artigas is a cattle and agricultural town of 9,000 inhabitants.

The Midland system has forty-four locomotives, thirty-three coaches, twenty-eight brake-vans, and 902 wagons.

It was not until 1915 that the State Railways came into being when the Government began by acquiring some twelve miles of track and building new lines. Some of the lines are branches or extensions linking with the companies’ lines. An example is that from Durazno, on the Central line, 127 miles from the capital, to Trinidad, a section which is thirty miles long. Both towns are cattle, grain and agricultural centres and each has about 10,000 inhabitants. This line was built by the Govern-ment and was opened in 1915. A longer branch is that from Florida, with 15,000 inhabitants, about seventy miles from the capital on the Central Railway, to Sarandi del Yi, and is 73 miles long. Another extension of considerable extent leaves the North-East Section of the Central system at Empalme Olmos, twenty-seven miles from Montevideo, and goes to Maldonado, ninety-eight miles, and Punta del Este, 102 miles from the capital. This important line serves many of the seaside resorts, including Maldonado, which is a centre for seal-fishing.

the Yi Bridge, here seen under construction

SEVERAL LARGE BRIDGES have been built on the Central Uruguay system. One of the longest is the Yi Bridge, here seen under construction; it has a length of over 680 yards. This picture shows the erection of the eleventh span. The bridge has forty-one spans of 50 ft length.

You can read more on “British Enterprise in South America”, “Main Lines of Brazil” and “The Magic of the Andes” on this website.