The International Steam Pages

La Trochita, the Esquel Railway in 2014

James Waite writes about the railway and his October 2014 visit to it:

The fertile district around Esquel and the headwaters of the Rio Chubut was first settled by Welsh farmers in the 1880s. It was an offshoot of the Welsh colony at Puerto Madryn and Trelew, some 250 miles downstream, which had been founded back in 1865. The FC Central Chubut, the first railway in this part of Argentina, was promoted and built by the settlers to serve what had become a thriving community. Being Welsh they naturally chose a narrow gauge! The metre gauge line opened in 1888 between Puerto Madryn and Trelew, 44 miles away. By 1915 it had been extended west to Dolavon. 

By then the Argentine government was proposing a network of broad gauge railways to encourage settlement of what had become an almost empty land. It hadn’t always been quite so empty as it had once been home to considerable numbers of indigenous people who had learned how to survive in Patagonia’s arid countryside. For some years government policy had been to co-exist peaceably with them. This came to an abrupt end in 1878 when General Roca, then the Minister of War, declared that the country’s ‘self respect as a virile people’ required that they should be violently suppressed. What took place over the following six years has been likened to genocide. The Welsh had enjoyed a mutually supportive relationship with their neighbours ever since their arrival in the Chubut valley and it seems they were the only settlers to treat them kindly. The descendants of some of their survivors now work on the railway. Only now, more than 125 years later, are some of the Argentine people beginning to question General Roca’s status as a national hero.

Construction began on the line west from San Antonio Oeste towards Bariloche, on its extension eastwards to join the existing Buenos Aires Great Southern broad gauge system at Carmen de Patagones and on the lines running inland from Puerto Deseado and Commodoro Rivadavio but work came to a halt after the outbreak of the First World War. By the early 1920’s economic realities had led to the adoption of the 750mm gauge for all but the Bariloche line and one Señor Domingo Fernández Beschtedt was appointed to head the administration of Argentina’s state railways and to take charge of implementing the scheme which called for the building of something like 1,600km of line. He was a civil servant by background and had little practical experience of railway construction. 

It should have been obvious that the construction of so large a system in such inhospitable terrain would take many years but despite this he ordered in 1921 no fewer than fifty 2-8-2’s, four 0-6-0T’s and three 0-8-0 crane tanks from Henschel, probably enough to operate all the proposed lines. It then transpired that Henschel could not deliver the locomotives as quickly as he wished and early the following year he ordered a further twenty five 2-8-2’s from Baldwin on the condition that they be delivered to a strict timetable. He also ordered enough track and civil engineering equipment in one fell swoop for the entire scheme. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he was relieved of his duties in 1924.

Two main lines were envisaged, both of which would serve Esquel. One was to approach from the north, starting from a junction with the proposed broad gauge line to Bariloche at Ingeniero Jacobacci. It eventually became today’s Esquel branch. The other would be an extension of the Central Chubut up the valley which involved mixed gauge and later conversion. It was this project which progressed most rapidly at first. By the time Señor Beschtedt left in 1924 its tracks had reached Las Plumas, almost halfway to Esquel. However the Esquel farmers preferred the northern line since it would provide direct overland access to Buenos Aires for their products once the broad gauge line to Bariloche was completed. Work stopped at Las Plumas and was never resumed. The Central Chubut line closed in the 1960s.

Work on the Esquel line started in 1923 but it took three years to build the first 25 miles. Flood damage led to substantial revision of the scheme but construction still continued slowly, even after completion of the broad gauge Bariloche line through Inginiero Jacobacci in 1934. The line eventually reached El Maitén in 1941 and Esquel four years later.

The twenty five Baldwins were the first to arrive and so were numbered from 1 upwards. The Henschels 2-8-2’s were numbered from 101 upwards and, surprisingly, the seven other locomotives never carried any running numbers at all. As there was a gross over-supply of locomotives about 25 of the Henschel 2-8-2’s were stored from new in a stock shed at Trelew. Probably 17 of them entered service at El Maitén in about 1950, when the El Maitén to Esquel stretch first saw passenger trains, to augment or replace the fifteen locomotives known to have worked there until then.

The locomotives also operated elsewhere. There was another public railway between Sosa and General Vintter, on the main line from Buenos Aires to Patagonia, a forestry railway between Lapachito and Zapallar up in the country’s far north whose locomotives were altered to burn wood, and a short line near Comodoro Rivadavia used mainly to bring in stone for building and maintaining the harbour works there. The much better known coal railway between Rio Gallegos and Rio Turbio in the far south, built largely from unused material from the 1921 order, started operations in 1951 using eight Henschels, probably the last unused locomotives from the store at Trelew, before the first of its Mitsubishi 2-10-2s arrived in 1956. It was also home to one of the 0-6-0T’s and one of the crane tanks, the remains of of both of which are now preserved there. Between them these four railways possibly accounted for up to 19 locomotives. The Central Chubut was home to no fewer than 17 of the 25 Baldwins until it was wound down in the 1960s. Some then moved to El Maitén, perhaps the first time that the Esquel line possessed many more locomotives than it needed. The remainder, along with two 0-6-0T’s at Puerto Madryn, were scrapped after about 1977.

Since 1950 the Esquel railway’s headquarters and shops have been at El Maitén, very much a railway town. Initially locomotives from Esquel, and probably most of the other lines received their heavy repairs at the state railways shops at San Antonio Oeste. After the country’s railways were nationalized in 1948 the Esquel line became a part of the FC General Roca, in effect an enlarged Buenos Aires Great Southern. From then onwards the locomotives received heavy repairs at its main works at Remedios de Escalada in Buenos Aires until it stopped handling steam repairs in the late 1970s. Since then most work has been done at El Maitén, the large store of disused locomotives there gradually being cannibalised to keep the others running.

In October 2014 the railway possessed six working locomotives, Baldwins numbers 1, 3, 4 and 16 and Henschels numbers 101, 104 and 114. Most tourist trains today operate out of Esquel as far as Nahuel Pan, a half-day round trip of about 23 miles. They generally run at least once a week and sometimes more frequently. The railway’s timetable is at: Esquel has a thriving tourist trade and good hotels. It’s probably as popular during the winter skiing season as it is in the summer and in July sees trains several days a week. Trains run less often from El Maitén south to Desvio Thomae and north to Norquinco and from Inginerio Jacobacci to Cerro Mesa. The line between Norquinco and Cerro Mesa is currently closed.

It seems there are now only very infrequent excursions from Esquel as far as El Maitén which is a shame as the track is mostly in good shape. The views, sometimes over cultivated land and sometimes over desert and nearly always with the mountains as a backdrop, are little short of stunning. I rode on a FarRail Tours charter train. Its eight hours of travel passed quickly. For much of the distance it ran at surprising speed but the ride was excellent. The journey was certainly memorable. Where else in the world can one enjoy a three-course meal or just a beer, a coffee or a glass of local wine on the 750mm gauge amidst such beautiful scenery?

My hotel at El Maitén, the Paralelo 42 Lodge, was positively luxurious though, unlike one recent visitor to another establishment in the town, I didn’t find that the proprietor could speak only Spanish and Welsh! Early in the morning I wandered through the large dump of derelict locomotives, only a few yards away. Most have been stripped of parts and many have become unidentifiable. Better looked after is one of the four 0-6-0Ts which has probably spent most of its life on the line. It’s much cherished by the works staff but has been set aside at least since 1990 in need of major boiler work. Maybe one day it will join the 2-8-2s in steam.

Like the locomotives most of the carriages also date from the early 1920s though the dining car and some first class ones are believed to have been built around 30 years later. Most feature a wood-burning stove which the staff light up at the start of the day. Thereafter it’s the passengers’ responsibility to keep it going! There can’t be many lengthy railways still running almost entirely with their original rolling stock. Long may the Esquel line continue to delight its patrons!

Further reading

  • World of South American Steam by Roy Christian & Ken Mills (Authors, 1973)
  • Narrow Gauge Rails to Esquel by Keith Taylorson (Author, 1999)
  • La Trochita: A Journey through Time and Distance on the Old Patagonian Express by Sergio Sepiurka & Jorge Miglioli (Buenos Aires, 2001)
  • Rocky Trip: The Route of the Welsh in Patagonia by Sergio Sepiurka & Jorge Miglioli (Buenos Aires, 2004)
  • The Narrow Gauge 2-8-2s of Patagonia by Robert Humm (Narrow Gauge Railway Society, 2014) – essential reading, this, for a more detailed account of the railway and its locomotives
  • Railways at the End of the World – in Patagonia and the South Atlantic Islands by Martin Coombs & David Sinclair (Aracauria Press, 2014)

James was only with the group for two days out of five but sent many pictures. I've picked out a minority of them which show the a traditional train in Patagonian spectacular countryside to best effect. Please click a thumbnail to see the picture full size.

Baldwin no 4 heading south a short distance from El Maiten
No 4 between El Maiten and Leleque heading south
No 4 between El Maiten and Leleque heading south
No 4 passing the turning wye at Leleque
No 4 heading south between Lepa and Mayoco
No 4 between Leleque and Lepa
No 4 climbing through the loops north of Mayoco. Mayoco station is on the left in the background
No 4 leaving La Cancha for Nahuel Pan just before sunset
No’s 4 and 16 climbing through orchards on their way out of Esquel

Rob Dickinson