In Season 9 Episode 22 of The Big Bang Theory (a sitcom about four science nerds), Bernadette asks Sheldon what it is about trains that he likes so much. Sheldon answers:
“When I was a child life was confusing and chaotic for me and trains represented order. I could line them up, categorise them, control them… I guess you could say they gave me a sense of calm in a world that didn’t.”
Sheldon’s explanation is insightful. While I don’t know if I would concur that life was necessarily confusing and chaotic for me as a child, I did find my model trains extremely satisfying toys for exactly the reasons he outlines. I would also enjoy many afternoons watching trains from my grandmother’s bedroom window, which faced the railway tracks of the London to Kent lines. Electric passenger trains and diesel freight trains passing by at speed in all sorts of different colour schemes, making all sorts of different mechanical noises was something that captivated and fascinated me on a profoundly emotional level. It was all that, plus perhaps the mystery of where they were coming from and where they were going to.
After a period of respite from the hobby during my teenage years, I’ve rediscovered my enthusiasm for trains as an adult. This has come with an added appreciation of their historic role in the industrialisation of society, linking up communities that would have once only been served by horse and carriage. Traditional British steam locomotives and the coaches they pulled, many examples of which have been preserved, are also wonderful reminders of the fine engineering and craft that came out of our once-prosperous manufacturing industry. When seen in steam, they kick up one hell of an atmosphere.
So, on my way up the western side of Argentinian Patagonia, how could I pass up the opportunity to ride La Trochita, the old Patagonian express? Although state railway operations between the towns of Esquel and El Maitén ceased in 1993, steam-hauled tourist excursions continue to be run once a week by volunteers. I visited the former of the two towns; El Maitén would have been more convenient, but I’d have had to wait several days for the next train.
I walked from my hostel to Esquel station for the 10am departure and arrived to see the train waiting at the platform with enthusiastic passengers milling about. Before boarding I walked up to the front to take a good look at the locomotive in full steam, which I was told was German built, dating from 1922. However, it had at some point in its history been converted to burn petrol rather than coal, which is more environmentally friendly and cleaner; this fortunately did little to change its living, breathing character. The wooden-bodied carriages were of similar interest, being Belgian and of the same era. Inside were rudimentary bench seats and in the middle a stove, which was once used to cook simple foods and most importantly of all, to heat water for mate.
I took my seat and the train eventually departed, leaving town before weaving across the arid and rocky landscape, providing stunning vistas. It all felt a little bit like being in an old Western. Onboard, a respresentative explained to us the history of the line and pointed out details in the passing scenery. Meanwhile, I got talking to a man named Norberto, an avid train enthusiast from Buenos Aires who was visiting with his wife and son. He told me about his experiences of the other two famous tourist lines in Argentina: el tren del fin del mundo (which I missed out on seeing in Ushuaia due to bad planning) and el tren a las nubes in Salta. I told him about the preserved railway lines in England of which there are numerous and he seemed duly impressed. The train finally arrived at its destination, which was the first station on the original route but could be better described as being the middle of nowhere. In reality, there was a station shelter, platform and a few log cabins with families selling tortas and artisan handicrafts.
This is where the first of two surprises occurred. After filling up on a couple of greasy pastries, I spoke with the driver who invited me up into the cab for the turning process. The locomotive detached from its train in order to move forward and turn round on a triangle (which is basically a formation of track that allows an engine to do a three point turn), after which it would couple up to the other end for the return journey. However, this could not go ahead as planned!
After passing the first set of points, an assistant switched the tracks so the engine could run backwards over the first leg of the triangle. It was then that the driver noticed something strange. A trench had recently been dug across the ground, towards and underneath the track we were about to cross. Had he not noticed this, the consequences could have been disasterous; a loco weighing hundreds of tonnes without support from the ground below could easily buckle the rails and topple over.
A couple of men came over to inspect the damage and the driver shouted from our cab, ¿Paso? (Do I pass?) The answer was a decisive no. It emerged that a water company had dug the trench to lay a pipe but had neglected to inform the railway about the work (or perhaps it was sabotage – then this really would be like an old Western!). Fortunately, with a bit of ingenuity it was possible to get the loco onto the triangle by a bit of maneouvering over other tracks. I did question for a moment whether we were going to be stranded in the desert.
The second surprise was back at Esquel station, after all the other passengers had left. I asked to board the cab once again as this time they were going to turn the engine around on the turntable (mesa giratoria), which I was keen to see. As we approached, a couple of assistants lined up the table for the engine to move onto. The driver released the regulator gently and we started moving. Suddenly, there came shouting from down below: we stopped sharply and I looked out to see that we had, somewhat alarmingly, derailed. The lining up of the turntable had been imprecise and for lack of a better word, sloppy. After a lot of humming and hawing, the driver and the assistants decided to back the engine off the table very slowly and fortunately for them, it did work. Nevertheless, it was quite a show for me!