Through the Atacama Desert by Rail

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Driving toward the Arica Railway Station in Chile on a swelteringly hot summer morning, I caught glimpse of the wooden, 60-year-old, English-built sentinel car, registered 0261 and painted a bright orange and yellow, on display, making my way up the few stairs and crossing through the building to the platform, where I awaited the day’s first departure of the Ferrocarril Tacna-Arica Railway, scheduled to leave at 0935 for its trek across the border, by means of the vast expanses of the Atacama Desert, to Tacna, Peru.  A tour bus, intermittently stopping in front of the station, disgorged some two dozen passengers who had equally scampered through the depot and immediately infiltrated the singular, stationary, museum-like car.  Raising an arm and about to inquire if the group had been awaiting the morning train to Peru, a nameless face audibly corrected my thoughts with an exclamation.  “This is it!” it had shouted.

                In disbelief, I climbed the few steps into the wooden relic, fully expected it to remain stationary and silent, yet the “engineer” entered his own forward, side door, inserted a key, and the car’s deep, throaty, diesel engine pinnacled into chassis-vibrating life.  Through the Atacama Desert in this, I thought?

                Initiating momentum and inching past the platform on the single track before my thoughts could run to the end of theirs, this moving, autonomous coach would serve as both transportation and protection, as both engine and rail car.  Paralleling the sand-lined Pacific beneath the sky, which had worn its flawlessly-blue morning ensemble, the coach followed the dust-imbedded track past the Arica suburbs characterized by their modern, low-rise apartments, behind which rose the soft, wave-like, tan and brown mountain silhouettes of the Andean foothills, which had been as dry as dust and devoid of a single green sprout of vegetation.

                Seemingly trackless, the wagon, built up of vertical wooden planks and a slightly arched ceiling, penetrated the dirt-buried rails periodically flanked by small heaps of rock and sand, on the fringes of the Atacama Desert, the dust filtering through the open windows and leaving the eyes stung and the mouth immersed in sand.  Behind, in its wake, rose mini-dust tornadoes and the just-covered track, stretching to its origin, somehow symbolic of the railroad’s history, which had equally stretched to its origin.

                Peru’s only international rail line, and the second to have been constructed here, the Ferrocarril Tacna-Arica traces its origin to December 16, 1851, when a decree, authorizing the construction of a railroad, had led to a contract, awarded to John Hegan on August 6 of the following year.  It had stipulated the import of 400 Chinese workers, usage of standard rail gauge, the establishment of minimum tariffs, and the transfer of rights to a third party.  Hegan, granted a two million Peruvian peso advance for the project, had been required to repay it within a three-year period at a 4.5-percent interest rate.

                The line, completed in 1855, had stretched 62 kilometers at a 1.455-millimeter gauge, constructed of 60 pounds-per-yard of rail fastened to quebracho wood ties, and had encompassed the six stations of Tacna, Kilometro 42, Hospicio, Escritos, Chacalluta, and Arica, and had traversed five bridges.  A 3.8-percent grade had been maintained between Magullo and Tacna.

                Trial service of the “Empresa del Ferrocarril Tacna-Arica FCTA,” or “Arica and Tacna Railway Company,” had commenced on December 25, 1855, while scheduled passenger service had been inaugurated two years later, on January 1, 1857, with a fleet of five 4-4-0 R & W Hawthorn locomotives numbered 869 to 873, thus beginning its contractual 99-year period.

                Because initial passenger and freight volume had failed to generate sufficient revenue, their tariffs, attempting to stimulate traffic, had been halved in 1859.

                Although President Balta-mandated studies to extend the line to La Paz, Bolivia, would have been instrumental in troop transport during the War of the Pacific, the project had never materialized.

                Two other developments had been considered: a 478-kilometer, eastward extension, contemplated in 1904, would also have taken the line to La Paz, while a 278-kilometer southward extension, from Arica to Zapiga, would have connected it to the Chilean railway system, but Chile’s then current occupation of the territory had otherwise deterred both efforts.

                Several additional steam locomotives had been instrumental in maintaining service, inclusive of both a Morro and a Tacura 2-6-0 Rogers and later-model 4-4-0 Hawthorns, all doing so during the latter part of the 1800s.  Early-1900’s equipment had included 2-4-0 and 2-6-0 Baldwins of 1908, a 0-4-0 Kerr Stuart of 1911, and a C-C Alco Diesel of 1958, equipment built both locally and by the Linke Hoffman Company in Germany.  Eleven rail cars had comprised the fleet by 1939.

                Having been administered by Enafur, the Ferrocarril Tacna-Arica had been passed on to Enapu and ultimately the regional government of Tacna, the Arica railway workshops having been relocated to this terminus and ownership of the Chilean section of track having been retained by Peru at this time.

                Although earthquakes and floods had destroyed part of the line in 2001, its reconstruction, coupled with persistence, had enabled it to celebrate its 150-year anniversary in 2006.

                The rising dust tornado, revealing the sun-glistening rails the single car had just cleared, continued to trail it.  Flat expanses of brown dust stretched to the tan-shaded, wave-like silhouettes of the Cerro Cabeza out the right windows.  A man stranded here, on the other side of the single coach’s green, paint-peeling walls, would assuredly cause him to hallucinate those silhouettes into waves of water, I had thought.

                Lurching on its lateral axis, the coach, still vibrating from its retrofitted diesel engine and clacking as its wheels rode the sometimes-disappearing rails, crossed the Chilean-Peruvian border, marked by a short obelisk, at 1000.  The hot, dry wind carried not welcomed breezes through the opened windows, but parching steams of sand instead.

                Passengers, negotiating the cramped car, which had featured a four-abreast, face-to-face configuration of bench seats, gathered in the yellow-painted, mid-vestibule whose sliding doors had provided egress on either side.

                The track, along with the Atacama Desert which had supported it, seemed to stretch into dry infinity in front of the train.

                Stretching, in fact, 600 to 700 miles from north to south, between the Loa River and the mountains which separated the Salado-Copiapo drainage basin, it extended as far as Peru’s north border and had been flanked by the Cordillera Domeyko in the east and the Cordillera de la Costa in the west.  Comprised of pebble and sand, alluvial accumulations in the east and salt pans at the foot of the coastal mountains in the west, it contained the 3,000-foot Tamarugal Plain, itself formed by a raised depression running from north to south.  A part of the continent’s arid shoreline, the desert had been created by the permanent South Pacific high pressure cell which had rendered it one of the world’s driest locations, resulting in an average rainfall of two to four times per century.

                Now approaching Tacna, the rail car veritably entered an oasis in the desert.  The Caplina River-irrigated valley, lining either side of the hitherto dusty track, had revealed lush greenery, which supported the growth of figs, olives, grapes, pomegranates, and prickly pears.

                Tiny, cement block squares, beyond the greenery and no larger than tool sheds, marked the Peruvians’ individual land claims, location of their future residences, while even earlier claims had been designated by sheer lines traced in the desert, marks representing the foundations of future dwellings.  To the left of the track, even electricity lines had risen from the dust, indicating initial fringes of civilization.

                As the train continued its journey, yet a third stage of structural progress had been prevalent: desert lines had supported concrete walls and these had been covered with bricks, yet not a single human had dwelled in any of these pending, still roofless buildings.  It had seemed as if the vast expanses had sprouted a soulless, still-uninhabited city.

                Sandwiched between modern, dual-lane roads forming Avenida Cuzco, the track, thresholding Tacna, penetrated the city, its buildings becoming commercial and toting their purposes with signs, with each clack of the car’s wheels.

                Piercing the silence with its horn as it announced its arrival from Chile, the Ferrocarril Tacna-Arica engine-coach threaded its way past palm tree-lined strips of manicured grass and fieldstone sidewalks, while cars and taxis, paralleling its path, moved within arm’s reach on either side.  The spires of the cathedral, rising from the Plaza de Armas, loomed in the distance.

                Inching through the clock tower-supported gate, the single, orange-and-yellow wagon screeched to a halt on the copper-colored rails which had multiplied into many and had cradled the steam engines, wooden coaches, and freight cars displayed by the Tacna Railroad Museum, rolling stock which had been instrumental in the Ferrocarril Tacna-Arica’s early history.

                Descending the three, steep steps to the platform of the 1856 station, I glanced at the track leading through the clock tower gate toward the city and stretching through the sometimes buried no-man’s land of the Atacama Desert, across the border to Chile, and to its Arica origin, and somehow realized that it had connected me, two countries, and a century-and-a-half of history, all in a single day.

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