Take a rail journey, on the world’s narrowest-gauge tracks, which commences in the world’s southern-most city; threads its way through spectacular, national park scenery, amid blinding, white, horizontal, end-of-the-world-characteristic snow; and traces its history to a penitentiary, which had been purposefully built just to populate the area, and you have a travel experience of fascinating proportions.
The A-framed, wooden logged, alpine-resembling terminal building at the Estacion del Fin del Mundo, with its corrugated iron roof, had been located in the Municipal Camping Ground of Tierra del Fuego National Park in Argentina eight kilometers from Ushuaia, current capitol of Argentine Patagonia, which had been comprised of the Neuquen, Rio Negro, Chubut, and Tierra del Fuego provinces. The very narrow End of the World Train, consisting of the tiny steam locomotive in the front and its eight wooden, green-painted, boxy-like passenger coaches behind, had been cradled by the slender, almost toy-like track behind glass doors leading from the terminal lobby to the platform which uniformed conductors opened 15 minutes before its scheduled 1255 departure, punching tickets and emitting the throngs of passengers.
The End of the World Train itself arose out of the dual-parameter need to populate the then-inhospitable island of Tierra del Fuego, located at the southern tip of South America, and to establish a penitentiary to which the country’s criminals could be sent. On October 12, 1884, the Tierra del Fuego government had been founded, along with Ushuaia, the world’s southern-most city, which is located 3,000 kilometers south of Buenos Aires and 4,000 kilometers north of the earth’s southern pole.
The train, initially running on wooden rails, itself served two purposes—namely, to carry materials to the construction site of the military prison, which had been completed in 1902, and to transport prisoners and workers between the newly formed city and the facility. The rails, replaced by steel in 1910, facilitated the permanent service which commenced the following year and rapidly earned the reputation of the “Convict Train.”
Four German steam locomotives provided initial power: a 0-4-0 manufactured by Orenstein and Koppel in Berlin; two 20-horsepower, 1910 0-6-0Ts, also built by Orenstein and Koppel; and a 1928 0-8-0T Arn. Jung.
Prisoners would typically depart on the Convict Train before dawn, sitting on its flatbed cars with their feet dangling over the sides during the 27-kilometer run to Lapataia, where they would cut wood amidst the sub-Antarctic cold throughout the day, while others would replenish the locomotive’s firebox with wood during the journey. In winter, the narrow track often had to be shoveled. Upon return, the men either rode atop the cut wood or ran alongside the train, closely guarded.
The prison’s location, in the middle of an island permanently surrounded by frozen seas, blanketed by forest and mountains, fraught with brutal cold, and accessed only six times per year by Argentine Navy ships which had to navigate the treacherous Strait of Magellan, precluded escape and earned it the reputation of “Argentine Siberia” and the “black hole of the south.”
On March 21, 1947, Juan Domingo Peron, then Argentine president, signed the decree which closed Ushuaia Prison after 45 years of operation, obviating the need for the rail line which had served it.
Seeking to restore the line to operational status, preserve history, and provide rail service to both locals and tourists, Tranex Turismo created the Ferrocarril Austral Fuerguino (FCAF), laying its first track in 1993 from the Municipal Camping Ground of Tierra del Fuego National Park and following the rail embankment of the original Convict Train, most of whose rails had eroded beyond safe re-use. The rails, which had previously been used by the Ferro Industrial Rio Turbio located in the nearby province of Santa Cruz and weighed 17 kilos-per-meter, spanned seven kilometers–six kilometers of mainline track and one for auxiliary use. The track, comprised of 1,400 ten-meter-long rails, had been connected by 1,400 fishplates, each with four bolts for a 5,600-total. The 6,500 sleepers had been separated by a 75-centimeter gap. Its one-meter width, following a maximum 2.8-percent slope, constituted the world’s narrowest gauge rail line.
Several locomotives and cars had been used during its construction. Two Ruston and Hornsby units, originally built in Britain, but later restored by Tranex in Carupa, featured two-cylinder, air-cooled engines and were subsequently retrofitted with rudimentary, weather-protecting cabs. Used to pull flatbed and low-loader wagons, they transported material needed for the railroad construction project. Cars, also manufactured and restored in the Carupa workshops, featured welded steel chassis and sheet steel floors and varied in length according to intended mission, from carrying stone and loose ballast to transporting the rails themselves.
Scheduled service had been reinaugurated on October 11, 1994, the 110th anniversary of the founding of the city of Ushuaia, and had been operated by locomotive “Rodrigo,” a 1938 steam engine built by Orenstein and Koppel, but incorporating a modified driver’s cab to more closely approximate the engines which had powered the original Convict Train.
The 12 1.2-meter-wide coaches, of steel, box-welded tube construction, featured mahogany walls with seven coats of interior clear varnish, and contained eight, dual-facing, red-cushioned, two-abreast, 60-centimeter-wide seats separated by a fixed wooden table for a total capacity of 16 in the first class cars, which were accessed by a very narrow aisle and a central, outward-opening door on either side. The tourist class coaches featured triple banks of blue-upholstered, three-abreast, 40-centimeter-wide, aisleless, tableless seats accessed by four dual-side, outward-opening doors. The single dining car, which featured passenger seating, a galley, and a wine cellar, sported a red exterior livery. I rode in the first class type, numerically designated car 1100.
The standard locomotive fleet had consisted of three engines: the steam-powered “Ingeniero Livio Dante Porta,” the equally steam-powered “Camila,” and the diesel hydraulic “Tierra del Fuego,” which had been primarily used for maintenance and servicing purposes.
Pulling away from the wooden-log, alpine Estacion del Fin del Mundo at 1255, the eight-car train, propelled by the tiny, whistle-emitting steam locomotive, followed the one-meter, narrow-gauge track through dense, dark-green forest into a whirling snow blizzard on its six-kilometer stretch to the National Park Station. The low shrubs, rivers, and grazing horses wore coats of white, while the gray-granite and dark-green mountain face rising almost vertically from the right coach windows had been reduced to an indistinguishable charcoal silhouette.
Following the narrow, almost toy-like track, which multiplied into two, the train arced to the left of the two branches, which were separated by a crude log fence, and ceased movement at Puente Quemado, its only stop, with access to waterfalls.
The locomotive pulling my train, a classic British steam design built by Winson Engineering and named “Camilia,” featured an aft-installed firebox which held combustible material in the form of wood, coal, or fuel oil. When lit, it produced the required temperature to heat the water housed in the two large, side-installed boiler tanks in whose domes, located at their highest points, the driest steam collected. Throttle-controlled, it had been ducted through two cylinders and turned the wheels via connecting rods. Valve-controlled injectors, using boiler pressure to generate a water flow greater than that of the steam itself, forced the water into the boilers, as measured and indicated by gauges in the driver cab. An auxiliary compressor provided air for the brakes, while batteries generated electric current. The smoke box-located chimney provided the channel through which smoke and steam ultimately escaped.
Emitting an initial, train-trailing explosion of white smoke and translating piston motion into wheel-turning power, the train chugged out of the Puente Quemado station through the whirling, white snow blur, which obscured the mountains and reduced them to but specks of darker hues barely distinguishable through the blinding, horizontal streams of frozen flakes. Snaking rivers were reduced to silver-gray mirrors.
Entering Tierra del Fuego National Park after a two-kilometer run, the train moved through flat, barren, tree stump-ubiquitous terrain known as the “tree cemetery.” The sky cracked into a brilliant blue and the fleecy-white mountains again became visible, reflected by the winding, silver, mirror-like Pipo River. The white-blanketed valley, a veritable winter wonderland, stretched to the rising peaks.
Tierra del Fuego National Park itself, formed by glaciation, had first been inhabited some 10,000 years ago by the Yamana, a tribe which lived in dome-shaped huts made of boughs and leafy branches, hunted sea lions, wore sea lion pelts, and traveled in canoes made of lenga tree bark. After having been hunted by, and exposed to disease brought by, the Europeans, the race rapidly diminished, decreasing from 3,000 to just 100 in the 30-year period between 1880 and 1910.
The park itself had been created in 1960 with the signing of Law #15,554 and encompassed the 63,000 hectares between Lake Kami in the north and the cost of the Beagle Channel. Its diverse vegetation varied from high Andean steppe and southern beech woods abundant with lenga and evergreen trees to peat bog, while its main indigenous mammals included the Fuegian red fox and the guanaco.
Belching streams of thick, white steam, which swept over the chain of tiny, narrow, green coaches like a draped veil and temporarily obscured visibility through their windows, the miniature locomotive climbed the moderate track grade, pulling its eight, tourist-packed cars into an arcing right curve through a skinny, brown-barked tree forest. Following the multiplying track, from the single spur to the current four, the engine branched to the left-most of them and decreased speed, pulling into the platform of the National Park Station at 1335 with a final chug.
As all the doors were simultaneously opened and the some 100 passengers climbed down to the gravel, locomotive Camila expelled a last, tired hiss of steam.