Accounts of U.S. Travelers in Argentina

CSR will be releasing its next White Paper, The Development of Modern Steam 3: The "Rio Turbio Railway" and GPCS, to the public in the coming few weeks. In anticipation of that release, CSR is making available a section of the White Paper - an account of a trip by two U.S. railroad aficianados to Rio Turbio in March 1991.  The following is a brief essay and corresponding photographs provided to CSR by supporters Jim Hebson and Ben Anderson (shown on board the RFIRT below center). Their story depicts an adventure from a different time and place. Enjoy.

Personal Reflections on the Ferrocarril Industrial Rio Turbio

Ben Anderson and Jim Hebson

Upon arriving in Buenos Aires from the United States in March 1991 for an extended exploration of Ferrocarriles Argentinos, we learned that the Argentinian railroad workers had gone on strike, shutting down the entire system with little prospect of an early resolution. Stunned by this setback at the very beginning of our trip, we began to consider alternative railway subjects to explore.

During these deliberations, we recalled hearing about an obscure coal-hauling railroad known as the Ferrocarril Industrial Rio Turbio (the “FIRT”), which ran between the Argentinian port of Rio Gallegos (the capital of Santa Cruz, the southernmost province of Argentina) and the coal mines at Rio Turbio, near the border with Chile. Both the railroad and the mines were operated by Yacimientos Carboniferos Fiscales (“YCF”), the Argentine state coal company.

The special purpose, point-to-point railroad was totally isolated, far from the southernmost extreme of the integrated Argentinian system. We further recalled that the FIRT was a 2-1/2 foot (750 mm) gauge, 100% steam powered railroad featuring large 2-10-2 Santa Fe-type locomotives, certainly an exotic railroad in an exotic location.

The two of us speculated that because the FIRT, located in the southernmost part of Patagonia, was isolated from the Argentinian railroad system, its operation might not have been affected by the strike, but we needed to confirm that fact. We obtained the address of the YCF headquarters in Buenos Aires and set out to obtain whatever information we could.

Contrast of old and new. At the coal terminal of Rio Gallegos, YCF operated a relatively-modern coal transfer system to create stockpiles of coal from which ships would be loaded. This equipment is still in operation today.


Contrast of old and new. At the coal terminal of Rio Gallegos, YCF operated a relatively-modern coal transfer system to create stockpiles of coal from which ships would be loaded. This equipment is still in operation today.

In those pre-security conscious days, we entered the building and wandered the empty corridors trying to decide which office to try, but before we could do so, an employee came down the hall, and we put our question to him. We were informed that the FIRT was indeed operating, and the employee graciously offered to introduce us to the railroad management. That chance encounter resulted in an afternoon of extraordinary hospitality as we met with executives at increasing levels of authority, including an elderly Swedish engineer who had worked on the construction of the FIRT as a young man in 1949. We were enthusiastically encouraged by all we met to undertake the long journey from Buenos Aires to Rio Gallegos to see the FIRT in action. 

We left the YCF building that afternoon with the all-important, door-opening “Letter of Introduction” (to the railroad’s general manager) in hand and made arrangements to fly to Rio Gallegos as soon as possible.

Rotary dump narrow gauge. Like many modern coal-hauling railroads, the RFIRT employed coal gondolas that were dumped using the rotary dumper shown above - each railcar is emptied by being flipped upside down.


Rotary dump narrow gauge. Like many modern coal-hauling railroads, the RFIRT employed coal gondolas that were dumped using the rotary dumper shown above - each railcar is emptied by being flipped upside down.

In Rio Gallegos, the warm hospitality of FIRT began with in-depth inspection tours of the engine terminal, shops and coal handling equipment. We then met with officials to discuss the engineering and operational aspects of this highly unusual railroad. At the conclusion of the meeting, our host apologized that the FIRT did not carry passengers. (Because the railroad was dedicated solely to hauling coal, we had not expected that it did.) We were therefore delighted when our host announced that, if we would like, the railroad would be pleased to accommodate our interest in the FIRT by putting a special business car on the next westbound (empty) train so that we could examine the entire 153-mile main line and the coal facilities at Rio Turbio itself.

Narrowest passenger car ever? This photo by Anderson shows one of the few passenger railcars maintain by the RFIRT. In the background, locomotive 101 is performing switch movements prior to assembling the train they took from Rio Gallegos to the mine at Rio Turbio.


Narrowest passenger car ever? This photo by Anderson shows one of the few passenger railcars maintain by the RFIRT. In the background, locomotive 101 is performing switch movements prior to assembling the train they took from Rio Gallegos to the mine at Rio Turbio.

When we presented ourselves at the yard on the morning of the day of departure, the railroad was a beehive of activity. We watched in anticipation as one of the 2-10-2 locomotives pulled a diminutive wooden coach – the “special business car” - from a shed.

Our host explained that he assumed we would like “our” coach placed directly behind the locomotive, better to observe the operation of a hard working 2-10-2 steam engine. In addition to our special car, the train consisted of a guard’s van, a long string of empty coal hoppers, and an out-of-service, deadheading 2-10-2 (at the end of the train) with its rods removed for the trip.

he meet at Estacion Capa provided a taste of the train the authors would ride in return the following day.


he meet at Estacion Capa provided a taste of the train the authors would ride in return the following day.

Our wood paneled coach was comfortably equipped with a lounge area, a table, a pot belly stove, bunks, and a galley. We were accompanied on our journey by the Chief Mechanical Officer.

The outbound trip took twelve hours, as the vast Patagonian landscape unfolded with sweeping curves, gentle grades and distant hills, with occasional stops for water at desolate windmill-driven pumps, engine servicing, and a meet with an inbound train at Estacion Capa.

Upon arrival at Rio Turbio at 9 P.M., our host accompanied us to a local restaurant for dinner and then welcomed us to stay at the FIRT bunkhouse for the night. After breakfast at the bunkhouse in the morning, we departed Rio Turbio. Once again a single 2-10-2 was sufficient for the task.

Late that night the bright lights of Rio Gallegos illuminated the clear Patagonian sky, signaling our final approach and the end of our trip on the “southernmost railroad in the world.”

This shot taken from the first car behind the locomotive shows the 50+ car train snaking through the beautiful, albeit barren, valley landscape that the FIRT called home.


This shot taken from the first car behind the locomotive shows the 50+ car train snaking through the beautiful, albeit barren, valley landscape that the FIRT called home.