CSR Web Exclusive: Steam Returning to the Rio Turbio Railway

  This photo by William E. Botkin shows RFIRT 119 hauling a train in 1996; it is currently one of two locomotives being rebuilt in Buenos Aires.


This photo by William E. Botkin shows RFIRT 119 hauling a train in 1996; it is currently one of two locomotives being rebuilt in Buenos Aires.

CSR is thrilled to announce that, following more than a decade of hard work, steam is once again going to return to the remote and scenic Ramal Ferro Industrial de Rio Turbio (RFIRT). Known for its fleet of 20 advanced steam locomotives, the RFIRT has been entirely mainline diesel-hauled since November 1996 when the last steam locomotives were retired and stored, though steam was used on switching duties at Rio Turbio coal yard and workshops well into 1997.

Beginning in 2003, however, a small contingent within the Argentine National Government, owner of the railroad, began plans to return steam tourist service to the line. CSR Director of Engineering, Shaun T. McMahon, was brought in to the project in 2004 to attempt to make it a reality.

Some ten years later, two steam locomotives and a Sentinel steam truck, have been shipped from Rio Turbio to Buenos Aires for reconstruction for operational purposes. The reincarnated steam-hauled service is to be initially passenger-hauling, and as such new passenger rolling stock is being manufactured at the same time as the historic steam equipment is being rebuilt.

"This is truly an amazing opportunity, and one that has been many years in the making," said McMahon. "I have been brought on by INTI and the Government of Argentina to serve as a quality control expert in the rebuilding, which is being handled by G&G Metalmecanica SRL under the direction of the company's owner Mr. Gabriel Asenjo here in Buenos Aires, Argentina."

One locomotive from each of two original orders is being rebuilt to operation – numbers 107 and 119. The railroad itself is quite unique; constructed as a narrow gauge line (750 mm or 2' 5.5"), it operated more like a mainline coal hauling line as would be seen around the world today. Unit trains of coal up-to 2,000 tons were hauled by single steam locomotives that weighed only 48 tons.

Of significant importance to the development of modern steam is the fact that Engineer Livio Dante Porta served as General Manager of the railroad from 1957 until 1960, during which time he worked to perfect many of the key developments crucial to the theory of modern steam locomotion, including the important Gas Producer Combustion System.

"Though the locomotives had been de-modernized by previous management at the railroad, this rebuild should take the locomotives back to their as-built performance, which is quite impressive," said McMahon. "It is also worth mentioning that a Sentinel steam wagon, the last overseas order of those trucks, will also be brought back to life under steam. This is an amazing thing for both Argentina and lovers of steam world-wide."

Restoration is already underway on the equipment, with Cromwell Marine subcontracted in order to provide workshop facilities and skilled staff with CM's manager Richard Campbell providing liaison between the companies. An aggressive timeline has been set to have the equipment under steam; if all goes according to plan, locomotives could be chugging down the railroad by August 2015.

CSR will continue to provide updates on this interesting rebuild on this blog and on CSR's facebook page www.facebook.com/csrail. To get a detailed background on the railroad operation, be sure to read CSR's white paper on the RFIRT, which can be downloaded here.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Cromwell Marine had been awarded the contract to rebuild the equipment. Cromwell Marine is, in fact, serving as a subcontractor to G&G Metalmecanica SRL, under the direction of its owner Mr. Gabriel Asenjo. Further, the locomotives were shipped from Rio Turbio, not Rio Gallegos, to Buenos Aires.