Keeping La Trochita on track

The Old Patagonian Express, made famous by Paul Theroux, inspires loyal riders in Argentina.

'I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...."

The refrain of a memorable childhood story surfaces in my mind to fuse with the rhythmic chortle of the 1922 Baldwin steam locomotive. The vast, treeless landscape and snow-capped Andes provide the perfect contrast to the teeny-weeny, 75-centimeter gauge on which we slowly zigzag our way up a mountain.

Suddenly, and to the surprise of all on board, the Viejo Expreso Patagonico (Old Patagonian Express) lets blare its defiant whistle. As in the fabled story of the "Little Engine That Could," we've achieved our goal and crested this seemingly unbeatable plateau.

There may be more-historic narrow-gauge railways in the world, but perhaps none is quite as endearing as the Old Patagonian Express. Despite its gimmicky-sounding new name - a tribute to Paul Theroux's classic account of his rail journeys through the Americas - the train is anything but a tourist trap.

Located in a remote swath of Argentina's Patagonia, La Trochita (Spanish for "narrow-gauge train"), as locals affectionately call it, stands out as the only train of its class in the world that still functions regularly.

In addition to a three-hour tourist service in the summer, the train departs from its base in Esquel every Thursday to cover nearly half of its original 402-kilometer route, often with no more than a handful of passengers aboard. For solitary gauchos and farmhands living in the hinterland, the state-subsidized train remains, in many cases, their only connection to the outside world.

Not bad for a money-losing train that's been living on borrowed time ever since its inception. By the time construction of the railroad was completed in 1945 - 23 long years after it began - faster roadways had already rendered obsolete the train's utility to the region's then-flourishing wool trade.

Almost immediately, its reputation for lengthy delays of up to two days and strange mishaps began to earn it a dubious fame as the butt of jokes everywhere. In 1979, when it derailed after colliding with a cow, the engine driver was the appropriately named Senor Bovino (Spanish for sheep).

These days, when much of Patagonia's wild-West feel is being eroded by outside influences, such colorful anecdotes are an uplifting source of nostalgia instead of embarrassment.

Although most visitors now come for Patagonia's pristine wilderness, it's still common to find among them a returning native son or daughter anxious to relive his or her memories of riding the train when it was just the cheapest way out of town.

Although he's not a tourist, the experience of Juan Infantino, the train's jovial general manager and most enthusiastic promoter, exemplifies why La Trochita remains beloved by so many. He first boarded the train at age 6, when his father worked on it as a mechanic. Afterward, though, it was a witness to some of the most important milestones in his life, such as the first time he left his parents' house at 18 to enlist in the Army.

"We employees keep the train functioning, but it's the passengers who give it life," says Mr. Infantino, who worked his way up to his current position after being hired as a floor mechanic 18 years ago.

Despite an abundance of such warm sentiment, there's no guarantee of La Trochita's survival. The train was shut down for three months in 1993 after no bidder showed up when the federal government put it on the auction block. Although the provincial government of Chubut later intervened to reopen its section of the railway, its infrastructure is rapidly declining, in the absence of a profitable balance sheet.

Even if an effort under way to have the train recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site is successful, its new owners would be under no obligation to keep the train running.

The upside of such a precarious existence is that La Trochita's original splendor has remained virtually untouched in all these years. As such, its reputation as a mobile museum is well deserved.

Aside from a fresh paint job, its Belgian-made passenger coaches, with their still-functional, wood-burning heaters, remain just as they were when purchased in 1922. Equally authentic is the pint-sized station in Esquel, where a rudimentary museum displays a treasure chest of curious frontier antiques, including the region's first telephone, a Western Electric patented in 1913.

So many relics of a bygone era create numerous opportunities to snoop around. But for the most compelling testament to the train's legacy, it's necessary to make a side trip to El Maiten, a village of 3,500 that was a winter rest camp when the railway was still being built. It's there, inside a rusting shed set against a dramatic alpine backdrop, that one can peacefully visit La Trochita's impressive workshops.

My soft-spoken guide to los talleres (the workshops) is Carlos Kmet, a 36-year veteran whose father and grandfather settled in El Maiten, after emigrating from Poland, thanks to a job offer on La Trochita.

He and a cadre of 12 other imaginative mechanics, all descendants of the original pile-driving pioneers, keep La Trochita each day from derailing for good.

But doing so isn't easy. According to Mr. Kmet, new locomotives need a general repair every eight years, but La Trochita's five existing locomotives, because of their deteriorated state, require more-frequent maintenance.

More than 7,000 man-hours of work annually go into keeping each one running. And since spare parts no longer exist, the mechanics must rely on little more than inherited intuition and the original blueprints to handcraft them from raw steel.

Observing this process up close is an unforgettable experience, especially considering the hardships these artisans and their families must endure just for the right to exercise their unique trade.

With monthly salaries half what they were when the federal government was in charge, most workers stay put out of pure love.

"It's in reverence to my father and all the sacrifices his generation made that I haven't left," says Kmet, who began his career on La Trochita at 17. "All I hope for in return is that at 65 I'll be able to retire with dignity like he did."

Although it's premature to say for sure if Kmet will fulfill his dream or not, I've got a hunch he might just make it. Like La Trochita itself, if he's gotten this far, it takes only a little extra push.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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