Title: I rode the Peruvian switchback with a bunch of trainspotters
Authors: Matthew Parris
Source: Times, The (United Kingdom); 04/09/2004
Accession Number: 7EH2639308665
Database: Australia/New Zealand Reference Centre
I rode the Peruvian switchback with a bunch of trainspotters
Section: Features, Comment, pg. 24
OBSESSION is not too strong a word to describe how railway enthusiasts feel about railways. "Enthusiasm" does not begin to do justice to a passion which, like all true passion, never asks itself the cold question: "What is this for?" For railway enthusiasts there are no balance sheets and only one bottom line: Heaven is a destination to be approached along an iron road. It was with such a group that I assembled one morning at dawn last week; and with such a destination, or something as close to it as a railway can touch. The railway from the Pacific at Lima in Peru, to Huancayo in the Andes, climbs farther, faster, higher, than any other in the world. This most unlikely of constructions, begun in the 19th century and finished in the 20th, rises from sea level to 15,688ft, and makes that climb in a morning: halfway to the top of Everest up a track no longer than a commute into London from the Home Counties. Stop me. There I go, sounding like a railway nutter. But there I was, happening to be in Lima on August 28, the very day appointed for one of just a handful of passenger excursions now permitted on what is without question the world's most remarkable railway. This could not be missed. The Ferrovias Central Andina once carried thousands, but as roads improved its prospects dwindled and by the end of the last century it was close to extinction. New private owners seem now to be putting the business back on its feet. Track and rolling stock are being renewed, but the company has only a marginal interest in passengers, transport of minerals from the mountains being its mainstay.
It has been left to an obsessive to charter and market these very occasional excursions. If the train ran (previous excursions had been cancelled by the FCA to the despair of the charterers), then Saturday, August 28, would be a red letter day for Peruvian trainspotters. Would it run? I had telephoned from the Peruvian Amazon to ask. I seemed to hear the lady at the station say Yes, buy your ticket at the metro. Doubly unlikely. You do not buy long-distance tickets at metro stations; and Lima does not have a metro. So when I asked my Lima hotel receptionist about the metro I was surprised to hear it was a giant supermarket. And there, among merchandise ranging from cheap clothes, meat and vegetables, mountaineering equipment, bridal gowns and hepatitis vaccinations I bought my ticket, one of the last six remaining, online. How Peru is changing. Saturday dawned. My taxi driver did not at first remember that there was a railway station -railways are dead or dying all over South America –but found it next to the presidential palace where the last President but three used to graze llamas in the ornamental gardens - an eye-catching initiative with which he could be personally associated. The station is built in Palladian style with a stone lion above the Portico and, beside the station clock, a carved maiden in bas relief, cradling a locomotive in her arms. The clock had stopped at 11.55, perhaps when the last scheduled service left. At its locked gates an enterprising Indian peasant wearing a rainbow hat was selling water, sticky lollipops and toilet paper. And in Lima's grey and misty dawn a little group of intrepid obsessives was gathering.They were led by Lucho, a long-haired Peruvian of fine, part-Indian features. But he is no hippy: with his tour company, Incas del Peru, he has worked tirelessly to badger the railway company into keeping the door open to passenger excursions. A practical obsessive, he is showing how railway mania and Andean adventure can mix. He wants regular excursions with stops for sightseeing in the little towns climbing the fertile valleys that line the dusty desert rock of the descending Andes with green. I think he will succeed. Tourist spectaculars are now the only future for passenger trains in South America. (If you are interested in going, the company's website is www.incasdelperu.org ) Comfortable in my carriage (painted red and yellow and made in Romania in 1982) I was chatting with Lucho when three mournful blasts on the big red and yellow diesel loco's whistle announced our departure. And at 7am prompt an engine and four carriages pulled away, heading gently uphill. Dogs barked. Surprised slum dwellers stared at this unusual sight – a passenger train - as we clickety - clacked past railside shrines towards the great grey walls of the Andes, rising into the cloud. However would we climb that?
We gathered speed. "I can build a railway," the engineering genius Ernest Malinowski, a Polish immigrant to Peru and the brain behind this line, once announced, "anywhere a llama can climb." The question "but why?" would not have occurred to such a mind. A crazy American, Henry Meiggs, escaping debts in his home country, won the contract to build it. He built it, but he ended in ruin. Now we were running alongside the gigantic gutter which on maps Appears as Lima's river. The mudbrick houses of the poorest clung hopefully to the steep, dusty and unstable foothills on either side, but in some cases with dubious prospects of success.
Some proudly flew red and white Peruvian flags. Curious, the patriotism of the downtrodden. Even in a slum the occasional dwelling announces its owner's dream of better things: a crude attempt at an ornate balcony, bright pink window frames, a whole wall clad in bathroom tiles, a sprig of dying bougainvillea or a struggling bush gallantly topiarised into an unpersuasive parrot. Breakfast was served. Outside, a roughly daubed "Prohibited to Dump Rubbish" marked the presence of each informal tip. But soon we left the Andean skirt down which Lima stinks and dribbles into the Pacific. Hazy sunshine then bright sunshine had pierced the cloud. A clear stream rushed by our carriage window. The lushness of the valley we were climbing ("27m per minute", declared our fact-packed printed guide) contrasted with the grim, bare rock and earth of the ridges of the Andes to either side. Little taximotos (scooter-drawn three wheelers, canvased over and bench seated) putt-putted up the road beside us. The carriages swayed. The diesel spat and roared. We passed a donkey so laden with cut grass that it might have been taken for a green-dyed yak.
There were flowering bushes. There were humming birds. But to the two leading carriages all this meant little. Their occupants had arrived at the station in gleaming coaches. They had their own guides bossing them as happily as they were happy to be bossed. They were German and American rail enthusiasts, in a group. The railway and rolling stock were all that really interested them. And pretty offensive, as a group, they were. What is it about railways which brings out the officious, the insolent, the mindless in their human friends? These people did not want the Peruvian music which had started to play on the carriage loud-speakers. They seemed to think Peru-all that brutal beauty and colour, all those mysterious black eyes and intriguing racial combinations - was just a backdrop to the camcorder holiday movies they were making about a train. They shouted abuse when anyone got in the way of their photographs, refusing to venture close to the subjects of their shots or far from their carriage simply because their guide had told them so.
When my companion and I walked up close to watch our loco being swivelled (by hand) on a turntable, the whole German-American group started yelling at us because we and some Peruvians were spoiling their picture. We all but dropped our pants to spoil it more completely. The loco-swivel was important. Twenty-one times on this line the train switches direction, usually (though not in this case) simply reversing so the engine driver at the back can see nothing, and a little motorised bogey runs ahead of the advancing rear carriage, to see the way clear. If you imagine zig-zags up the side of the mountain, but with each zig and zag extended into a dead end as long as a train, so that once the train has come to halt in its cul-de-sac, points can be thrown and the train, which has advanced up the zig, can now reverse up the zag then you have the gist of Malinowski's plan. It is called "switchback", and it works. But slowly. Soon you forget which end the engine is. From the top of a long series of switchbacks we could see the track far below, tiny and neat as a Hornby-Dublo. Crossing a skyscraper-high viaduct between mountain ridges, we saw on the road beneath us a ghastly lorry crash. We passed a freight train coming down, laden with ore, waiting in a siding (our line was single track) and passed some mine towns too, bleak, loveless places the world over but bleaker in those high, dry mountains and this thin and biting air. Jumpers and fleeces were taken down from the carriage racks and a nurse brought round oxygen for a couple who felt faint.
The service is routine. Breathless myself, I peered out as we emerged from a tunnel corkscrewed up for nearly a mile inside a mountain -and saw my first Peruvian trainspotter. He was with his son, both swathed in blankets, noting the numbers of the carriages on a grubby notepad. And, yes, he did have a Thermos.
Contribute to the debate
Copyright (C) The Times, 2004
Source: Times, The (United Kingdom), Sep 04, 2004