January 30, 2015
The train at the end of the world started as a convict work train. It’s a narrow gauge railway that used to run from the Prison in Ushuaia into the forests of Tierra del Fuego. It transported prisoners sentenced to hard labor, many of them political prisoners, to cut trees for building and for fuel. Forest duty was often preferred to sitting in a cell all day. The prison was closed by Peron in the 1940s and the trains stopped running. In 1994 the route was resurrected. The tracks into town are long gone but the last 7 km of the narrow gauge is restored and runs across the Pipo River into the Tierra del Fuego national park. You need to take a bus or taxi along the dirt road that is the tag end of the Pan American highway to the station. Along the route are fields of stumps from trees felled by the convicts. You can tell the time of year they were cut by how high the stumps are from the ground. Those cut in the winter have higher stumps because the convicts were working above on top of the snow.
The train gauge looks smaller than most narrow gauges I have seen, almost like a kid’s amusement park ride, but the cars sit two or three abreast. They are quite different from the ones convicts would have ridden in.
Most of the locomotives are steam. One a rebuild, two new builds from South Africa and one made in Argentina. They are modified to run the boilers with diesel because the train runs through a national park and park regulations forbid cinders that could come from a charcoal burning engine, which the railroad originally had.
The ride takes about 50 minutes with one stop that some people use to hike to a water fall but which I used to take a closer look at the engine and rolling stock. Along the way you can see horses grazing and families picnicking. One group of kids was swimming in the chilly river.