Busy narrow-gauge line offers spectacular journey to iconic destination

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Part 1 of 2 - Read Part 2

I was privileged to have joined a handful of fellow explorers on Trains’ Ultimate Peruvian Railway Experience tour, about which Editor Jim Wrinn has blogged in Train of Thought, which ended on Thursday. I decided to stay an extra two days in Cusco, and used one of those days (Friday) to retrace the same route the group had ridden to and from Machu Picchu on Tuesday, Oct. 3 (see Jim’s reports here and here), but on different schedules and in different classes of service in order to sample the offerings to passengers on what I’m sure is the busiest narrow-gauge railroad (by number of daily trains and passengers) in the Western Hemisphere and definitely the busiest stretch of track in Peru.

View from an Inca Rail train traveling through Peru's Sacred Valley on Oct. 6. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
While Machu Picchu is rightly world famous and it is fairly well known that trains take tourists there, the scenic quality of the train ride itself is largely unheralded, but rivals any of Switzerland’s narrow-gauge railways and likely ranks among the world’s most spectacular. It’s no wonder most trains have windows on the ceiling, as passengers spend much of the ride gazing upward at tall peaks, some snow-capped, surrounding the Urubamba River valley in which the tracks follow the river’s curvature. After a relatively flat first 45 minutes out of Poroy (at an elevation of over 11,000 feet), the line descends rapidly through a rugged canyon with numerous long curves and one switchback. It then follows the Urubamba River downstream through the fertile Sacred Valley, then descends into the thickly vegetated and very sparsely populated jungle for the last hour into Aguas Calientes (at an elevation of about 6,700 feet), a section not closely paralleled by any roads, but mostly within sight of the Inca Trail, a popular hiking path. Machu Picchu lies above Aguas Calientes at nearly 8,000 feet.

Throughout the journey downward from Ollantaytambo, dramatic peaks are visible around and above you while the train passes through tunnels carved into hillsides and skirts rocky cliffs. All five trains I rode on this line adhered to their published schedules, with between two and four well-timed meets at passing sidings taking between three and seven minutes each factored into the timetable. PeruRail offers a printed timetable, a glossy foldout leaflet of six pages, while Inca Rail’s schedules are only available online.

Six different classes of service are offered by two different companies on the 55.7-mile stretch of meter-gauge track between Poroy (a station on the main highway (Federal Highway 3S) about 7 miles northwest of the center of Cusco built to handle increased tourist traffic) and Aguas Calientes, the touristy village in the Urubamba river valley below the Machu Picchu world heritage archaeological site. I got to experience all but three of these. PeruRail, which is owned by the London, UK-based Belmond Group (which owns a hotel chain and a number of luxury trains around the world), is the dominant carrier and the infrastructure owner, while Inca Rail operates tourist trains over the line under an open-access agreement. Ed Ellis’s Iowa Pacific Holdings once had an ownership stake in Inca Rail, but sold it in February 2016. Peruvian and other South American investors now control the company.

Three PeruRail trains await their next assignments at Machu Picchu station in Aguas Calientes, Peru.
PeruRail’s trains consist mostly of British-built coaches hauled by aging Alco diesels, which rumor has it are soon to be replaced by more modern diesels. PeruRail also fields some DMU Expedition consists that look similar to the locomotive-hauled cars. Most trains are four to six cars long, and local trains (discussed below) also have one or two baggage & wayfreight cars that look like boxcars. This equipment has vestibules that theoretically allow passengers to move between cars, but PeruRail restricts passengers to remaining in the car in which their assigned seat lies by putting “Authorized Personnel Only” signs on the vestibule doors. This is in part to maintain the food-preparation galley at the end of each car as a crew-only space. At the other end of each car lies a luggage rack and a restroom (servicios higíenicos, or “hygenic services,” in Peruvian parlance), accessible from the vestibule. All except the most basic coaches feature large picture windows and windows in the ceiling, similar to Amtrak’s Superliner Sightseer Lounges (except single-level), and most seats are arranged in groups of four around tables, though there are some two-seaters. Half the passengers in each car face forward while the other half faces backward.

A five-car Inca Rail train receiving passengers at Machu Picchu station for a late afternoon run to Poroy.
Inca Rail’s fleet is made up of DMU cars with cabs at each end, which can run independently or can be linked together into trains of two to five cars. The configuration of this equipment makes passage between cars while in motion impossible. These also feature full-sized windows and small windows in the ceiling. The seating arrangement is nearly identical to PeruRail’s cars, with a small galley at one end and a restroom and luggage rack at the other. However, on PeruRail, some seats are reclinable, while none are on Inca Rail. Both operators’ cars have heating and air conditioning units mounted in the center of the roof, while this area on Inca Rail’s DMUs also contains the diesel engine, hence narrower ceiling windows.

Read Part 2 (coming on Friday)

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