Conrail lives and other true stories from South America: Trains’ Peru tour, day 1

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, September 26, 2017

LIMA, Peru – On a dusty hillside in the Chosica section east of Lima, we stood on the platform of a two-story wooden station befitting the classic station in Thurmond, W.Va., and celebrated a railroad more than 4,000 miles away and that has been gone 18 years: Conrail.

The occasion was the dedication of a former Conrail C39-8, No. 1030, still resplendent in Conrail blue and named in appreciation of James A. Hagen, the Conrail Chairman (1989 to 1996) who agreed to lend his and his company’s expertise in the early 1990s effort to privatize South America's freight railroads. FCCA Chairman Juan Olaechea and Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Railroad Development Corp. Chairman Henry Posner III (himself a CR alumni) presided.  Our Trains tour group, on its first full day in the country, FCCA workers in hard hats at this shop town, and the seemingly obligatory dog at every station in this country stood with rapt attention. When it was done and the locomotive dedication was completed, a server passed around pisco sour drinks (the local favorite), which we downed with the joy of a group of travelers embarking on an epic journey.

And that we are.

On this first day, we stumbled into the back door of Lima’s only train station, the Desemparados Station, which is today a major library. We didn’t realize that the FCCA had arranged to greet us at the front door and tour us through this spectacular Beaux Arts 1893 depot that sadly goes unused for its original purpose in this nation dominated by the car and bus. The only passenger trains run six to eight times a year as special all-day excursions into the Andes.

Our four car train consisted of a kitchen car, two Romanian-built coaches from 1982, and a heavily modified bar-observation car that reminds me of the Lookout Mountain, Southern Railway’s famous open air tail car on its 1960s and 1970s steam excursions. Naturally, our group flocked to the observation for the best views of the unfolding urban landscape. With more than 10 million people, Lima is a major urban center in South America, and for miles we rolled by hovels, businesses, food stands, and other necessities of life. We gawked at the major damage that floods caused here last spring, washing away the railroad for 16 days and costing more than $4 million to rebuild. We passed  the reason this railroad still exists, a freight train, hauling zinc medallions. Mineral traffic along with cement and fuel are major commodities on the FCCA.

We climbed from sea level to an altitude of 2,800 feet at Chosica and eventually even higher at San Bartolome. We listened to the chugging sound of our General Electric locomotive as it made its way ever upward, only stopping for the occasional car or truck parked too close to the tracks. Fortunately for us, the FCCA has grade crossing flagmen on motorbikes to guard the many crossings.   

At Chosica, after our celebratory drink, we adjourned to visit the locomotive and car shops, where among the many prizes was a former Norfolk Southern C39-8, No. 8554 in a disheveled state. The unit was being converted for use on this, one of the kings of mountain railroads. FCCA will chop the cab and radiators for tunnel clearances and lightens the engine and shortens the fuel tank for bridge loadings. A standard  SD40 and a EMD G12 export unit, which one of our party describes as an SD39L in export clothes, were also on hand.

We concluded our day at San Bartolome, where we inspected the deadline that included more former NS C39s and a handsome but out of service 2-8-0 with a Belpaire firebox. This is also where all FCCA trains change direction as the station is at the point of a single switchback. Owning to that, before we left, No. 1031 climbed onto the short turntable. Members of our group pushed the Armstrong turntable around so the engine is pointed in the right direction for tomorrow’s journey. Ahead of us are the Andes, more switchbacks, bridges, tunnels, and grades in excess of 4.2 percent. I fully expect it to look and feel like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my 50 years of being in love with trains. I’m thinking Saluda, Moffat, Wasatch grades all rolled into one and multiplied by 10.  

If this Trains tour in conjunction with Special Interest Tours sounds like something you’d enjoy, please consider joining us on a future expedition. We’ll be visiting great scenic railroads and museums of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland next June. And we’ll be visiting Switzerland next September. More tours are in the works. Please visit www.specialinteresttours.com for more information and to register.  

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