The train to Cordoba: What could possibly go wrong?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, October 29, 2010

“When I was a girl growing up far south of Buenos Aires,” said the concierge at our hotel in Argentina’s capital, “the trains were so beautiful and fancy. To ride them was an event. Today? Eh! They are nothing.” I had asked her about the passenger train from Buenos Aires to Cordoba, 440 miles to the northwest. “There is no train to Cordoba,” she insisted with utter certainty. An hour later, I returned to our hotel to show her my sleeping car ticket to Cordoba. Being gracious, the concierge said only, “Please tell me about the experience when you return.”

She was wrong in a narrow sense. There is a train to Cordoba. But she was really right. More than 30 years ago, on his trip down the Americas that produced The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux sat for hours in the dining car of La Estrella del Norte (North Star) taking him from Tucuman to Buenos Aires, working on a four-course dinner that cost $2, served by “waiters and stewards ... dressed more formally than the people eating.” Later, in the heart of Patagonia, deep in Argentina’s interior, he would complain of the cold, ceaseless wind that blew dust through the crevices of his sleeping car. But his description of the little narrow gauge, steam-powered train that pulled wooden coaches the final miles to the end of the line in Esquel, literally the Old Patagonian Express, is of the stuff that has inspired wanderlust in otherwise sane men ever since. I happily accompanied my wife to Argentina as the corporate husband, for the chance to ride that’s country’s trains. I was seduced by the anticipation of adventure.
Alas, long-distance passenger trains of Argentina have a poor reputation today, one that they appear to richly deserve. Those trains Paul Theroux rode were products of the state-owned railway, Ferrocarriles Argentinos, created when railroads were nationalized in 1948, during the Juan Peron era. In 1993, the railroads were privatized again, and that included the passenger trains. They have not fared well.

Most run only once or twice a week. Equipment is old and sometimes ill-maintained. Schedule-keeping can be iffy. Search on YouTube for El Gran Capitan clips, and you will be entertained. But the reality is different. El Gran Capitan runs weekly from the capital to Posadas, almost 700 miles north on the border of Paraguay, and the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable says about it: “This service is reported as running up to 12 hours late on a regular basis. You are advised to take your own water, food, toilet paper, etc.” Daniel Thomas, editor and publisher of Latin Rails, calls this train simply “an adventure.” It may or may not carry the advertised sleeping and dining cars.
You can ride El Bahiense six days a week south from Buenos Aires to Bahia Blanca, about 425 miles, but the last time he did, journalist Thomas found dirty sheets in his room, atrocious food, and inattentive servers. And you can venture into Patagonia from Bahia Blanca only one day a week, and only if the line is not closed by dust storms, as it was earlier in 2010. At that end of the line, the Old Patagonian Express still exists, but you must charter it.
The day before we left for Argentina, poring over the Cook timetable once again and making internet searches, I came upon my solution: that train to Cordoba, Rayo de Sul. Cook shows it with sleeper and diner. Independently, Daniel Thomas emailed me to suggest it and another train operated by Ferrocentral, the same La Estrella del Norte that brought Theroux from Tucuman those many years ago. I was unable to get a room to Tucuman the day I could travel, but there was a room for me to Cordoba, meals included, for 300 pesos, or $75.
Had I visited Estacion Constitucion before riding Rayo de Sul, I might have been forewarned. At that station, I later saw the sorriest intercity passenger train of my entire life being towed back for servicing, four unairconditioned bench-back coaches and a diner, all adorned by broken and shattered windows and all dirty beyond belief.
On the other hand, at first glance the train to Cordoba looked inviting under the lights of Estacion Retiro. But as I got closer, I saw something covering every window of the train: sheets of Lexan, a clear, rock-hard plastic-like substance. Penn Central used Lexan in lieu of glass windows on its commuter cars in the late 1960s to protect its passengers from stoning. But Lexan fogs over time, and washing and other scratches add to the cumulative loss of vision.
What Ferrocentral had done was attach Lexan sheets about three inches outside of each glass window. There are mean-looking slums beside the tracks in Buenos Aires, but very soon into my trip the real cause became evident when I heard frequent swishing sounds outside. Trees and brush had been allowed to grow up to the tracks and gave passing trains a whacking.
The owner of the concession for these railway lines used by Ferrocentral, freight train operator Nuevo Central Argentino SA, apparently feels the growth doesn’t impede its freight trains and is unwilling to clear the obstructions. As its tenant, Ferrocentral either will not or cannot pay to clear the foliage for its twice-weekly trains. So its solution was to put this obnoxious Lexan over the windows of its dozens of passenger cars and call it a day.
I’d know in the morning how bad bad was. But now it was 9 o’clock, and I was hungry for a steak and some Malbac, Argentina’s red wine of choice. Sitting down, I waited for a menu that never came. The attendant brought me and everyone else on the car a crepe-like appetizer filled with spinach, and shortly thereafter the only main course, a shepherd pie, which is ground beef sandwiched between layers of mashed potatoes. It was filling, but I could feel depression coming on.
Daylight confirmed my worst fears. The Lexan shield over my window was doing its job well, deflecting batterings from the ends of tree branches. But the material was fogged beyond belief, and the scratches caused by limbs further impeded visibility. It was like looking at the world from inside a thick balloon, or vision sometime after the onset of blindness. When we slowly passed a freight train waiting for us near Villa Maria, I could not accurately count the number of cars because it was impossible to see where one freight car ended and the next began. Look at the photo I took and judge for yourself.
Okay, so I didn’t enjoy Rayo de Sul. But I did sleep well enough, and read a book the next morning as we trundled toward Cordoba. And besides, hadn’t the concierge forewarned me? On the day I left Buenos Aires, I gave her a substantial tip. She invited me to return, and I hope I do. One reason will be that while Argentina’s intercity trains are pathetic, the many suburban lines radiating out of Buenos Aires are a joy to ride. I’ll tell you about those in a later installment. — Fred W. Frailey

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