All Aboard the Legendary Old Patagonian Express!

Written by Peter Lauffer
September 29, 2020
The Old Patagonian Express is popularly known as “La Trochita.” Trochita is the common name given to the railway linking Ingeniero Jacobacchi in the Argentinean province of Rio Negro and Esquel in the Chubut province. Thanks to the novel "The Old Patagonian Express," written by Paul Theroux in 1978, the train became famous internationally. .
The word “trocha” refers to the track gauge of 750mm used on this railway, one of the narrowest in the world. Planned as part of a broader rail network that would link much of southern Argentina, the Trochita belongs administratively to the General Roca Railroad Network in Southern Argentina. The line has become a tourist attraction because of the steam locomotives that run its 402-km line between Ing Jacobacci and Esquel. In 1998, the Argentinean Government declared the railway a National Historic Monument.
Route of the Old Patagonian Express
Route of the Old Patagonian Express

The ambitious plans of what today is “The Patagonian Express”:

In 1908 the government of Argentina planned a network of railroads throughout Patagonia. The central government tasked Ferrocarriles del Sur, which later changed its name to Ferrocarriles General Roca, with designing the extensive Patagonian rail network. Ferrocarriles Roca envisioned two mainlines:

La Trochita near Esquel
La Trochita near Esquel

The first line would link San Carlos de Bariloche in the central Andes with the seaport of San Antonio Oeste, located north of Trelew. The second mainline was planned to extend from Bariloche to Puerto Deseado, a small port city in the Patagonian Santa Cruz Province, about 1000 km south of San Antonio del Oeste. It was decided that in San Antonio Oeste, the railroad would connect with the railroad to Buenos Aires via Viedma and Bahia Blanca. Additionally, the plan was for many small branch railways inside Argentinean Patagonia to connect the two main lines. 

The outbreak of the First World War put an end to these ambitious railway plans. The northern mainline from San Antonio Oeste reached Ing. Jacobacci in 1916. Of the planned southern mainline between Puerto Deseado and Bariloche, only two stretches ever opened: the section from Puerto Deseado to Las Heras, which extended over 283 km, and the section from Comodoro Rivadavia to Sarmiento, which was over 197 km in length. Both railways opened independently in 1912, but neither of them was ever connected with the rest of the northern network. The line uniting Ing. Jacobacci and Bariloche was completed in 1934. The whole Patagonian Rail project ceased after that, with one exception.  

Esquel Railway Station
Esquel Railway Station

The construction of “La Trochita” 

The exception was the branch line from Ing. Jacobacchi via El Maiten to Esquel over 402 km away. After the First World War, narrow-gauge railways were standard because of cheap costs and fast construction. Countries involved in the war built these narrow-gauge railways for the purpose of transporting soldiers and goods in war regions. In 1921, because money was scarce, Ferrocarriles General Roca decided to plan a narrow-gauge railroad to reach remote Patagonian areas.

Taller La Trochita in El Maiten
Taller La Trochita in El Maiten

A workforce labored on the railroad for over two decades. Workers had to do all the hard work manually, virtually without any mechanical help. In 1941 the first train entered the Railway Station of El Maiten at km 237. Four years later, the railroad reached Esquel, 402 km from Ing. Jacobacchi. 

The railroad was a vital means of communication between the remote regions of the Rio Negro and Chubut provinces for many years. However, the extremely slow, narrow-gauge railway with over 600 curves and steam traction was not only uncomfortable and time-consuming for passengers but also made shipping goods expensive and slow. 

The decline of “La Trochita.”

 When road construction advanced in Patagonia and automotive transport became more popular, the train rapidly lost importance due to its relatively high operating cost. As a result of the lost income, the railroad began neglecting maintenance, and the Trochita was used even less often. Private investors were not interested in making the needed investment.

La Trochita near Esquel
La Trochita near Esquel

Towards the end of the 1980s, the antique railway became a magnet for foreign travelers. Tourists enjoyed the spectacular scenery and didn’t mind the slow and uncomfortable journey. During this period, Esquel became an important tourist destination due to the train.

 In 1993, under the liberal economic practices of the central government, it was decided to close the line. Local and international protests, however, made provincial governments reconsider the potential that the line might have for tourism in the region. The provincial governments joined together and kept the train running.

The Old Patagonian Express -La Trochita
The Old Patagonian Express -La Trochita

La Trochita today

The Railroad is now open over its whole length of 402 km, but steam trains for the public run currently only in three sections. 

🚂 Travel Tips: The most popular steam train runs between Esquel and Nahuel Pan, over 19 km. Another tourist train runs between El Maitén and Desvio Bruno Thomaé, over 42 km. This section is unique because the rail enthusiast can visit the railway workshops in El Maiten, which are usually open on days when the train runs. It is often possible to arrange to visit the El Maiten workshops by calling the workshops directly (tel. +54 2945 495190). The third section runs from Ing. Jacobacci to Ojos de Agua, over 43 km. This train is reachable via the Friday Train from Viedma to Bariloche, by leaving the latter train in Ing. Jacobacchi. Consult exact dates and the timetable before you travel.

Today, the “Old Patagonian Express” is the third-southernmost active railroad in the world. Farther south are the Argentinean cargo railroad from Puerto Gallegos to Rio Turbio and the Train to the End of the World, also called "The Prisoners' Train," departing from Ushuaia.

Timetable Ing. Jacobacchi - Ojos de Agua:

Runs Saturdays on certain dates

Dep. Ing. Jacobacchi 11:00 AM
Arr. Ojos de Agua 13:15 PM
Dep. Ojos de Agua 14:15 PM
Arr. Ing. Jacobacchi 16:00 PM 

Timetable El Maiten - Desvio Bruno Thomaé:

Runs Friday on certain dates

Dep. El Maiten 15:00 PM
Arr. Desvio Bruno Tomaé 16:10 PM
Dep. Desvio Bruno Tomaé 16:30 PM
Arr. El Maiten 17:45 PM

Timetable Esquel - Nahuel Pan:

Runs Saturdays and some Tuesdays

Dep. Esquel 10:00 AM 
Arr. Nahuel Pan 11:20 AM
Dep. Nahuel Pan 11:40 AM
Arr. Esquel 13:00 PM 

If there is high demand

Dep. Esquel 14:00 PM 
Arr. Nahuel Pan 15:20 PM
Dep. Nahuel Pan 15:40 AM
Arr. Esquel 17:00 PM

Get inspired by some photos of this amazing trip:
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