Rio Turbio Railway

Ramal Ferro Industrial de Río Turbio (RFIRT)

No anthology of Modern Steam could exclude reference to the The Ramal Ferro Industrial de Río Turbio (RFIRT or Rio Turbio Railway) in Patagonia, Southern Argentina where Porta practiced his magic on its fleet of diminutive 48 tonne Santa Fe (2-10-2) steam locomotives that routinely hauled trains weighing 1700 tonnes and more over its 255 km of 750mm (2′ 6″) gauge track.

Built in the 1950s to haul coal from Argentina’s only significant coal source, the railway crossed the country from the mining township of Rio Turbio on the Chilean border to Rio Gallegos on the Atlantic Coast.

The choice of 750mm gauge resulted from a very low budget and the availability of second-hand track and wagons that could be purchased and laid at very low cost – the trackbed following the contours of the land over most of its length.

The railway’s fleet of 2-10-2 locomotives was built by Mitsubishi in Japan and the first ten were delivered in 1956.  The following year, Livio Dante Porta became General Manager of the railway and began a process of “modernizing” the fleet of Santa Fes, by fitting Kilpor exhaust ejectors and Kordinas, reducing the number of boiler tubes from 108 to 88 (to increase the combustion gas-flow through the superheater flues) and converting the fireboxes to operate as Gas Producer Combustion Systems (GPCS).

A second batch of locomotives was subsequently delivered that incorporated these improvements together with several others, including:

  • increased boiler pressure (from 1370 to 1570 kPa);
  • improved valves and valve rings,
  • improved pistons and piston rings
  • improved sanding gear

These modifications increased the sustainable drawbar power of the locomotives from below 700kW (940hp) to 895kW (1200hp), which gave them the power to handle such enormous trains.  Whilst trains of 1500 to 1700 tonnes were routinely hauled over the twisting route and occasional adverse grades (see diagram below), single locomotives were permitted to haul 2000 tonne trains when required.  On test, one locomotive hauled 3200 tonnes from Rio Turbio to the coast with assistance from a second locomotive being applied only on the steepest uphill grades, with 30 – 35 km/h being maintained on level track.

Not only did Porta’s modifications result in striking improvements to performance, but they also dramatically reduced maintenance costs, as described in Wardale’s book “Red Devil and Other Tales from the Age of Steam” pages 22 and 23, as summarized in the 5AT Maintenance Costs page of this website.

Porta left the Rio Turbio railway in the mid-1960s to take up a position as the head of the Thermodynamics Department at the National Institute of Industrial Technology (INTI) in Buenos Aires.  The railway then passed to the management of Alexis Boichetta who ran the railway until it was “privatized” in the late 1990s.

The railway did not survive long under its new private owners, being stripped of most of its assets, including the entire fleet of 20 steam locomotives. These were briefly replaced by three second-hand diesel-hydraulic locomotives which operated a desultory and much diminished service for a few years until 2001 when one was involved in a level-crossing accident at almost the same time that a massive underground explosion stopped production at the Rio Turbio mine.  The railway has never run since.

Most of the steam locomotives remain in various states of decay – those stored near the seafront at Rio Gallegos being beyond repair, while those stored in the drier atmosphere at Rio Turbio remain in restorable condition.  The track and structures also remains in place, with most of the wagons parked at various points along it.

Sadly a 2005 plan to resurrect the railway and to restore some of the locomotives to working order, has so far come to nothing.

Much more information about the railway can be found from the following:

Alexis Boichetta has written a history of the railway which has been translated into English by Christine Fox, an English-born resident of Rio Gallegos.  It is hoped that the book will one day find a publisher.