Railways, Atacama: English


History of the railroad in Atacama Region, Chile

Introduction (2): Gauges ands lines

Museo Virtual, Chile

W. Griem, 2006 - 2021

1943 State Railroad: Commercial - Chile
From: Guía Veraneante 1943 (FFCC del Estado Chile)

Gauges of the railway lines in Atacama
gauges description
760 mm
1000 mm
1067 mm
1270 mm
1435 mm
List of gauges used in Atacama

Linea ferrocarril entre Copiapó y Vallenar en el año 1999 (Región Atacama, Chile)

Photo: Appearance of the longitudinal line in the vicinity of Copiapó in the nineties.

Line between Vallenar and Copiapó near Travesía station. The section was built between 1913 and 1914 and is part of the longitudinal line between La Calera and Pintadas. (Foto: Wolfgang Griem; 1999)

History of railways,  Atacama: p.1 І p.2 І p.3 І p.4

  español - deutsch - english

Historic Railroad Network in the Atacama Region, Chile

There are still some railway lines in the Atacama Desert. In the beginning, the 1435 mm gauge was installed, although later the gauge was changed to 1000 mm. In straight lines of many kilometers the rails get lost on the horizon. It is a unique contrast: The desert with its smooth, round morphology - generally curved, not even the horizon is a horizontal line - in this scene a straight line of the railway translates as the only support for the human eye to approach the horizon 1.

The routes are not the result of centralised planning, and the individual lines in particular have served a specific purpose. The main objectives were, of course, to satisfy the mining companies: the transport of minerals from the worksite to the port and vice versa the transport of products (tools, machines, foodstuffs) from the port to the worksite. Only the longitudinal path makes a difference - here it was a project to include not only industrial requirements, also the need to develop the country's infrastructure as well.

Interesting is the use of different gauges on different routes. In the beginning, the Stephenson standard (1435 mm) was implemented according to the predominance of English companies in the construction of the lines. But the Stephenson standard (unhappily) was not without competition. In Chañaral won the 1067mm gauge and Carrizal's railway line was left with the 1270mm gauge. Not to mention the internal railroads in the mines, for example in the Dulcinea mine which had a 760 mm gauge. In order to achieve a better compatibility, the majority of the trajectories were changed to a single 1000mm gauge. 

Another major technical problem was the lack, or poor water quality. Steam locomotives needed relatively pure water to respect salts, especially calcium. Solar energy purifiers were installed in parts.
The desert climate also did not help the railway companies' operations: torrential rains often cut traffic. The planning of the journeys depended very much on the morphological situation. Large differences in level, especially the deep ravines, made it difficult to perform. On the other side there are large plains that allowed the construction of straight roads without major difficulties.

Carro en Atacama

1) The Santiago-Copiapó stretch took three days to complete in the fifties.

2) The "gauge" is the distance between the two rails of the railway line. The different trails were the result of strategic thinking in Europe. On the one hand, military and strategic commercial strategies with the objective of producing an incompatibility between the different particular systems.

Literature and Links (more literature)

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Railroad history of the Atacama desert - Chile
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Published: 11.2.2009, updated: 1.10.2017, 4.8.2018, 2.12.2018, 30.01.2021
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