Magazine article Geographical

A Difficult Journey

Magazine article Geographical

A Difficult Journey

Article excerpt

The normally imposing central square in Cusco, Peru's old Inca capital, looks drowsy in the early morning light. A small group of young foreigners, the only people walking through the square, appear to be in limbo, lingering by the fountain before heading home after a long night out.

A few streets away, behind the disorganised kiosks that gather around the city's market, there is a very different scene at the city's San Pedro train station. Although it is just after 6am, the rush hour is in full swing.

The waiting room is full and security guards are straining to hold back the crowds. Two trainloads of tourists have already left, heading for the sacred Inca city of Machu Picchu. But the real battle is for a seat on the third train to leave that day, the "ordinary" service, which is the local train that travels from Cusco to Quillabamba, beyond Machu Picchu in the high jungle.

Suddenly the orange and yellow train waiting to begin its daily journey is under siege. The passengers break through the arms of the guards and hurtle towards the coaches.

First through is a woman carrying two huge metal dishes that she hugs as she runs. One of the dishes is empty but has a few chicken feathers clinging to its underside; the other contains the curled carcasses of several skinned guinea pigs. Around her other passengers gain ground, doubled under immense basket loads of bread, fruit and vegetables, and huge plastic bags filled with flowers. Inside space is at a premium. Women Ring bundles knotted in sheets under seats, on racks and down the centre aisle. In no time the train is full.

Inside the first-class carriage, passengers settle into the cramped seats, knee-to-knee. No sooner has the train begun to climb past low-slung houses, leaving the city square far below in a haze of sunlight, than it enters the first of three "zig-zags" on its journey out of Cusco.

The zig-zag is an essential feature of the Peruvian railways because of the steep gradients trains have to negotiate. The one-in-three climb out of Cusco is relatively gentle compared to the 1-in-25 gradient trains must climb in the central Andes, east of Lima. Nevertheless, the train out of Cusco has to carry out several tricky manoeuvres back-and-forth to climb from one level to the next on its way out of the city.

The Peruvian trains, which run over four networks and cover more than 2,000 kilometres (it stretched over 5,000 kilometres at its peak) are old and in disrepair. Some of them have been brought back and repaired from the scrap heap. The rail tracks and sleepers also need replacing. A $45 million loan from the World Bank has gone some way towards improving the situation, but the poor state of some of the rail coaches is obvious.

This may all be about to change. The Peruvian government plans to auction off the railways next year as part of its privatisation programme. Since he was elected in 1990, President Alberto Fujimori has introduced one of the most radical privatisation programmes in Latin America. The government has already privatised the state airlines, telephone companies, banks, mines and part of the state oil company. However, interested buyers in the latest sell-off will have to weigh up the investment against the challenges of operating a service regularly disrupted by landfalls, vertiginous gradients, snow and heavy rains.

Peru was the first South American country to have a railway. Its existence is a tribute to the vision of a small group of engineers prepared to take on some of the most difficult natural barriers imaginable (including the Andean mountain range) in order to link the coast with the central mountain region. This engineering feat could never have been achieved without the hard slog of thousands of construction workers, including many indentured Chinese "coolies", who laid the rails and bore tunnels through rock with dynamite and pick axes. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them died in the process. …

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