Chile’s Trains at the Crossroads of Historic & Poetic Memory

Railway in Chile

A network of public routes over which the modern trains of Chile’s State Railways could pass has become more than a cause for legitimate complaint and understandable nostalgia, and is now an urgent problem.

By Oscar Galindo V and Jorge Ivan Vergara (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – “Like the train station, my life is populated by farewells,” wrote Pablo de Rokha in his Canto del Macho Anciano [“Song of the old man”], one of the most extraordinary poems about old age in the Spanish language. Today, Chile’s train stations don’t remind us of those farewells anymore, because they simply are no longer there.

Their poetic commotion has been replaced by the noise of the buses and trucks that populate our geography. Above all, trucks that with no small degree of aggressiveness, have the power to move the country along or leave it paralyzed for weeks. Just a few trucks parked sideways on the highway can force an entire country to submit, and turn it into a long, narrow, and crammed strip of asphalt.

Different hypotheses have existed regarding the dismantling of the State Railway System under the Pinochet dictatorship, and the lack of reconstruction under democracy. The few attempts to revive it ended in frustration, despite an important injection of resources. Even worse, the clarifications made so far have been completely insufficient, such as those of former president Lagos, a master in the area. It seems the oft-mentioned “political will” has been lacking, but it’s never been clear whose or why.

What’s certain is that the lack of train service hurts deeply and seems strange. It’s a form of transportation that’s very well suited to our geography, and one that has seen revolutionary improvements all over the world, transforming it into a less polluting, more rapid, more comfortable, and safer means of transport than trucks or buses. In a well-thought-out system, the latter vehicles usually fulfill a complementary role.

This mediocre present state of Chile’s railway system contrasts with its brilliant past. We can examine two great dimensions of memory with respect to this – historic and poetic memories. In the case of the former, we should recall that trains were considered one of the most revolutionary inventions of the modern era, not only in Chile but all over the world.

In 1857, Karl Marx affirmed that the English locomotive factory Robert Stephenson & Co., the first of its kind, would cause Vulcan himself, god of fire and iron forgery, to turn pale. In that way, he implied, the prodigious technologies of the present surpassed the mythic forces of the past. But Marx didn’t forget to add that this power wasn’t ever attributed to the painfully exploited Scottish railway workers, who were forced to labor 14, 18 and 20 hours straight. Three of them, who were put on trial for a fatal and massive accident that resulted from exhaustion, told the judge they “were common men, not Cyclops.” [Karlos Marx, Das Kapital Vol. 1, Ch 8.3].

In Chile during the second half of the 19th century, the construction of the railroad was considered the highest expression of progress. Writer Vicuña MacKenna likened it to the “rapid road that the human species is going down.” The Malleco viaduct was the “most daring and beautiful of the artwork of the Chilean railroads,” according to engineer Santiago Marin. In effect, this extraordinary work comprised – in the words of Jose Miguel Varela, lawyer, member of the military and a witness to the era – “a feat of engineering and of the Chilean workers, since the nearly 1,500 tons of parts fit together down to the last millimeter.” [G. Parvex, A veteran of three wars, p. 347].

When Balmaceda inaugurated the viaduct on October 26, 1890, shortly before the beginning of Chile’s Civil War, he didn’t forget to mention the Mapuches. He underlined: “with this railway, and with the government’s initiative, we bring to the southern region’s population and capital, the temple where moral values will be learned, the idea of God will be received, the school where the notion of citizenship and work is taught, and the normal institutions in whose shadow industry grows.” [from Chilean newspaper El Colono, 10/27/1890, quoted by Jorge Pinto in the article “To die on the border”, p 128]. From there on, schools and progress would constitute the two pillars of progress for the south of Chile, and for the government’s relations with the native Mapuches, who Balmaceda called “friends”.

An extensive list of great modern writers and poets have written works related to trains. They’ve been the setting of intense thrillers, like Graham Green’s Stamboul Train (1934);  Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934); or Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950), all of which were also made into films. And this necessarily incomplete list mustn’t go without mentioning the unforgettable train in Miguel Angel Asturias’ El Señor Presidente or Mexican author Juan Jose Arreola’s Kafka-esque story “The Switchman”.

Many Chilean writers have also written about the railroad and the trains. They permeate many of Pablo Neruda’s poems, from the trains of his childhood that appear time and time again, to the permanent train of initiation: “I go with the train, learning the land / to where the ocean calls me.” Jorge Tellier, another magnificent poet of the trains, summarized his passion for the railroads in his book of poetry Los trenes de la noche [“The night trains”]. Both Violeta and Nicanor Parra spoke of trains. In “The Instant Train Project,” the latter wrote satirically of a train so long its locomotive was in Puerto Montt and its last car in Santiago, so that you only had to set foot on it, and you’ve instantly arrived.

That genealogy of poetic memory about the railroads in Chile reached one of its highest expressions with Jose Angel Cuevas, a contemporary poet. In “The destruction of the state railroads, plants and materials,” Cuevas wrote: “Why did they destroy the State Railroads / when national electricity fed them / and 20 full wagons ran on their rails like stars in the night? …

It was Chile that went by past their open windows / and no longer passes.

One might think that a dictator who muttered in an interview – as Valdivian poet Jorge Torres recalled for us – “I hate poems. I neither read them, nor write them, nor listen to them, nor anything,” found a way to put an end to poetry by destroying the trains as well. It’s also useful to recall that the worst dean ever assigned to the University of Chile, Jose Luis Federici, whose actions met the rejection of nearly the entire university community, was one of the figures most responsible for dismantling the State Railways, in a cross between cultural and railway phobia.

Certainly, recovering the trains isn’t just a problem for poetry or our national patrimony. It’s also a democratic problem, one of sustainability and of efficiency, as well as a strategic question. A network of public tracks on which modern trains from the State Railway System could transit is no longer just a reason for legitimate complaint and understandable nostalgia. It’s become an urgent problem, that doesn’t admit new postponements of its solution. Chile can’t continue being a modern Penelope, waiting for a train that never arrives.

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