By Train to Pinamar

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Books and magazines devoted to railway history often focus on the "golden age" of trains, the early years of the twentieth century. This was coincidentally Argentina’s heyday. A vast and fertile land rich in natural resources, Argentina in the early 1900’s was one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

BA’s ornate Constitucion Station reflects the prosperity and optimism of Argentina at the turn of the last century. The station’s elaborate façade, recently restored, stands in sharp contrast to the blight of the surrounding area. Designed and constructed by the British, this grand structure could easily be mistaken for one of England’s nineteenth century station hotels.

Enter the great hall with its imposing arched ceiling, pass through one of many gates leading to the sprawling train shed. Though the restoration project seems to have stalled here, the enormous steel and glass cavern remains impressive despite many years of neglect.

A corner of the shed serves as the embarkation point for trains to Mar del Plata and Pinamar on the Atlantic coast as well as Tandil, Bahia Blanca and other destinations located in southern Buenos Aires Province. Once a busy hub for long distance rail, today relatively few intercity trains run out of Constitucion. The most frequent and reliable service operates several times a day between Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata. Expats who have traveled in Argentina on express “micros” will be familiar with the high level of service these modern buses, usually double decker, afford passengers. Ferrobaires, the outfit responsible for running long distance trains in and out of Constitucion Station, is something very different. Owned and operated by the Province of Buenos Aires, Ferrobares provides jobs for those in the railway industry; the rail company also happens to offer low cost transportation to the general public. Long distance train travel in Argentina, where it still exists, is an inexpensive form of adventure travel - it is not for the fainthearted.

The morning of my departure for Pinamar I arrived about forty-five minutes early at Constitucion Station. Ferrobaires passengers gain access to the track through a private waiting room monitored by railway staff. Only ticketed passengers may enter – an important safety feature. Our train backed into the station about fifteen minutes before departure. A large crowd boarded the nine car train made up of two “Pullman” first class coaches, four tourist class coaches, a restaurant car, a baggage car and an auto carrier.

My assigned seat was located in the second Pullman. An attendant helped me store my luggage on the overhead rack. He didn’t warn me, however, that settling into my plastic reclining seat would be something of a challenge. When I sat down the arm rest fell off; that was followed by a jolt as my seat fell backward due a broken mechanism that made it impossible to sit in an upright position. Maybe the repair people were waiting for spare parts. Anyway, I took consolation when I noticed that the lady in front of me was no better off. Her window was completely shattered and I could see that insects were crawling in the cracks that lined its ledge. Having experienced the worst of Amtrak, I was undaunted. Eager to familiarize myself with the surroundings, I took a look around the coach. Signs were posted on the front wall: “Gambling Prohibited – law 8031/63”, “No Smoking”, “Water Not Potable” (a moot issue as there was no water available in the washbasins or anywhere else).

After the usual boarding chaos (can’t blame Ferrobaires for this – the airlines are no better) and a seventeen minute delay, we pulled out of Constitucion station, wending our way past suburban commuter stations (Lanus, Banfield, Temperly...) until finally out of BA’s vast urban sprawl and into the pampas.

As one of the advantages of train travel is the ability to get up and walk around, I decided to take a closer look at the train. After struggling with a heavy steel door I entered the vestibule separating my Pullman from the dining car. By this time the train was racing across the pampas with vestibule Dutch doors wide open. This might have been a little risky but the thrill was worth it. While I stood inhaling the the fresh country air the door to the dining-car flew open. An employee carrying a bucket loaded with empty wine bottles, beer and soda cans, entered the wind swept vestibule. Excusing himself, he raised the bucket and tossed its contents onto a field. He seemed surprised that I was surprised.

Continuing my tour, I walked back to the dining car to take a look. Rustic wooden tables and matching chairs with tall rigid backs evoked the Old West. Dusty brown curtains adorned the windows. Plates, garnished with chopped lettuce, lined up on a counter waiting for tomatoes which were being sliced by a waiter. Meanwhile in the kitchen a cook bent over pots simmering on the stove. I wasn’t especially hungry so I passed on lunch. Instead I walked to the other end of the dining car where I took a peek at one of the tourist coaches. It looked even more in need of a good scrubbing than our Pullman but at least the windows could be opened. Our Pullman was air conditioned, windows sealed, and it was starting to get stuffy.

Back in my wobbly Pullman seat, I surveyed the not-too-changing scenery – mostly cows, a few horses, pampas, clusters of trees, more pampas. From time to time we stopped at country stations where time seemed to have stood still. A trickle of passengers boarded but few got off. Before leaving Constitucion Station newsagents had come through the train hawking newspapers and magazines. Now there were vendors of sandwiches, coffee and soft drinks. Though we had left BA late, our train managed to make up time. Like Swiss clock work, we arrived in Pinamar five hours after leaving Constitucion, as scheduled. At the station, located outside the city, taxis were waiting as well as buses providing connecting service to downtown Pinamar, Carilio and Villa Gesel.

Trains to Pinamar leave Constitucion on Wedneday mornings and Friday afternoons with return trips from Pinamar on Thursdays and Sundays. During the peak season there is additional service. $29 pesos one way in Pullman. For information call 4311-8704 or 4553-1295 or visit the Ferrobaires website.
 
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