Through the Maule River Valley by Ferrobús
I have come down from Santiago and Rancagua for
a few days in Talca.
Now I'm going to make a day trip to
on the narrow gauge train.
The rail line follows the Maule river to the coast.
The train is actually a ferrobús, a blend of bus and train. We have to make one stop at the center, at González Bastías Station, the only place where two trains can pass. In addition, we will stop according to the needs of that day's passengers. Nineteen other stops are defined, if anyone happens to want to get on or off.
Guidebooks have been predicting the immediate doom of this rail line since the late 1990s, but the government keeps repairing and operating it as it's the only public transportation for most of the small communities along the way. It was named a National Monument in 2007, which should protect it.
I went to the station the day before, to make sure I knew where to get my tickets, and where to board that line.
The branch line is obviously of a much narrower gauge than the main line! This line uses a 1,000 mm track gauge, while Chile's main passenger lines use what's commonly called "Indian Gauge", 1,676 mm, the widest gauge in regular passenger use in the world. The Iberian-gauge railways servicing Spain and Portugal, are close enough, just 8 mm narrower at 1,668 mm, that Iberian rolling stock can be used in Chile without modification.
Two trains run back and forth on most days of the week.
So, on any day you can make a day trip from Talca to Constitución and back. It's scheduled to arrive in Constitución at 10:52, give you almost five hours there, and get you back to Talca at 18:52.
I got to the station at 07:00, bought my ticket, and waited in the warm station. I was in Talca in early July, mid-winter, because I had gone to Chile to see the 2019 total solar eclipse.
Soon it was time to go out to the platform and board the, um, train.
This is a ferrobús, also called a railbús, autorriel, buscarril, or light car engine. The body is a modified bus body. The model, dating from 1961, has a 180 horsepower diesel engine in the front unit under a large cover in the driver's cab. There's a WC compartment with a toilet and sink at the rear of the front unit, and a passage into the all-coach rear unit. By the end of the trip we saw the need for the cowcatcher on the front.
It's very bus-like inside. Dress warmly if you're taking this in the middle of the winter. Some of the Chileans who were, like me, going on a leisure day trip wrapped themselves in blankets and drank hot maté from Thermos bottles.
It's 88 kilometers along the rail line between Talca and Constitución. But the ferrobús doesn't go very fast. It has a maximum speed of 60 km/hour, which it might approach near Talca, but for most of the trip it moves significantly slower.
Soon we're rolling through the produce fields and the vineyards of the central valley. The Valley of Maule is actually a specific appellation within Chilean viticulture.
The broad gauge of the main line makes for a smoother ride. Conversely, the narrow gauge of this line does the opposite.
The river's name, Maule, comes from the Mapudungun language of the indigenous Mapuche people, mawlen meaning "rainy" or "misty". You notice microclimates, small valleys that are foggy next to ones that aren't.
Below, we have stopped to let out two passengers who had bought a ticket from Talca to this vineyard.
Now we have stopped at the Los Llocos Area station to pick up someone.
We stop halfway, at González Bastías Station. This is the only place between the edges of the Talca and Constitución stations where there's more than a single track.
I seemed to be the only person who wasn't from Chile, but I wasn't the only leisure traveler. The ride is a popular attraction.
There's a vineyard here. It appears that you can stay overnight here, as is often the case. In addition to wine production, wine-related tourism is a significant industry all through the Central Valley.
The station was originally named infiernillo, or "Hell." It was renamed in 1956 to honor the poet Jorge González Bastías.
The Maule is considered to be the literary river of Chile. Several poets, novelists, essayists, historians, playwrights, and other writers have come from this region, settled here, or based their themes on the area.
The area has a long history, from millennia before the arrival of the Spanish. There is plenty of evidence of migrating Native Americans settling in the fertile valleys and coastal areas of today's Chile by 10,000 years ago.
The current theories are that the initial arrival took place rapidly along the Pacific coast, reaching this area long before the North American Clovis culture of roughly 13,200–12,900 years before present (or BP).
Monte Verde, further south near Puerto Montt, has been dated to as early as 18,500 years BP The widely accepted date for Monte Verde is about 14,500 years BP, 1,300 or more years before Clovis.La Serena in
The Araucanian culture inhabited central Chile, from the Choapa river in Coquimbo Region near the Atacama Desert south to the island of Chiloé.
Well, not the Araucanian culture, they were made up of several groups of hunters and gatherers, and farmers, all of whom spoke a common language. They lived in small villages and scattered family clusters. Those toward central Chile were more settled and used irrigation more frequently. Those far to the south were hunters who also used slash-and-burn agriculture.
The Mapuche, meaning people of the land, lived in the middle and maintained a fierce resistance through the centuries.
The Inca Empire extended its control into today's northern Chile, collecting tribute from small fishing and farming settlements but exerting little influence. In 1460 and again in 1491, the Incas built a series of forts in the Central Valley.
In the three-day Battle of the Maule, the Mapuche stopped the Inca advance. The Inca Empire expanded no further, the Maule river was its southern border.
Some ferrobús designs are even simpler, with one axle at each end. This model does have fairly standard two-axle bogies.
This line was commissioned in 1888. Construction started from Talca, and was completed almost to Constitución in 1902. It ended at a sandbank across the river. The Puente del Banco de Arena (that is, the Sandbank Bridge) was built in the early 1900s to a design by Gustave Eiffel, who also designed the central train station in Santiago. In 1915, the line was extended across that bridge and into the new station in Constitución.
Vendors set up each morning to sell to the passengers going both ways.
A piece of sourdough bread, a cup of coffee, and I'm ready to ride onward.
The engineer drives the train. The conductor lets people off and on, and sells tickets to people who have flagged us down at one of the many possible stops.
The river and rail line pass through the mountains, but the river is fairly flat. The rail line doesn't have a lot of grade. It goes along a steep slope, sometimes passing through very narrow passages cut through the rock, just barely wide enough for the train to pass through.
The line has been on the north side of the river most of the way from Talca. Just past the tiny station of Paradero, the line reaches a sand bar at the last major turn in the river. That was where the line once ended and people transferred to a boat. Now the line crosses the Eiffel-designed bridge and finishes the trip on the south bank.
We have arrived in Constitución!
There's more wild train station art inside.
The station is in rough shape, it was battered by a tsunami caused by the earthquake of 2010. The earthquake occurred at 03:34 local time on Saturday, February 27, 2010. It was 8th strongest measured earthquake on record. The strongest earthquake ever recorded was also nearby in Chile, in 1960 further south in Valdivia.
The epicenter of the February 2010 MW 8.8 earthquake was offshore, not far down the coast from Constitución, and 30 to 35 kilometers below the surface.
The Nazca plate under the southeast Pacific Ocean is subducting, moving eastward and downward beneath the South America plate. The two plates are converging at 71 mm/year. This plate boundary has been generating some of the strongest earthquakes in the world since the Paleozoic era of 500 million years ago. If the motion continues smoothly, all is fine. But it sticks, and builds up strain, the sudden release causes an earthquake. The longer it has stuck, the greater the accumulated strain, and the worse the earthquake will be.
A group of seismologists published a paper in June 2009, just eight months before, warning that there had been no large subduction earthquake along this fault since 1835. The strain had been building up for 174 years without being released. At 71 mm/year, that means about 12.35 meters of compression instead of motion. They said then that an earthquake between MW 8 and 8.5 should occur "in the near future." And it did.
The 2010 fault rupture was over 100 km wide and stretched almost 500 km parallel to the coast. The fault slip was up to 15 m, generating earthquake shaking and triggering a tsunami. The source of the 2010 event was adjacent to the fault rupture that caused the MW 9.5 1960 earthquake, the largest ever measured.NASA on the
NASA reported that earthquake had shifted the city of Santiago 28 cm to the west-southwest, and Concepción at least 3 meters to the west. It affected the entire Earth, shortening the day by 1.26 microseconds and shifting the axis by 2.7 milliarcseconds, about 8 cm.
The shaking was severe and lasted for four minutes near the epicenter. The maximum recorded peak ground acceleration occurred at Concepción, where it was 6.38 m/s2 or 0.65 g.
The moment magnitude scale or MW is a measure of the amount of mechanical work done by the earthquake. The potential energy stored in the form of mechanical stress plus gravitational energy is transformed into energy dissipated through deformation, heat, and radiated seismic energy. This earthquake was MW 8.8.
The Modified Mercalli intensity scale or MM measures the shaking effects at a given location. It can be estimated from the effects reported by untrained observers, but there are acceleration and velocity ranges defined for instrument readings. The shaking effect depends on how quickly the earthquake releases the energy and the local geological conditions. This earthquake was MM VIII or Severe near Constitución, to MM IX or Violent further south along the coast.
The tsunami caused by the seafloor movement caused great damage along the coast. Constitución was hit by three waves. The first wave, over eight meters high, arrived about 30 minutes after the earthquake. The second arrived a few minutes later, it was about ten meters high (some reports say fifteen). Then the third wave was similar to the first.
The train station is close to the waterfront. It would have been totally submerged by waves of eight to ten meters.
The tsunami wave entered the mouth of the river and washed several blocks into the city, as far as the Plaza de Armas.
The tsunami crossed the entire Pacific Ocean, causing a sudden rise in sea level of 1.79 meters in the Marquesas Islands and 1.45 meters in Japan. The Japan Times reported that the fishing industry in Japan suffered heavy damages, mostly to farming facilities for scallops, oysters, and seaweed. In turn the 2011 earthquake and tsunami near Japan reached Constitución, as a non-damaging but noticeable surge.
There were 7 following earthquakes at or above MW 6.0 within the following 24 hours in Chile, 21 total within the following 5 months.
A bus terminal just across the drive from the train station entrance could take you onward to other destinations.
A new supermarket has been built across the street from the train station, with a busy market area outside.
Fresh fish are available, the boats can unload into the back of this building.
This far south in huaso territory, you begin to encounter the manta, the Chilean version of the Mexican and Central American serape.
Heading into Constitución
I've returned to the station, which just off to my left in this picture, and am starting toward the center.
Technically, Ferdinand Magellan was the first to see territory belonging to today's Chile, while he was navigating through the strait at the southern tip of the continent. But the tradition says that Diego de Almagro, Francisco Pizarro's partner in exploration and looting, was the first European to discover Chile.
De Almagro organized an expedition in 1537, but was disappointed to not find vast hoards of gold and silver. He returned north to Peru where precious metals were plentiful, got involved in a civil war, was defeated by Hernando Pizarro, his former partner's brother, and was garroted.
Pedro de Valdivia then asked Pizarro for permission to invade and conquer the southern territory. He and a few hundred men managed to found a settlement in 1541 that grew into today's Santiago.
Valdivia didn't find much gold, but he did recognize that it was a rich agricultural land. He founded several towns and forced labor systems, but eventually ran up against the Mapuche.
The Great Uprising of 1598 obliterated all Spanish presence south of the Bíobío river, except for fortresses at Chiloé and Valdivia. The Bíbío river became the new northern frontier for the Mapuche, keeping the Spanish out.
The Mapuche people lived here at the mouth of the Maule river.
The Spanish and following European explorers used the location as a port.
A European settlement was finally established here in 1791. It was named New Bilbao, after the Basque city in northern Spain.
Chile's Independence movement is traditionally dated to have begun on September 18, 1810, when a national junta was formed to govern Chile in the name of the Spanish King Ferdinand VII, who had been usurped by Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte.
The date that it ended in success depends on how you measure it.
|1818||A declaration of independence was officially issued on February 12, and San Martín defeated the last large Spanish force on Chilean soil at the Battle of Maipú on April 5.|
|1821||Spanish forces were expelled from mainland Chile.|
|1826||Fighting ended in Chile's southern provinces, the holdout of the royalist forces, and Chiloé was incorporated into the Chilean Republic.|
|1840||Spain formally recognized Chile's independence and established diplomatic relations.|
And in the middle of that, in 1828...
Chile had established a federalist system a few years earlier, but a new constitution came out in 1828. The city of New Bilbao was renamed Constitución on 4 August 1828, commemorating the new moderately liberal constitution defining a unitary form of government with separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
In the 19th century, Constitución was the main shipyard in Chile.
With the railroad's construction in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Constitución became a busy port shipping agricultural products from the Maule Valley.
On into the 20th century, a large pine and eucalyptus plantation turned Constitución into Chile's timber center.
This was once a popular seaside resort with black sand beaches and large rock formations. But now it is dominated by Celulosa Arauco y Constitución, a large cellulose plant that is one of the world's leading producers of unbleached wood pulp.
The cellulose plant supports many projects in Constitución, providing much-needed funding. Despite protests and several lawsuits, the city gave the plant permission to discharge pollutants into the ocean. Critics say that the economic dependence prevents the city from bringing up problems caused by the plant's pollution.
The population is now around 40,000. The Maule region has the second-lowest per-capita income in Chile, lower than all but the sparsely populated Aysén Region in the far south in Patagonia. Residents of Maule on average receive less than 25% the national average income, and only 10% of that in mining-rich Antofagasta in the far north. Illiteracy here is about 7%, versus 3% nation-wide.
There are no colleges or universities here, despite the clear wishes of the citizens. There are, however, two technical training centers. I was impressed by the importance placed on education throughout Chile. La Serena, Rancagua, and Talca each had multiple universities and colleges.
Plaza de Armas
I have reached the Plaza de Armas, literally Army Squre but figuratively Parade Ground, the central square of a standard Spanish military grid design found in most cities in Chile.
The 2010 tsunami washed up to the center of this square.
Iglesia San José is on the south side of the square, the tsunami didn't quite reach it. Originally built in 1860, it was repaired after the earthquake damage to a very plain façade. It was restored again in 2018, to return it to the more elaborate original design.
It's bright yellow and white inside.
I got a late lunch at the Rapa Nui café. That island, called Easter Island by Europeans, is a very isolated Chilean possession. The nearest inhabited land is Pitcairn Island, 2,075 km away. The nearest continental land is 3,512 km to the east, in central Chile.
Return to Talca
They have turned the train around, it's getting close to the time to return to Talca.
First, though, a look in the control cab of the ferrobús.
The 180 horsepower diesel engine is under that cover.
We're on our way, passing Huinganes station. It's a nicely preserved older station, although no one is getting on or off here this afternoon.
The Maule passes through three hydroelectric dams as it comes down out of the Andes, but it is very flat along the rail line between Talca and Constitución.
We had a crew of three lumberjacks riding along with us. A strong tornado had moved in off the ocean and gone up the Maule river valley, tearing down large areas of trees. It must have had the rail line shut down for several days. We passed through several areas where fallen trees had been cut back just enough for the train to pass. It was possible that another tree might finally fall, or maybe just slide down the hill and block the track. So just in case, we had lumberjacks along to clear the way.
There are also some cattle grazing open land along the tracks, and as cows will, they wander mindlessly into situations that they can't quickly figure out how to get out of. Several times on the way back, the engineer had to slow or even stop the train and blow the horn to convince a cow to move one way or the other.
Then we came to a narrow passage cut through the rock, barely wider than the train and three or four times its length. A cow and her calf were standing on the track. We stopped, the horn blew and blew, and finally the cow decided to leave the track on the downhill side. The calf, however, went a little way into the narrow passage and stopped, unsure of what to do next.
There was a quick consultation between the engineer, the conductor, and the lumberjacks. They put on their hardhats, pulled down their visors, and got out to wrangle cattle.
They couldn't convince the calf to move in a useful direction on its own, so they almost tackled it and carried it out, setting it down beside its mother. Mother and calf moved on down the slope, the lumberjacks got back on board, and we continued to Talca.