There’s just something about trains, especially the old ones, those back-in-time local engines that ka-chug their way through remote country villages…
I just started reading Ramal, Chilean author Cynthia Rimsky‘s latest novel, and am vicariously riding the rails with and sharing the memories of her characters, the Bórquez family, who I will soon know but never meet. The book is inspired by the Ramal de Maule, the rural branch-line train that runs 80 km (50 mi) from Talca to Constitución, from the foothills of the Andes to the shores of the Pacific.
The setting is familiar–I’ve taken this trip–and my own memories illustrate her words as the story unfolds. You’ll have to read the book for yourself, but the trip (and the view) go something like this:
January 2011: The train is already close to full when the five of us–3 Chileans and 2 gringas–board the two-car local “Ramal” train in Corinto, a tiny pueblito in the Maule Valley, where we are staying with friends.
Of the ten small, narrow-gauge trains that once connected many of Chile’s remote areas to the major railway that ran down the north-south backbone of the country, the “Ramal Talca–Constitución” is the only one left. Urban migration and modern highways have done away with all but this final holdout of a line that follows the east-west course of the Maule River between the regional capital and the coast.
Today the line’s two-car trains do a double-daily run, morning and afternoon, taking rural residents inland to do their business in Talca (the regional capital) or coastward to Constitución, the no-longer-important and once-upon-a-time-elegant seaside resort town.
Once each morning and again in the afternoon, one trains pulls out of Talca and the other leaves from Constitución. The two must (really must) meet in the center, at the Estación González Bastías, the only spot on the route where the tracks double so that the two trains can pass each other.
The westbound train is already at the station when we reach González Bastías, originally called Infiernillo (little hell) for the suffocating summer heat and the dismal winter isolation. The town was later renamed in honor of a local poet, which is why the station is also known as Estación Poeta.
Local vendors are waiting for us when we get there, and passengers from both trains hop off to stock up on hot pan amasado (homemade bread), pastries, soft drinks, and hard-boiled eggs for the remainder of the trip.
Fifteen minutes later the two trains head off in opposite directions.
Time passes… and we watch…
We watch out the window…
We watch each other…
And people watch us as we roll by…
And finally, we arrive…
We spent the day wandering around Constitución (those photos will eventually appear in another post), and got back about 15 minutes before the train was due to leave. Big mistake! It was already full and we had to stand for most of the 3.5-hour trip back–so if you take the ride yourself, be sure to get to the station well ahead of time.
Schedule: The Ramal runs twice daily, every day of the year:
Leaves Talca to Constitución: 7:15 AM & 4:30 PM
Leaves Constitución to Talca: 7:00 AM & 4:15 PM
Fare: Talca–Constitución (1-way): $1400 CLP (About $3 USD)
Best to call ahead and check hours & fares:
Talca Station: (71) 226254