What the Brits left behind: the railway

On my recent trip to England I realised that some areas or buildings reminded me of my own country, Argentina. Even my Argentinean friends, who were on holiday in London, too, made similar remarks.

One of the aspects that caught my attention was the architecture of railway stations. Waterloo Station put me in mind of Retiro, one of the three railway termini of Buenos Aires and our local station, Haslemere, looked eerily similar to my home town’s station. I knew that the British had built and operated most railway lines between the 1850s and the 1940s, as this is the kind of thing we learn in history class at school but seeing the similarities really brought it home to me.

I decided to look into the British legacy in Argentina for a new series. The history of the railway is the first installment.

Haedo Station (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Haslemere Station (Surrey, England)

The economic growth of Argentina in the second half of the 19th century went hand in hand with the laying of the railway lines. Many modern towns and cities began as small settlements around train stations, like my own hometown of Ramos Mejia.

A family photo of Ramos Mejia station in the 1950s

Britain had always been interested in Spanish America in general and Argentina in particular and signed various treaties in the 1850s, which laid the groundwork for massive investment in transport, communications and navigation.

The Western Rail Company was formed in 1855 with mainly local capitals in order to build the first railway line. This line ran from Parque Station (where the Colón Opera House stands today) to Flores, eight miles to the west. This line was officially opened in August 1857 and was subsequently extended. (And it happens to be the line that I took everyday to work.)

Several smaller rail companies (and lines) were created after the Western Rail, like the Northern Railway of Buenos Aires, the Buenos Aires and Ensenada Railway, the East Argentine Railway or the Buenos Aires to Campana Line. These companies were eventually absorbed by bigger British-owned outfits like the Central Argentine Railway Ltd. and the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway Co. Ltd. The latter quoted on the London Stock Exchange.

In 1948, President Perón decided to nationalise the seven railway companies operating in Argentina at the time. This was considered a turning point because it was thought to bring about economic independence. All it did was deepen the economic crises from the 1950s onwards by contributing heavily towards the national budget deficits and deteriorate the quality of the rail service and the rolling stock in a downward spiral.

Interesting facts

  • The first engine to pull a train in the country was La Porteña, which is now on display at the Enrique Udaondo Museum of Luján (Buenos Aires). La Porteña was originally built in Leeds to use in the Crimea War. After the war, the engines and carriages were put up for sale around the world and that’s how it ended up in South America.
  • John Allan, the first engine driver of La Porteña, had the sad duty of driving the train that transported the victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1870-1871 to the cemetery on the western outskirts.
  • The rail companies imported absolutely everything from Britain, from railway terminals to signal boxes. The modern-day La Plata Central Station was originally built for India but news of disturbances and economic problems on the Indian Subcontinent caused the station to be re-routed to Argentina.
IMG_7228
La Porteña

Sources

Extracts for The Forgotten Colony by Alexander Graham-Yooll, 1981

Wikipedia (various articles)

Photos: my own. See more on Flickr