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Monday, August 20, 2012

The Train Station, Old and New!

I love looking at stately old buildings and imagining what they were like in their glory days. Most of my early photos albums have more pictures of places than people in them (yeah, kind of sad). Still, I love architectural design so I usually snap a photo or two of some structure whenever I go out.

Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay has often been touted as a very European inspired city rather than, an adobe pueblo style that people might imagine a Latin American country would be like.

The old, General Artigas Central Railway Station is a beautiful example of Victorian architecture. It was the former central railway station of Montevideo. It is located near the port area between the streets Paraguay, and Rio Negro in a barrio (neighborhood) called Aguada.

It is truly heartbreaking to see such a grand building left to decay and squalor. There are several U-Tube videos online showing the extent of this degradation. So suddenly, has it deteriorated that I had to find out when it was built and when it was last used as a working station.

The station opened, July 15, 1897.  Built by the English when they were the owners and directors of the Uruguayan railway system here (which was nationalized in 1949). It was designed by an Italian engineer/architect named Luigi  Andreoni (Luis) who also designed other buildings in the capital city such as the neoclassical Italian Hospital (founded in 1890 and located in the Tres Cruces area at the intersection of Avenida Italia and Artigas Blvd; and also the Club Uruguay (of the year,1888) located in the Plaza Matriz.

Despite being called the General Artigas Station (a local Hero here) the front of the station has not only a statue of the General but several statues of other famous historical personages as well. One is a statue of Denis Papin who among other things was an inventor known for his "steam digester", the forerunner of the stream engine. James WattGeorge Stephenson and Alessandro Volta are the other people who have statues in their likenesses here.

Because this is such a little country with limited finances it was determined that Railway service and especially passenger service railway lines were too costly to maintain. Carrying freight by trucks and Bus service for passengers was pushed as an alternative, (some heavy load cargo trains have continued to be used). Long distant passenger service trains ended their routes.  Most of the nearly 2,900 km of railway tracks in this country have declined into disuse. Many little railway stations are abandoned. The majority of the passenger lines stop being used in 1988. The current president José Mujica originally made election promises to revitalize these lines and some 422 km are being renovated.

There is a movie that highlights the end of this train era for Uruguay. The movie is called, El último tren (The last Train). It's a 2002, comedy/drama that was shown at the Montréal World Film Festival and won a film honor for Best Latin-American Film. The movie is set in Uruguay, it shows how special the trains were to the people of Uruguay.

The last train of passengers inbound, ever to use this old central station arrived there, February 28th, 2003 at 21:25 (9:25pm), the last train to leave this station then left empty at 21:40 (9:40 pm.) and on February 28th, 2003, the station was closed. Many people here remember visiting this old station when it was alive and well and have remarked on its beauty. The iron work used in it's iron fretwork was imported from a foundry in the district of Derbyshire, England, the Andrew Handyside and Co. foundry. It had to travel almost 7,000 miles (6820.77 miles 10976.9 km.), halfway around the world in 1895 to get here.

Some groups tried to save this station for its original purpose. For awhile (in 2005) one such group called the "Group of passengers for the defense of the central station", seemed like they would be successful. People talked about the freight trains and passenger trains returning to this station as well as making this "historical monument", viable as an income producing source if the Ministry of Tourism were to also get involved. They failed to get the governments' support. Earlier, in 1998 the State Railway Administration or Administración of ferrocarriles del Estado (AFE), sold the station (and 6 hectares of land) to the Real estate mortgage bank of Uruguay (BHU). From these sales the AFE used part of the money to build a new modern railway station about 1/2 mile north of this site. The money they are saving from the repairing and upkeep of the old station they feel, they can invest in other railway projects. The AFE restored an old steam engine and 2 passengers cars that I posted about last month.

Abandoned building with imported English ironwork trim.
It has only been 9 years since this station has been completely abandoned with zero maintenance and the results are shocking! Vagrants sleep in its doorways. The smell of urine abounds and the ceilings inside, what's still left of them that is, leak. I would have explored a little inside (there are wide gaps in the lockout fence) but the area is desolate and dangerous now. Walking by it during the day wasn't so bad but in the evening avoid this area. There are currently no plans in place to revitalized or reuse this train station.

Empty train yard and buildings of the old station.
The new central railway station for Montevideo, is a modern style building, it's a walkable 1/2 mile (to the north) from the old one. It was opened March 1st, 2003.  It is very,very small in comparison with the older one. It has only 3 tracks with little maneuvering grounds for the trains, such as freight trains. There is some passenger service that uses this new station, the few commuters from nearby towns use this station. There is service to the city called August 25 (25 de Agosto), and also to the barrio of Peñarol. Schedules have to be checked though.  

Trains and train service nowadays in Uruguay can't compare with the glory days of service when the iron rail ruled but there have been some attempts at rethinking the value of the rail. There is talk of a train service from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Montevideo, Uruguay, a joint venture between the two countries. A test run took place in September, 2011. Let's hope the future will see a few more opportunities to ride by rail.

I also hope that the old central station will be restored one day (for whatever, honorable use). That structure, along with the many other beautiful but decaying buildings in Uruguay all deserve attention. There is such a rich history here in Uruguay and such old buildings help keep that history alive.