PRESENTER: Ushuaia in Argentina is the southernmost city in the world. No other place gives us the opportunity to make a trip on the Southern Railway, proudly advertised as The end of the World Train. Today in our program “Round the World”, I’m pleased to introduce Chris Van Gils, a keen traveller. Hi Chris and welcome to our program.
CHRIS: Thanks a lot for your invitation.
PRESENTER: Chris, today we are going to talk about a train rather than about the city of Ushuaia. The train is the most popular tourist attraction in this city, isn’t it?
CHRIS: Well, yeah. Ushuaia is the capital city of the Argentinean Province of Tierra del Fuego and commonly regarded as the entry to Antarctica. As you said, there is no other city which is more southern. It’s located in a wide bay on one of the islands of Tierra del Fuego, …- don’t forget it IS an island- and bounded on the north by mountains, the Martial Mountain Range and by water, the Beagle Channel, on the south. Besides, it has about 60,000 inhabitants. Not many people, I’m afraid, to have a lot of tourist attractions. So, yeah, the train is one of the most interesting attractions in the city.
PRESENTER: Ok, so let’s concentrate on the train. Why is it called The End of the World Train?
CHRIS: Well, it is quite literally The End of the World Train because there is no other train anywhere closer to one of the poles.
PRESENTER: So why build a train on an island where so few people live?
CHRIS: To understand why this railroad is where it is, you have to realize that Tierra del Fuego is completely cut off from the rest of South America by virtually impassable mountains and is surrounded by water. It is almost impossible to reach except by ship or air and therefore, it served as Argentina’s maximum-security prison. In the same way as England once deported those considered undesirable to Australia, Argentina sent its worst criminals to Tierra del Fuego. They built a prison for dangerous criminals. Escape from there was virtually impossible and the convicts had to survive as best as they could.
PRESENTER: Interesting. A prison in Ushuaia is the start of the train? When was that?
CHRIS: We are talking about the 1880s. That’s when the first prison was established but it was not till the beginning of the 20th century that the jail received its first prisoners. According to the Penal Code of the time, their sentences were just a bit below the death penalty. They were convicts of the worst kind; they were in prison for the second or third time.
PRESENTER: So then Ushuaia is also the name of the prison?
CHRIS: Yeah, yeah. But the name of the city does not mean prison or anything similar. It comes from the Yamanas, the indigenous people who inhabited Tierra del Fuego. In their language, Ushuaia means “deep bay to the west”.
PRESENTER: And what about the train? Why was it built?
CHRIS : The jail was built using local materials: basalt rock, timber from the forests, clay and sand from the streams in the region. The convicts themselves built the prison. The train was set up to transport these materials. At the beginning it ran on wooden rails and later, in 1909, a real train was built which was popularly known as the “Convict Train”.
PRESENTER: So the railway was built to transport wood from the forests for heating and building purposes, as well as other materials, wasn’t it?
CHRIS: Exactly. The little train crossed the town along the waterfront, linking the jail to the woodcutting site where prisoners once collected timber.
PRESENTER: And, Chris, the train is still working today. So has it been running without interruption since 1909?
CHRIS: Yes and no. Let me explain. In 1949 there was a violent earthquake that destroyed the railway. Besides, by that time the prison had been closed down and
things were very different from the way they were at the beginning of the century. So it wasn’t until 1994 that the train started running again to and from the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The trip is now a tourist attraction and it is much shorter than it used to be, but one can still get the feeling of what it was like.
PRESENTER: Chris, I’m afraid we’ve run out of time. Thanks a lot for your interesting stories.