Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Steve's Very Own Steam Train

This train pulled into the yard behind the Estacion de la Sabana - and hasn't moved since. 

Steve and friend in front of his locomotive.

Growing up in England, Steve, like many boys, yearned to be a railroad engineer. Today, he works in the petroleum industry here in Colombia - but he's preserved his dream. So, what could make more sense than buying and refurbishing his own steam train? He bought one of the old locomotives rusting away behind Estacion de la Sabana, on the north side of 13th St. in central Bogotá.

Scavengers had ripped the copper parts out of the old railcars. Still, they are restoreable.
The owner of the locomotives estimates that putting one back into operation costs about $150,000. Steve's locomotive will be restored in another six months - or maybe a bit longer. Workers are readying the wells for new wheels, which will make the machine seem alive once again. Steve also plans to repair a metal passenger car, and perhaps also a wooden passenger car. Today, that car looks like a skeleton, but it's a historical jewel - unique in Colombia, says Steve. When all are ready, Steve aims to use his private train for outings near Bogotá.




Walking thru the rail yard is like slipping back in time, with the steam engines, piles of coal, blacksmith's workshop and weathered workers with skin darkened by grease and smoke.

The Baldwin Locomotive Co.
Steve's steam locomotive is about 60 years old, part of a generation lost to time and technology's march. Even its manufacturer, the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is long disappeared. The venerable company, which once dominated steam locomotive making, could not adapt to diesel and closed in 1972. Four more steam engines still wait behind Bogotá's train station for their own saviors.

Weeds grow out of a rusting locomotive.
But the cars can't wait forever. Many of them sit in the sun and rain, slowly rusting away. Weeds grow out of them.

Trains symbolized - and even created - a whole era in world history, representing power, industrial progress and travel - but also colonialism, pollution and even environmental and cultural destruction.

Today, trains are coming back across much of the world, particularly the high-speed passenger trains popular in Europe and now China. In contrast to their historical image, today's trains can be much cleaner and environmentally sound than their competitors such as cars, buses and planes. In Latin America, new roads often open up jungle areas to hunting and slash and burn agriculture. Trains, with their limited access, do not. Trains are generally also much less expensive and fuel efficient to operate than cars or trucks.

Andres and a locomotive. 
Colombia, like many other Latin nations, once had a railway network, but allowed it to decay thru neglect and corruption, says Andres, a rail buff who did his university thesis on Colombia's trains. The system was also hampered by the fact that it used a non-standard gauge, or rail width, preventing standard trains from running on its tracks. In 1989, the national train company was liquidated, and efforts to replace it have failed. Today, Colombia has only the tourist train which run on weekends and holidays from Bogota to Cajica and Zipaquira, as well as a few cargo trains. Medellin also has an urban subway system. Bogota officials have debated endlessly about whether to build a metro system here, as well as considered the possibility of building a regional train line. The lack of cheap rail transport means that it costs more to carry Chinese cargo across the ocean to Colombia's coast than to truck it from the coast to Bogotá. That pricey shipping must be appreciated by Colombian manufacturers, but is a problem in the age of free trade.

Update: As of early July 2012, the newspapers report that Steve's got his steam train rolling!

The Sabana Station is in a grand old building...
...But it's mostly vacant.


A potential city park?
The train station covers a chunk of land between 13th and 19th Streets, as well as the corridor north around the tracks. Much of the area is a scene of urban decay. Drunks pass their days on the benches in front of the station, and homeless people pick thru scavenged garbage around the corner. But the area may experience a revival. The transit police plan to occupy some of the station's empty office space, and the adjoining building is to be renovated into an arts academy. The train yard also contains substantial green area: couldn't this be turned into a public park and/or a railway historical museum? Altho the Los Martires neighborhood is mostly industrial and commercial, it does have some residents, but almost no public green space.

More pics below. Or, see a slide show of pictures here.

Drunks sleep the day away in front of La Estacion de la Sabana.


An ancient-looking anvil and hearth. 

Berliner, from 1915.


A coal chute. 



Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Colombia,.

Old locomotives and cars. 


Monserrate viewed from the yard. 

A cemetery scene. 

Coal piles. 

I've been working on the railroad all the live-long day...

Old chairs. 

A sculptural appearing part and el Niño Jesus



Old wheels still roll.



By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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