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The Roots of Ferronor
By Ian Thomson


The nitrate railways. The nitrate railways covered a geography that started in Pisagua, in the North, and ended in Taltal, in the South, in the current I and II Regions, respectively, connecting saltpeter offices with ports. In addition, the most important saltpeter offices had railways for their internal use, to transport “caliche” to processing plants, and miscellaneous local transportation. Nitrate railways of public use are shown in Table 1.

Without railways, it would have been impossible to transport large volumes of nitrate from the offices to the ports for export. Consequently, it would have reduced the prosperity enjoyed by Chile in the period between the end of the Pacific War and the saltpeter crisis of 1930. [See reference (vi), identified in the tenth section of this document.] The kickoff of nitrate railways induced a reduction in the transport cost from port to office that ranged between 15% - 40% of the product price at the port. [See reference (ii).] The above-mentioned crisis slowly ended the life of offices employing Shanks technology, i.e., all of them except for the Maria Elena and Pedro de Valdivia offices. In general, the closing of the offices led to the shutting down of the railways which served them, since there were no other goods needing transportation. The very last wagon with nitrate ran in 1979, in the Victoria office (former- Brac), which closed its doors the same year, ran on the rail that now belongs to Ferronor. [See reference (xix).]

Among the railway companies that had a critical dependence on the nitrate transportation, there were only two companies that managed to survive, namely: (1) FCAB, because they were not only transporting nitrate but, also, lifesaving-copper and; (2) a company that provided services to the two previously identified offices, that were Guggenheim technology users, that survived thanks to an expected effect of the crisis: Shanks system extinction. [See reference (18th).]

Most of the nitrate railways were extraordinarily difficult to operate – refer to Table 2 for an explanation. During a period at the end of the 1920´s the Beyer-Garratt of Nitrate Railways company locomotives had the greatest power in all the southern hemisphere. These were purchased to operate in the northbound section departing Iquique, after a failed attempt to run them using electric power. [See reference (xiii).] The operational difficulties translated into high costs of exploitation.

Nowadays, Soquimich-owned-train, is the sole train transporting nitrate. This train originally belonged to the company called Anglo-Chilean Nitrate & Railway Co. Ltd.. In the downhill area leading from Bariles to Tocopilla, this railway continues using the manufactured electric locomotives for over 80 years. These are the oldest locomotives operating in Chile, and probably in the Americas region. Excluding touristic use locomotives, these are among the most ancient worldwide. This railway is commonly known as the “Railway from Tocopilla to Toco”, and carries an important exchange traffic through Ferronor in Coya Sur/Miraje.

Nitrate Railways Co. Ltd. 537 1.435 1871 - 1951
Merged into EFE in 1951.
Cía. de Salitres y Ferrocarril de Junín 89 0.762 1896 - 1930 Most sections were removed, but some are still a part of Ferronor´s network.
Cía. de Salitres y Ferrocarril de Agua Santa 148 0.762
1892 - 1931 Abandoned after nitrate crisis.
Ferrocarril de Patillos 93 0.762
1872 - 1916 Abandoned after nitrate crisis.
Ferrocarril de Iquique a Pintados 191 1.000 1928 - 1943 Operated intermittently.
Anglo-Chilian Nitrate & Railway Co. Ltd. 211 1.067 1890 - present Now belongs to Soquimich. This is the single railway currently transporting nitrate.
Antofagasta (Chili) and Bolivia Railway Co. Ltd. (FCAB) 834 0.762 (after 1.000) 1877 - present Is currently part of Antofagasta P.L.C., Luksic Group, but does not transport nitrate.
Ferrocarril de Aguas Blancas 222 0.762 1901 – 1952 Was operated by FCAB.
Chilian Northern Railway Co. Ltd. 713 1.000 1913 - 1961 Operated by FCAB from 1919 to 1961, then by EFE; is currently part of Ferronor´s network.
The Taltal Railway Co. Ltd. 289 1.067 1888 - 1976 Last sections were removed between 1977 and 1980.
Notes: (i) distance includes main and branch lines, excludes detours and parking properties and are considered at the moment of greatest extension; (ii) in most cases, the company´s network was reduced, prior to being completely extinguished; (iii) the names of the companies sometimes showed variations, over the years, as a result of reorganizations and other activities; (iv) the periods of operation refer, mainly, to the years of activity under the original administration; in several cases, the railway continued operations in later years, for example in the hands of EFE. .
Sources: various. Mainly I. Thomson, Northern Network: the railway history of Northern Chile; Instituto de Ingenieros de Chile, Santiago, 2003.


The history of nitrate railways is long, complex and fascinating. See references (v), (vi), (ix), (xiii), (xvi), and (xvii)
















During a period at the end of the 1920´s the Beyer-Garratt of Nitrate Railways company locomotives had the greatest power in all the southern hemisphere. (Photo by Beyer, Peacock co Ltd.; Ian Thomson’s collection)




Two nitrate trains lowered wagons to the coastline using slopes. Currently there is no other evidence. (photo: Ian Thomson’s collection; a commercial postcard)