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The Roots of Ferronor
By Ian Thomson


Nitrate trains naturally developed into railway companies, readily available to provide transportation services to any office that needed freight. There were a few mining trains that had the same characteristics, one of which was the Ferro-Carril de Copiapó, but this was not the rule. Several mining trains, not nitrate ones, emerged in a different way: by the private sector initiative of mining companies. [See reference (ii).] They were, essentially, part of the industrial process and did not serve third parties requests, which would have sometimes been direct competitors to the railway company. This exclusivity denied opportunities for promoting the development of the geographies they served, a situation that was especially close to Ferro-Carril de Copiapó.
Ferrocarril de Tongoy, managed by don José Tomás Urmeneta, did serve independent miners, but these would have paid mining rights to Urmeneta. [See references (i) and (xv).]

The sharp upward sloping from the ocean to the nitrate site. (i) Ramps (Junín, Caleta Buena) to ease moving wagons between the site and shore; (ii) use sophisticated locomotive models that are powerful and capable of going through very tight curves, such as the double Fairlie (e.g. Nitrate Railways), the Kitson-Meyer (e.g. Anglo-Chilian) and Beyer-Garratt (Nitrate Railways); (iii) power trains with electricity through sections with high gradient (Anglo-Chilian); (iv) gain altitude by reverse (Railways, Anglo-Chilian Nitrate)
The oil sources for steam engine machines are extremely distant. (i) use oil instead of coal (p.e. Nitrate Railways, FCAB); (ii) use ramps through sections where locomotives would need exceptional oil consumption; (iii) use locomotive with combined tender or coal-car to reduce dead weight (p.e. FCAB, Nitrate Railways, Taltal); (iv) try out diesel-run locomotives (Junín); (v) power trains with electricity through sections with high gradient (Anglo-Chilian).
Shortage of fresh water for locomotive boiler (i) condense sea water (p.e. Nitrate Railways); (ii) use electrical or diesel traction; (iii) bring water through pipelines from the mountains (p.e. FCAB).
Source: original

The exploitation of mining products, excluding those of very high unit value, such as gold, critically depends on the availability of large bulk transport means that carry with low costs. The best solution is the use of sailable rivers, but these are non-existent in the dry northern Chile deserts. The dryness and rugged topography, create additional obstacles to build canals. The before mentioned explains why mining operations in Chile focused only on high value metals and were produced at a low scale before railways came into existence.

Potrerillos, Tamaya, El Tofo mining projects, among others, were complemented with railway construction projects to transport products to the nearest port. The main mining railways in the territory, now covered by Ferronor, are identified in table 3.

There was a great diversity of mining railways, ranging from those that utilized low-scale locomotives used to maneuver in industrial areas, such as Carrizal or Tongoy, to huge-scale railways. In terms of scale, the railway of Bethlehem Steel de El Tofo deserves a special mention. It ran from El Tofo mine, owned by the above mentioned American company, to the Cruz Grande dock, and in a few years it transported more than 1.5 million tons over its 25 km long main route. To drag the main line trains, this train used three giant 120 ton (30 ton/axle) electric locomotives, which remain as the undefeated record for Chile. [See reference (i).]


Cía. del Ferrocarril de Chañaral 54 1 067
1872 - 1887
Nationalized in 1889 become the independent EFE railway. After being rebuilt it is currently part of Ferronor´s network transporting copper from Potrerillos Foundry to Barquitos.

Potrerillos Railway Co. 90 1 000 1925 - 1971 Nationalized as a result of the process through which CODELCO was born. As a concessionaire, Ferronor continues providing these services to División El Salvador
Compañía del Camino Ferrocarril de Copiapó 240 1 435 1852 - 1911
Some roads were partially removed and are currently completely inactive, but part of a plan to relaunch. This was readjusted to metric gauge width, and there is a section that is part of Ferronor´s network.
Ferrocarril de Carrizal 100 1 270 1865 - 1922 Original ran with animal traction. Nationalized in 1930 and rebuilt to new metric gauge in 1941. It was definitively closed in 1961.
Cía. de Acero del Pacífico (Algarrobo)
56 1 000 1961 - present Currently operated by Ferronor.
Bethlehem Chile Iron Mines Corporation 25 1 435 1917 - 1971 Electric powered railway. Nationalized in 1971. It was totally deactivated a couple of years later.
Cía. del Ferrocarril de Coquimbo 117 1 676 1862 - 1896
Nationalized and merged into EFE as an independent railway. Tracks were rebuilt to metric gauge and is now part of Ferronor´s network, mostly inactive.
Cía. de Acero del Pacífico (Romeral) 38 1 000 1961 - 1971
Nationalized in 1971, and merged into CAP. It is still in operations using the tracks which were previously a part of Northern Network.
Sociedad del Ferrocarril de Tongoy 65 1 067 1867 - 1901
Later operated by EFE, which rebuilt its tracks to metric gauge. These were removed west of Tamaya.
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 starting and end years of operations are approximate, because these are not always consistent and the last ones are related to the moment when trains ceased operations for the company mentioned in the first column. The operations continued, in several cases, under EFE (iv) does not include the internal mining railway of Chuquicamata or the operations of Cemento El Melón, between El Melón and La Calera.
Sources: various. Mainly I. Thomson, Northern Network: the railway history of Northern Chile; Instituto de Ingenieros de Chile, Santiago, 2003.



In this case the use of electric-powered traction was exceptional. At the time of the railway and mine construction, around the end of the 1910s, diesel traction was still in its infancy and to transport the needed volumes, the electric-powered option would have been cheaper than steam. At the end of the following decade, the world fell into a serious recession, leaving very little appetite to open new mines. The diesel traction was the preferred option to replace the few steam engines existing at that time, and to operate railways which served mines open after the World War II. Diesel traction had reached a proven level of technological development. At the end of the 1960's, Ferrocarril de Potrerillos completed its transformation from a steam engine to diesel traction, whereas other mining railways that opened before the war had already been abandoned or merged into EFE. [See reference (i).]

El Carmen
Las Adrianitas Caldera   X
El Lunar Caldera   X
Cerro Imán Caldera X  
Los Colorados Carrizal Bajo X X
Huantemé Guacolda X X
El Algarrobo Guacolda X  
El Tofo Cruz Grande X X
Cerro Negro Cruz Grande X X
Los Cristales Cruz Grande X  
El Romeral Guayacán X  
Source: Original, with data from CORFO, 1962, and Chile Geografía a Color, Editorial Antártica, 1979


The life cycle of nitrate railways was prolonged, since they each served several offices, and the closing decision for one differed from that of the other. For mining railways, normally the closing of a mine meant instant closing of the railway.















The electric locomotives of Ferrocarril de El Tofo were real giants. (Photo: Ian Thomson’s collection; from an original archived at the Archaeological Museum of La Serena)