Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bolivian Locomotive Grave Yard

The History Channel recently aired IRT (Ice Road Truckers) with Lisa Kelly and her new partner G.W., delivering a truckload of llamas across the infamous Salar de Uyuni, a colossal salt flat located in southwest Bolivia.

Lisa Kelly has been in four seasons of History Channels IRT: "Ice Road Truckers" running on the Dalton Highway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay.

"I think I've earned where I'm at. They don't just judge me by the cover, and I can get the job done," Lisa said. "I don't need to fit the stereotype. I don't have to be a potty mouth, chew tobacco and be 300 pounds to drive a truck."

As a filler between ice road seasons, the History Channel went to India, producing The first IRT "Deadliest Roads" series.

The teams were driving underpowered wooden Indian Tata 1613's, trucks with a 150 horsepower engine and no safety features, on some sweaty palm high altitude dirt tracks. Nothing like this ever came out of Freightliner's paint booth!

The IRT "Deadliest Roads" is in its second season, shot on the breathtaking mountain "Death Roads" of Bolivia and Peru.


In the seventh program IRT Deadliest Roads, the Flattest Place on Earth, the our team drives on onto the extraordinary Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni salt flat.) They drive past what appeared to be a line of rusting locomotives; they never mention them, nor do they visualize them in detail. And it happened so fast, all I could do was jot down a quick note "requires investigation."

G.W. comments that because of the lithium content of the salt brine, a compass is useless in crossing the salt flat. So, they will used a GPS to navigate across Uyuni Salt Flat, delivering a load of llamas.

That is what precipitated our next odyssey; to learn about that "Locomotive Grave Yard," located on some god-forbidden arid salt flat in Bolivia, and learn more about Bolivia's lithium deposits.

Bolivia, like Chile and Peru, have "a ton and eighty" of fascinating geologic features, laden with tin, copper, silver, gold, nitrate, and salt mining, along with others I cannot remember. The country is spectacular, and what little railroading takes place it not for the feint of heart!

Who can forget the magnificent photos made available to me by Jean-Marc Frybourg.

One of my "idols," Carl Sagan once commented on the remarkable qualities of table salt:

"Chlorine is a deadly poison gas employed on European battlefields in World War I. Sodium is a corrosive metal which burns upon contact with water. Together they make a placid and unpoisonous material, table salt. Why each of these substances has the properties it does is a subject called chemistry."

While there are literally dozens of salt marshes and salt pans in Bolivia, three major salt flats are of commercial interest:
  • Salar de Uyuni, covering 10,582 km² (4,086 mi²)
  • Salar de Coipasa Salt Flat, covering 3,300 km² (1,274 mi²)
  • Pastos Grandes Caldera Salt Flat, covering 118 km² (45 mi²). This salt flat is inside the remaining structure, a caldera, formed by the walls of a volcano that "lost its head." Similar to Crater Lake.
All are identified as containing "evaporitic resources," with an estimated 9 million tons within Salar de Uyuni alone. From the salt brine, lithium carbonate, potassium chloride, potassium sulfate, magnesium chloride and boric acid are extracted.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Bolivia contains approximately half of the world's 11 million metric tons of proven and probable reserves of lithium.

While this list is far from complete, Lithium, with a valence of 1 on the Periodic Table, lightest of all metals, has a wide variety of uses:

It is the salt brine in these "lakes" that contain this veritable chemical factory. The brine is processed to remove the water, yielding salts, that are further refined to extract a wide variety of chemicals, including lithium.

Merely possessing these briny salt lakes does not guarantee a "gold mine of riches." While lithium has the potential for providing Bolivia with much needed income, the tricky part is having the technology and chemists with the knowledge requisite for extracting the lithium from the salt brine contained in these lakes.

Two factors determine financial success or stalemate:
  • Chemistry of the brine
  • Technology - equipment and chemists - required to perform the extraction process.
To illustrate this, remember we in the United States have two salt brine formations; the Great Salt Lake, and the Salton Sea. However, the analysis of the brine, shows the amount of lithium, in both structures, is 0.001 ppm (parts per million.) Not enough concentration to be commercially viable.

President Morales, back in 2008, celebrated the opening of a pilot plant at Uyuni for the small-scale production of lithium carbonate, the main component of rechargeable batteries that power laptop computers, cell phones, iPods and digital cameras.

Excavation Evaporation Pond

In the project's second phase, the Bolivian government plans to construct an factory that will require investment of between $200-250 million to produce lithium carbonate. Construction to begin in 2013 taking two to three years to build.

Evaporation Pond

The government says it will seek a partnership with a foreign company to manufacture lithium batteries and even electric-powered vehicles. Plans have sparked interest among foreign firms such as France's Bollore and Eramet, Japan's JOGMEC, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo and South Korea's LG, as well as the Russian government.
[Source: Latin America Herald Tribune, Nov 3, 2011.]

Two factors hinder economic development of Bolivia; axle loading on the railroad and the fact that Bolivia is a land locked country.

The current carrying capacity does not exceed 15 metric tons (MT) per axle, which is insufficient for the volume that is to carry in the future.

Bolivia was not always landlocked. Study this map of "pre 1879 - post 1883" to understand the land grab from Bolivia during the "War of the Pacific," 1879-1883.

"The War of the Pacific" involved Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. Rivalry over the exploitation of rich nitrate beds in the Atacama Desert, resulted in Bolivia loosing its Pacific Ocean frontage to Chile!

As recently as last month, the issue continues to be argued before the United Nations!

Bolivia, of course, is purported to be the situate of the dramatic shootout between Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and law enforcement. The Bolivian Army caught up with the boys at San Vincente, where Butch is allegedly buried.

Bolivia has an interesting history of trying to establish and maintain a viable rail system. The country, rich in mining resources, tried to operate a rail system for the transportation of mineral wealth, but was stymied, time and time a again, by indigenous tribes, who perceived the intrusion of the rail network as being detrimental to their culture and survival.

At present Bolivia's railway system consists of the Bolivian Andean Network and the Network East, which are separated, by lack of infrastructure in the central part of the country.

Its routes are still the meter gauge the full extent, which allows the interconnection with Brazil and Argentina to the east, and the western area is interconnected with Chile and Argentina.

The current carrying capacity does not exceed 15 metric tons (MT) per axle, which is insufficient for the volume that is to carry in the future.

The Antofagasta (Chili) & Bolivia Railway (FCAB) operates some 3,652 miles (5,877 km) of 1.000 m railroad. [source: CIA Worldfact Book - 2010.]

John Middleton, who graciously allowed me to visualize this article with his photographs, was in Bolivia in 2008 and again in 2009. John made a detailed report of his visits, which includes many 'new discoveries' and seeks to correct reports elsewhere.

Click here for the illustrated reports, Part 1 and Part 2.

Locomotive Grave Yard

The locomotive Grave Yard, just over a half mile long, is located on the outskirts of the town of Uyuni. The Grave Yard contains locomotives, box cars, all manner of rolling stock. I was not able to locate a "number" of units rusting out there, but it is significant.

And due to the altitude, some 12,000 feet and arid (low humidity) atmosphere, these hulks will remain long after most of us!

Originally established as a trading post, Uyuni now finds itself hosting thousands of tourists, eager to drive across the Salar de Uyuni.

Several types of locomotive are represented on the site, including Beyer-Garrett and Kitson-Meyer.

During my research, I had the good fortune of meeting John Middleton, some of whose photos are sprinkled here. John made two trips to Bolivia, conducting extensive research on the Locomotive Grave Yard.

On the subject of the Beyer-Garrett articulated locomotives, John relates, "The FCAB had 10 Garratts and 9 seem to still exist, there is a photo of mine of a more complete one at Potosi (Bolivia.)

Skeleton of Beyer-Garrett

"I went to quite an effort with wire brush and scraper to identify all the hulks. This was quite fun industrial archaeology and not difficult to find the identifying works numbers etc if you really look (and know where to look). If you are really interested I would recommend Trackside Publications "
Railways of Bolivia" - a superb book."

Beside the Beyer-Garrett articulated locomotive, a handful of Kitson-Meyer articulated locomotives made their way to Bolivia.

On the Kitson-Meyer articulated locomotives, John relates, "There were six locos to this design for the FCAB, they were built near Manchester in the UK by Beyer, Peacock & Co Ltd in 1912. It is not known when they last operated but they had all been withdrawn from service by the time the FCAB was nationalized by the Bolivian Government in 1964 and my guess is they last ran in the 1950s.

Hulk, Kitson-Meyer Articulated

"Of the six, five frames survive in the Uyuni cemetery; some parts of the sixth are also there buried in the sand if you know where to look. Some of the tenders also survive and I even found one with its original FCAB shaded lettering and number (No. 54) showing through the rust. This tender is inside the workshops at Uyuni (opposite the railway station) and so some distance from where the locomotives stand in the graveyard."

Hulk, Kitson-Meyer

Actually, there are several variations on this design, this being the "Kitson-Meyer." This "Guide to the Family" explains the many permutations of British articulated locomotives.

Rather than tangle with a subject I know virtually nothing about, I highly recommend you "click on 3349, for a fan-damn-tastic web site, with everything you need to know about the Kitson-Meyer articulated locomotive!

This article gives instructions for constructing an HO version of the Kitson-Meyer. There are many interesting "ghosts" lurking around the world - this be one of them!

What with all the salt available, it was inevitable that someone would build a salt hotel. "No Licking the Walls!"

Finally, I would like to acknowledge John Middleton's generous assistance in providing data and photographs. Both his words an photographs were invaluable. I've heard it said that only 3% of the world's knowledge base can be found on the Internet. The rest you have to uncover through one-on-one contact. "Thank You, John."

Other contributors, generous in releasing their wonderful photographs, include Robin Yu, Stephen Knight, Phil Dul, and Richard Lowseck.

A very special "Thank You" to Olivier Hoffschir for the stunning panoramic shot at the top of the story. You can actually see the curvature of the earth. Be sure to view his site; remarkable photography.

But, let us not forget, that if I hadn't spotted Lisa driving past this bone yard on the History Channel, none of this would have occurred.

Suggested Reading

In 2010, the World Volcano group from the University of Oregon toured the Uyuni - Pastos Grandes area. Although the purpose of their visit was to study ancient volcanic activity, the photo story is interesting reading visualizing some really empty land!

"Bolivians," the Chilean Admiral José Toribio Merino infamously remarked near the end of the twentieth century, "are no more than metamorphosized camelids [auquénidos metamorfoseados], who have learned to speak, but not to think." This comment sets racial tone of the War of the Pacific, not found in other articles about the War.

"In the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia, and acquired territories that contained vast deposits of sodium nitrate, a leading fertilizer." This paper concentrates on the fiscal realities of sodium of nitrates, as opposed to the previous paper, relating to the "racism" of the War of the Pacific.

"Should Chile Reverse History And Provide Bolivia Sovereign Access To The Sea? Assess The Risks And Benefits To Bolivia, Chile And Peru." A recent assessment (2009) in the continuing question of reversing some of the negative impact on Bolivia as a result of the War of the Pacific.

Basil Lubbock, famous for his non-fiction accounts of early world-wide clipper activity, wrote an absolutely fascinating account of the "The Nitrate Clippers" landing at Arica. He describes clipper ships arriving to load nitrates at a remote and arid port. All fresh water had to be brought into the port by ship! The book is currently available from alibris.

You can watch the full program, IRT Deadliest Roads: The Flattest Place on Earth, (Program #7) available from iTunes for a small fee. Or simply watch for re-runs on the History Channel. These programs are repeated frequently.

1 Comments - Click here: said...

What an incredible story. I'm in awe of how you find the smallest details, bring it to life, by finding the people with the photos and experiences to weave into factual, enlightening stories. Thank you

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