ABOARD EL RAPIDO, Chile — Reminiscences of the Orient Express and the 20th Century Limited remain alive here in Chile, where passenger train travel, as a rule abominable in South America, is still a practical and enjoyable way of getting about.
The aging but respectable "El Rapido," the pride of the country's national railway system, leaves Santiago's Alameda Terminal daily at 6:30 p.m. headed for Puerto Montt, billed as the world's southernmost station, 670 miles down the line.
The train carries basic economy-class cars, comfortable "salons" with reclining seats and wood-paneled sleepers originally built in Germany in 1929.
There is a special car for transporting private automobiles, a dining car and a "videobar" car.
This is a far cry from the trains full of squawking chickens and screaming babies often depicted in bad movies about Latin America. This part of Chile, while poorer than the United States or Western Europe, is one of South America's most prosperous regions. Riding El Rapido is a pleasure.
Service begins with an airline-type cart rolled down the aisles offering alcoholic and soft drinks and candy and crackers. The dining car--serviceable but with a few cracked windows and broken Venetian blinds--has meal calls at 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Dinner--a stuffed avocado, a steak with french fries, Chilean wine, dessert and a "pisco sour," a typical Chilean grape-distilled aperitif--costs the equivalent of $10 a person.
Then it's on to the videobar, where the cassette movies are in English, with Spanish subtitles.
The bar itself has standard international cocktails plus Chilean specials, some of which are named for stops along the line. There also is a concoction called a periodista-- Spanish for "journalist"--containing rum, Cointreau, cherry brandy and orange juice.
El Rapido must be a refurbishment of past rail glories, because the capitalist-oriented government of President Gen. Augusto Pinochet cut all subsidies to the state railroads, which had been draining tens of millions of dollars a year in federal funds.
"It was sink or swim. We had to run the railroads strictly with railroad income," Alfredo Barahona, the system's public relations director, said later in Santiago.
"This meant doing the best we could with existing equipment and fixing up what was fixable," he said. "We wound up simply eliminating passenger service in northern Chile. We maintain it in the south, because passenger demand justifies it."
El Rapido's porters distribute blankets in the salon cars and make up sleeping berths soon after the dinner hour. If one happens to be traveling during the South American winter, nights at these latitudes are long, and there is no scenery to look at until the next morning.
It still is dark when the train crosses the Biobio River, 310 miles south of Santiago, which until the late 19th Century marked la frontera , the border, between the Spanish-settled part of Chile and the lands of the fiercely independent Mapuche Indians. This is the end of the electrified portion of the Chilean rail system, and a U.S.-built diesel locomotive is put on in place of the Italian-made electric one that began the journey.
Later, as the sky lightens and breakfast is called, riders find themselves in a world of pastures, planted fields, wooden houses, dirt roads, dairy farms and small cattle and sheep ranches, backed by a panorama of fog-shrouded hills of spruce, fir and willow. Farmers and townspeople, some riding in oxcarts, wear heavy sweaters or wool ponchos to ward off the early-morning chill.
Puerto Montt, population 120,000--the end of the line--was founded by German immigrants in the 1800s. The railroad was completed in 1913. The town sits on an arm of the frigid South Pacifc and has an air of coastal Oregon or Washington. The local market brims with freshly caught oysters, clams, king crabs, sea urchins and abalone.