Meet the ‘steam train whisperer’

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It’s hard – in our Twitter-feed, sandwich-for-lunch, multi-tasking age – to fathom having worked for the same company for 32 years, to have dedicated so much of one’s energy and time – a lifetime – to just one enterprise. And for the focus of all that energy and time to be inanimate objects is perhaps even harder to comprehend. But that is the case of Edgar Garcés, the maestro de máquinas of the Ecuadorian railways, who has given his life to the engines that he and his team maintain running, day after day, across the country.


Edgar listens to the engine, to the train. It breathes, complains, chugs, cranks, huffs, whistles with delight. Every noise means something to Edgar and his co-driver. Nothing is taken for granted. Decades of experience have honed his skills to that of a Formula 1 driver, only this motor-vehicle travels at a top speed of about 50 km/hour.


“Some neighbours of mine told me about the job opportunity on the Railways,” he recounts. He had recently finished his military service. He had no idea what a furgonero was or did, but he applied anyway. That was 1985. He spent the following five years working as a fireman on the steam trains, leaving his hometown of Riobamba to work in Huigra, further down towards the coast.


“It was hard work,” he remembers. Many of his colleagues didn’t stay the course and left. But he was lucky to be selected to be trained to drive the new electro-diesel locomotives the Railways imported in 1993, and continued up the ranks. In 1998, his mentor retired, leaving him as the only engineer in the country capable of driving the Railways’ steam trains. These were tough times, with a lack of investment making their work even more challenging.


Then came 2007, when the Railways were declared part of Ecuador’s national heritage, and with it, investment. “That was a great feeling,” he says. “It was a good thing. I didn’t completely believe it would happen at first, to be honest, but the rehabilitation turned out to be real, and comprehensive.”

As the investment in carriages, stations and infrastructure became real, it also reached the engines. Finally, Edgar could share his knowledge and skills with the engineers tasked with rehabilitating the steam engines and pass on what he had learned. “That was a great thing,” he remembers. “Part of us is inside these trains. They’re like our children. You feel proud that part of you will live on in them. We might not be here forever, but the trains and the Ferrocarriles will go on.”


Today, five engineers can drive the three steam trains currently running along various segments of the railway. That means Edgar doesn’t have to run up and down the country to tend each one so much. Two more locomotives are about to be included in daily operations following extensive rebuilding.


Watching Edgar at work aboard the #58 steam train as it makes its way from Urbina down to Riobamba, one can imagine he could do the work in his sleep. In fact, he probably does. His movements are constant, his concentration intense. His hands move between the multiple valves and levers without him having to look, his years working with these machines making sight superfluous. It’s the engine’s breathing that matters most.


He never rests while driving the great hulking mass of metal. There is no time to sit back and enjoy the scenery. He is constantly adjusting, tweaking, turning, checking, communicating above the din.


Tucked into his perch on the right-hand-side of the huge cylindrical mass of the furnace, Edgar eyes the track ahead through a window, sometimes casting his head back to check on the convoy through the window on this right side. Now and again, his left hand reaches for the cord that releases the locomotive’s strident whistle.


Its tone, its descending pitch, could be interpreted as languid, or sad. But, in the context of this new age of steam aboard the Ecuadorian railways, it’s a joyous, bright, elated blast. It resoundingly affirms that the train lives on, that magic has a home inside the beating heart of these locomotives and the men, like Edgar the maestro de máquinas, who drive them.

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