Unveiling the role of the only railway branch in operation today in Chile within the productive system that borders the Maule River involves the valorization of this Talca-Constitución Branch. This is a landscape project that has been able to join infrastructure and territory through the creation of a new landscape, one that is built from the train.
Modern civilization was built by the hand of an industrialization process that extended, in part, thanks to the push of a railroad that transformed, integrated and organized the territory. In the Chilean case, the railroad finds its origin in 1851, in a country that until then did not have a good land-connectivity system and amid expectations of progress that depended on the desired integration of the national territory, conditioned largely because of our varied geography. Consequently, the rail system was designed following the elongated shape of the country. The layout was an extended structure like a spine in the north-south direction and from which a series of transverse paths or rail branches in the East-West direction emanated, of which only one remains in operation: the Talca-Constitución Branch.
The branch project was an initiative promoted by President José Manuel Balmaceda. The branch was created to integrate the territories of the Maule River and transport the valley’s crops using a railway design that, like the Maule River, connects the valley and the coast on a purely local scale, making it an alternative to the usual transport of products to the Port of Constitution by riverboat (1).
(1) The Port of Constitution was an important point of exchange in the mid-19th century, motivated, to a large extent, by the river condition of the Maule and by the presence of the “Maulino shipyards,” where vessels were manufactured of various native woods, all extracted from the hills of the coastal mountain range that borders the river.
The Talca-Constitución Branch is the only non-electrified meter-gauge railway that operates in Chile. It is valued patrimony that includes 88 km of railway infrastructure between the cities of Talca and Constitución through a rural world full of traditions, along a route that borders the north bank of the Maule River for approximately three hours, providing a travel experience that has become an important tourist attraction in the region.
At almost one hundred years of age, the rail infrastructure survives and continues to be the main means of public transport for the surrounding towns, mainly those located in the coastal sector of the route, which are isolated by both the abrupt geography of the coastal mountains and by the absence of public-road infrastructure in an area dominated by private plantations of radiata pine. The extensive coastal section around the railway then emerges connected by a complex network of forest roads, which are also private and are designed to optimize the surrounding logging industry.
Comparatively, both the design of the railway branch’s layout and that of the forest roads are related to the scope of production. However, each reveals its own different approach or relationship to the territory. In this context, the layout of the railway line acquires value as a landscape project through an infrastructure that addresses the territory from a public geographic strategy that aims to integrate the territory through a cross-sectional path that takes into account its dependence on a larger productive system, configured by infrastructure (national rail system), nature (Maule hydrographic system) and society (towns along the route). This is a design strategy diametrically opposed to that of the encapsulated layout of the forest roads described by the naturalist Barry López in Rediscovery of North America, where the natural environment is positioned as a warehouse of raw materials and at the same time as a logistic set of obstacles to overcome in search of better benefits for an efficient accumulation of wealth (2). In other words, López’s is a vision that prioritizes the industry over a relationship of balance and integration with the environment.
(2) López, Rediscovery of North America (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990), p.56-58.
In this context, to understand the Talca-Constitución Branch as a landscape project is to value its historical role within the productive system that borders the Maule River through an articulating infrastructure that has been able to structure territorial transformations over time and create a new landscape, today delineated from the ways that geography, rail infrastructure and community imprint on the territory. In this sense, valuing the local component of the landscape elements is related to the postulates of John B. Jackson, who introduced the cultural dimension to the idea of landscape from the valuation of the everyday, that is, in the way of inhabiting, cultivating or building a relationship between man and nature (3). Jackson understands and presents the landscape project as an opportunity to recognize the culture of the place and its creative dimension.
(3) Jackson, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1994), p.85.
Unveiling the role of the Talca-Constitución railway branch within the productive system that borders the Maule River is to give value to a landscape project that has been capable of articulating infrastructure and territory through the creation of a new landscape, one that is built from the train. In this sense, the railroad emerges here as a means for the construction of the landscape, understood from the notion of process, either from its dynamic condition linked to the natural systems of the river and its productive environment or from experience (4): first from the perceptual, delineated by the visual perspective that the observer obtains from the window of the train and second from the interpretative, i.e., as a spectator who captures the tangible and intangible nature of his/her surroundings, interprets them and thus builds the landscape.
(4) Anita Berrizbeitia, “Re-placing Process” in Julia Czerniak (ed.), Large Parks (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), p.177.
Alejandra Araya G. holds a degree in architecture from the University of Chile and a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Author of the thesis “Ramal Talca-Constitución: Configuración del Territorio y Construcción del Paisaje Junto al Río Maule” (Talca-Constitution Branch: Configuration of the Landscape Beside the Maule River) 2015, thesis advisor Romy Hecht M.