Riding the Iron Road: Getting a big high on the vertigo special

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When Admiral Evans of the US Navy rode the American-engineered Central Peruvian railway up the Andes at the end of the last century, he dismounted at the highest point - 15,694ft - in the Galera tunnel - and urinated. "That's dandy! I've always wanted to pump ship into the Atlantic and the Pacific at the same time," he said.

Outside the nearby Galera station, at 15,681ft the world's highest, I tried to emulate the admiral but my water flowed neither east nor west and simply soaked into the beige soil.

Riding a train up the Andes to a height equivalent to the summit of Mont Blanc is breathtaking, literally. Try it in the driver's cab of a goods train, complete with diesel fumes, on a line that used to be attacked by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas, and you feel giddy.

Getting off at Galera, I was in reasonable shape, thanks to the recommended glucose tablets that ease the effects of soroche (altitude sickness). Short of breath, it was difficult to converse with the crew of Engine No 604 on the Central Peruvian Railway, the world's highest, steepest and most twisted standard-gauge line, running from Callao on the Pacific to the Andean town of Huancayo. But worse was to come.

I had to see the highest stretch of track in the world, on a loop above Galera, but it was closed. "We'll have to hike it," said Gonzalo Santibanez, an inspector with Enafer, the state railway. "Following the track takes too long. We'll take the direct route." Scrambling up the rocky slope, soroche hit me. It was like being drunk: I lost balance and fell several times. Although half a mile, it took us half an hour to reach the stretch of track marked by a sign saying: "Highest railway point in the world. 4,818 metres. 15,806 feet." That's 34ft higher than Mont Blanc.

To ride the world's highest railway, I had hitched a lift on a goods train serving the Andes' gold, silver, copper and lead mines. Peru's President, Alberto Fujimori, closed the line to passenger traffic in 1991, partly because of competition from a new road, but mainly because the line was attacked by Shining Path guerrillas. About 20 crewmen were killed in attacks between 1980 and 1992.

The passenger service may resume next year, now that the guerrillas have largely been crushed. If it does, the train will carry a nurse, as it used to, with oxygen for passengers.

Although they were started by American contractors in the 1870s, Peru's railways have a strong British connection. After construction was halted by the 1879-83 War of the Pacific, when Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia, Peru was nearly bankrupt. In a debt-for-investment deal, British holders of Peruvian bonds were granted control of Peruvian railways in return for a pledge to continue construction. This corporation ran the system until 1972, when Peru nationalised its railways and set up Enafer.

But the British legacy remains: Enafer executives trained in Crewe and Derby and older drivers recall working with visiting British mechanics and sound uncannily like their British Rail counterparts when they discuss working conditions. "Bring back the British, that's what I say," said driver Pedro Vargas, who hauled me and wagons of fuel and scrap metal up the Andes before returning with copper ingots and lead. "Things have gone down the drain since they left."

Some Peruvians credit Robert Stephenson, who helped his father, George, build the Rocket, with the idea of constructing a railway across the Andes.

The younger Stephenson, recalling his father's work on overcoming gradients, may have had the idea of linking the mines to the ocean when he was in the Andes in the early 19th century.

At its peak in the Seventies the passenger service used to run 214 miles from the Pacific port of Callao, through Lima, past Galera, past the foundries of Oroya and on to Huancayo.

I boarded at Chosica, about 30 miles east of Lima, where the goods trains assemble and leave in convoy at dawn. With a single track, there is no way to pass on the line. Trains go up in convoy, load at the mines, turn round and come back at night.

At 3am, after sharing a stew with crewmen around a campfire by the tracks, I pulled out in the cab of Engine No 704, a Brazilian-made Villares, with driver Vargas, co-driver Lisandro Jimeno and Gonzalo the inspector. There were few people up as we chugged through villages in what was at first a gradual slope. But Lisandro's constant horn-honking, essential since the train endlessly criss-crosses a main road without level crossings or barricades, must have awakened a few. The train rarely gets above 15mph, but it still needs about 50 yards to stop and collisions are common.

Sitting 20ft up in the cab of Engine No 704 and trundling on to the steel Challape Bridge over an unfathomable ravine was unforgettable. All you see ahead are the rails and sleepers, like a piece of toy train track slung across an open space with nothing on either side.

Pedro helpfully pointed out that Shining Path had blown up several such bridges in the past and that Engine No 703 had been blown 500ft down an abyss in 1988, killing the driver and an inspector.

"They used to try to blow up a train almost every day," said Gonzalo. "They thought they were on the point of victory but El Chinito [the Little Chinaman, the nickname of President Fujimori because of his Japanese origin] has brought back law and order."

Looking down on villages we had passed, hundreds of feet down an often sheer mountainside from the single railway track, it seemed as if we had taken off on an aircraft. Every time we huffed and puffed to the top of what looked an unassailable summit, another, more imposing peak loomed.

So steep is the slope from Tamboraque to the summit at Galera, a 6,000ft climb over only 30 miles of track, that the line relies on a series of what the Peruvians call zigzags.

When the slope is too steep for curves, the train goes as far as it can to a dead-end. Points are changed and it reverses on to a separate stretch, always going uphill. Another points change and it's forward and upward again.

There are 22 zigzags on the Huancayo route, some of them going through tunnels. There is something disconcerting about going through a tunnel uphill backwards on a narrow mountain ledge at 13,000ft.

My two most overpowering impressions? First, that the Andes seem to stretch on for ever, higher and higher. Second, that man got up there, by foot and by mule, to conquer them with two narrow strips of iron.