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'Cobra' offers high speed future

10 Aug 2007

ONE OF THE promises that Néstor Kirchner made during his successful campaign for Argentina's 2003 presidential election was to restore long-distance passenger services to those communities which had lost them back in the 1990s, leaving them at the mercy of unmetalled roads which become impassable in wet weather.

Almost four years later, this promise has been only partially fulfilled, with the passenger train making a timid return on routes from Buenos Aires to Córdoba, Tucumán and Posadas. Running once a week, these services are slow due to the poor condition of track maintained by the freight concessionaires whose own services enjoy priority, but they are well-patronised as the fares are cheap.

The provinces of Río Negro and Chaco operate their own passenger services, but the former has been unable to reach Buenos Aires, missing out on an important potential market. The province of Buenos Aires created Ferrobaires to run its own trains and had the pick of the national fleet, but it is now facing an acute shortage of serviceable traction and rolling stock.

At the start of operations Ferrobaires was operating 10 well-filled daily return trips between Buenos Aires and the resort of Mar del Plata during the summer peak, covering the 400 km in 4 h 45 min, but last summer track conditions meant that only three very unreliable services were operating each day, taking over 6 h to reach their destination.

Traffic on other routes has also fallen and now the province is seeking to transfer its services to the federal government. This would permit the construction of a high speed line between Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata or at least an upgrade of the existing route for 160 km/h operation, in which the federal government has already expressed interest.

But it is elsewhere that high speed with trains operating at up to 320 km/h is set to make its debut in Argentina and the Americas. At the end of 2006 the federal government called for bids to construct a new line between Buenos Aires and Córdoba, and received expressions of interest from consortia including Alstom, Siemens and CAF. However, when technical and financial bids were due last March only one consortium came forward, and on June 20 the Veloxia grouping of Alstom, Isolux Corsan, Iecsa and Emepa was selected as preferred bidder.

The 710 km route will start at a new station to be built between the TBA and Ferrovías stations at Retiro in Buenos Aires, follow the Ferrovías alignment to Pilar and then run towards San Nicolás, where the ex-Mitre station will be refurbished. From there, the line will reach Rosario Oeste, where a new station will be built, and then follow the Nuevo Central Argentino alignment with stops at Marcos Juárez, Belle Ville and Villa María. The line will end at the old Mitre station in the centre of Córdoba. All platforms will be 400 m long to accommodate two eight-car trains running in multiple.

The cost of the project is US$1·32bn (RG 6.07 p335) and French bank Société Générale has indicated that it is willing to provide up to 80% of this amount, although the call for tenders sought only a 50% contribution from the winning consortium. The balance was to be provided by the government from the sale of disused railway assets.

At the start of service, it is planned that nine daily return trips will reach Rosario on the double-track route, while four trains a day will run to Córdoba on a new single-track alignment. Alstom is to provide eight double-deck TGVs, branded 'Cobra', each seating 509 passengers in premium (35%) and tourist (65%) class. Equipped with ETCS Level 2 signalling, the new line should provide a Buenos Aires - Rosario journey time of 85 min, with Córdoba reached 90 min later.

The government expected to sign a contract in July or August so that work could start in September. The first trains would begin running with fare-paying passengers 36 months later. If all goes to plan, Argentina will enter the high speed club before it celebrates its bicentenary in 2010. However, this will not solve the problem of the many small towns that remain isolated by their lack of passenger rail services.