UNABLE to agree terms with the last of five potential bidders, the Argentinian government has quietly shelved its plans to sell a 79% stake in metre-gauge freight operator Belgrano Cargas to the private sector (RG 6.05 p350).

Negotiations with a consortium led by EMEPA are reported to have foundered largely on the question of debt, with the last bidder offering to take on US$28m of liabilities which are believed to total $50m.

The Belgrano dossier has now been passed to Uniren, the federal body responsible for renegotiating Argentina’s freight concessions, and options could include a state-owned infrastructure company charging train operators for access. But it appears that the government will retain the 79% stake plus the 1% it intended to keep as a ’golden share’. Current operator Unión Ferroviaria holds the remaining 20%, and the railway union is likely to resist any attempt to transfer its holding by launching a court claim for US$250m of investment promised when it was granted a 30-year concession in 1999, but never received.

Meanwhile, pressure is growing from local politicians for speedy investment in the crumbling Belgrano network, particularly in northwestern Argentina where cheaper, more reliable rail transport is seen as key to future economic development based on export crops. Juan Carlos Romero, Governor of Salta province, said on June 15 that ’the provinces must work together’, calling on the federal government to ensure that a sum of around 200m pesos is made available.

Romero also stressed that those provinces served only by the Belgrano network, such as his own, should be given priority when it comes to improving operations. According to Salta newspaper El Tribuno, ’moving a consignment of cereals to Rosario by lorry costs exactly the same as transporting it, by boat, from the port of Rosario to Europe’.

According to its General Manager Horacio Díaz Hermelo, broad-gauge freight operator Nuevo Central Argentino might be interested in making a bid for the Belgrano once future investment requirements are known - US$200m over five years in his opinion. NCA obtained the tender documentation for the last attempt at Belgrano privatisation, but in the end declined to submit a bid.