A stable political and economic climate has enabled Chilean State Railways to undertake its largest-ever three-year investment programme, which involved spending of US$1bn in 2003-05. This included increased capacity on commuter networks and improved long-distance services, as John Kolodziejski reports

RAIL INVESTMENT in Chile is reaping the benefits of a stable political environment that has existed since democracy was restored in 1990.

Successfully completed last December, the 2003-05 investment programme undertaken by Chilean State Railways (EFE) was funded to the tune of US$520m by the railway itself, using operating income and the proceeds of selling property and EFE's holdings in other companies. The Chilean government provided US$480m through underwriting 30-year bonds, and it enjoys the best credit rating in Latin America thanks to long-term sound economic management, ensuring low inflation and almost uninterrupted economic growth. Chile elected its fourth successive centre-left coalition government in January 2006, setting the stage for another period of political stability that should favour rail.

The projects with the most public, and possibly electoral, impact in EFE's 2003-05 investment plan were modernisation of the commuter networks in Valparaíso and Concepción, and the reinstatement of the Temuco - Puerto Montt passenger service in southern Chile.

The commuter network connecting Chile's largest port, Valparaíso, with the upmarket beach resort of Viña del Mar is operated by EFE subsidiary Merval. A US$330m upgrade project was delivered on time in November 2005 (RG 1.06 p10), and the 43 km Merval route now serves 20 rebuilt stations between Valparaíso and Limache.

One of the costliest elements of the project entailed sinking the railway and four stations into a 5 km tunnel along the coast between Recreo and Chorrillos, enhancing waterfront development potential and reducing road congestion. The upgraded line is now operated by 27 Alstom X'Trapolis EMUs capable of 120 km/h. Passenger-journeys had risen from 4·5million in 1997 to 9million in 2001, and Merval now has capacity for up to 22 million a year.

Biovías boost

The second major urban investment scheme is the US$155m Biovías project in Chile's VIII Region. This provides a sophisticated rail-based integrated public transport system for the Greater Concepción region where 70% of the 870000 inhabitants are reckoned to have no access to private transport.

Inaugurated on November 24 2005 by President Ricardo Lagos (RG 1.06 p9), Biovías provides a higher-frequency rail service using seven renovated Class 440 EMUs supplied by Renfe of Spain. The upgrading project included the construction of three stations and the refurbishment of 13 others. Trains now operate 82 trips a day on routes from Concepción to Talcahuano, Hualqui and Lomas Coloradas with capacity for 4·8 million passenger journeys/year.

The network operated by EFE subsidiary Fesub has benefited from new signalling, electrification, communications and the fencing-off of track in urban areas. The stations connect to 21 km of dedicated bus and cycle lanes, and a single control centre manages the transport system in Concepción including trains, buses and road traffic signals.

Upgrade to Puerto Montt

The most dramatic Chilean rail investment project in terms of national impact is the ongoing upgrade of 1016 km of main line between the capital Santiago and Puerto Montt, the southernmost major city, allowing the reintroduction of passenger service abandoned in 1992.

Passenger trains operating at up to 140 km/h were restored from Santiago as far as Temuco (677 km) in December 2003. Since 2001, four ex-Renfe Class 596 DMUs have been operating over the 500 km between Santiago and Chill n with a best journey time of 4 h 15 min. The number of departures from Santiago increased to six trains a day in 2005 and is due to be increased to 10 in 2006.

The 454 km section from Victoria (just north of Temuco) to Puerto Montt is currently undergoing a US$28m upgrade including refurbishment of 15 stations. Passenger service to Puerto Montt was restored on December 6 2005 (RG 1.06 p7) and up to eight trains a day will be operated on the Victoria - Puerto Montt route in 2006. Passengers from Santiago are required to change at Victoria.

The route upgrade is to be complemented by a US$9m project on the branch from Antilhue to the port of Valdivia. Services are due to start in 2006 and will be operated with two DMUs. The project cost will be met in part by property development around Valdivia station and the adjacent waterfront.

Infrastructure PPPs

Drawing on experience of bringing in private contractors to undertake the long-term management and maintenance of Chile's road network, three infrastructure provision contracts were awarded under EFE's 2003-05 investment plan.

In October 2005, a US$110m contract was signed with Tecdra, a joint venture of Dragados of Spain and Tecsa of Chile. It involves the renewal and maintenance of 750 km of rail routes over a period of 16 years in the Central Zone between Santiago and the VIII Region, including the Santiago - Chill n - San Rosendo main line as well as the San Rosendo - Concepción and Talcahuano - Lomas Coloradas routes forming part of the Biovías project. Tecdra will be renewing track, electrification, signalling and telecommunications systems.

Comsa of Spain was awarded a US$67m contract in September 2004 to upgrade 376route-km in the Northern Zone, including the routes from Santiago to Valparaíso and San Antonio. Work is due for completion in the second half of 2006, and in addition to a fixed sum for the upgrade Comsa will be paid a variable rate depending on traffic volumes during the 14-year period ending in 2020. Freight traffic includes domestic waste moving over 70 km from Santiago to a landfill site and international consignments transhipped for movement by road over the Andes to Mendoza in Argentina.

Dragados also controls SYCE-ENYSE, which with CAM (part of the Enersis group) won a US$180m contract to maintain signalling, electrification and telecommunications in the Southern Zone, including the Santiago - Chill n route and part of the Biovías infrastructure. Signed in February 2005, the 16-year concession includes three years of initial upgrading work.

Safer crossings

Other recent investment by EFE indicates a cultural change in attitudes towards rail safety, setting Chile apart from other developing countries. The railway spent US$33m under its 2003-05 plan to effectively segregate 579 km of track from road and pedestrian traffic between Santiago and the X Region. This involved better trackside fencing in built-up areas, installing 30 new automated level crossings (between Santiago and Chill n and under the Biovías project), 30 footbridges and improved safety provision at 257 foot crossings.

EFE has also taken part in an extensive educational programme for rail safety in schools involving 129000 students and 300 teachers from Santiago to the IX Region, where train speeds and frequencies have been enhanced.

EFE's sixth three-year investment programme is to be announced this month, after Chile's new government takes office. It is expected that the 2006-08 plan will be mainly aimed at continuing projects already in hand, and may be less ambitious than its predecessor's record spend.

Links to Argentina

Separately-promoted projects to restore and construct rail links across the Andes to Argentina are making slow progress. Still at the pre-tender stage is the plan to restore the 225 km Central Transandine route between Los Andes in Chile and Mendoza, abandoned in 1984.

At the end of 2005 both governments reiterated their support for the project, which would involve a 30-year concession to rebuild and operate the route. Project cost would be US$300m, including track renewal and 23 km of new alignment at the route's summit 4000m above sea level. It also involves the purchase of 54 2200 hp diesel locomotives and 1250 wagons.

The leading private-sector promoter of the project is Mendoza-based construction company Tecnicagua, which has a Chilean partner in Petroleos del Sur. Other interested parties are reported to be Agunsa, Fepasa and Besalco of Chile and Techint of Argentina.

Chile's Ministry of Public Works has yet to authorise a private contract to undertake the project, and the route between Los Andes and the border is still owned by EFE. Finance is likely to come from sources such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the National Bank of Argentina. The project also has backing from Brazil as a means of providing a more efficient export corridor to the Pacific.

EFE has been lukewarm on the proposed 220 km Southern Transandine Railway between Zapala in Argentina's Neuquén province and Lonquimay in Chile. While Neuquén is enthusiastically supporting the project and has completed an initial 7 km section from Zapala (RG 1.06 p12), there has been no progress on the Chilean side. Neuquén established a special-purpose company, Patagonia Ferrocanal SA, to develop the project in September 2004.

  • Picture caption: Inaugurated last November by President Ricardo Lagos, the Biovías network in Concepción is operated with seven refurbished EMUs purchased from Renfe of Spain
  • Picture caption: Alstom has supplied 27 X'Trapolis EMUs to operate the upgraded Merval suburban route in Valparaíso
  • Picture caption: Suburban stations around the capital are being upgraded as part of the Metro Tren programme. Santiago suburban services are also mainly operated with ex-Renfe EMUs
  • Picture caption: EFE restored passenger services to its southern terminus at Puerto Montt in December 2005, using four ex-Renfe Class 596 DMUs. The service is due to be increased to eight trains per day when a US$28m upgrade of the 454 km route from Temuco is completed this year

Chilean State Railways' 2003-05 rolling stock spend

EFE's 2003-05 investment programme included US$197m of spending to acquire rolling stock, much of it supplied second hand by Renfe of Spain. Route by route, the acquisitions were:

  • Santiago - Temuco: long-distance coaches including dining cars and car carriers.
  • Santiago - Chill n: five additional Class 444 EMUs acquired to supplement five existing units for service upgrade.
  • Victoria - Puerto Montt: four Class 596 DMUs acquired from Renfe.
  • Merval: 27 X'Trapolis EMUs supplied new by Alstom.
  • Biovías: two Class 440 and five Class 444 EMUs acquired from Renfe to replace existing fleet.