Wednesday, March 01, 2017

South American railway reopens with goal of attracting tourists and freight

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In Arica, in the far north of Chile, two international railways converge, one from Tacna, in Peru, and the other from Bolivia. After years of inactivity, both are springing back to life, with an eye on the tourism market, reports Ian Thomson Newman.

RAIL passenger services over the standard-gauge Tacna - Arica line, run by the Tacna Regional Government, restarted in June 2016, after more than four years in abeyance. Now Mr José Luis Hinojosa, manager of the Chilean section of the metre-gauge Arica La Paz Railway (FCALP), which has been out of operation for 11 years, planned to reopen the line last month. FCALP is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chilean State Railways (EFE).

The 206km-long FCALP is difficult to operate, due mainly to the 43km erstwhile rack-and-pinion section between Central and Puquios, where the ruling gradient is 6%, over which even uprated GE U13C locomotives were restricted to 160 gross tonnes. The railway has never carried more than 330,000 net tonnes in a year.

ChilewagonA 1904 Treaty between Chile and Bolivia required Chile to finance the construction of a 440km line from the port of Arica to El Alto de La Paz, hand the Bolivian section over to that country´s government after 15 years, and operate and maintain the Chilean section. To keep the railway operational, Chile has invested more than $US 75m since 2010 rehabilitating FCALP.

The primary potential traffic is minerals for export from Bolivia through the port of Arica with containers and industrial goods in the reverse direction. Operation will have to be coordinated with Bolivia’s Andean Railway (FCA) which connects with FCALP at the border crossing between Visviri and Charaña.

Two of FCALP´s U13C locomotives have been modernised at the Casagrande workshop in Santiago to assist with infrastructure rehabilitation and potentially haul commercial freight trains, while 20 container flat wagons have been rebuilt, with another 10 on the way.

Options

The modus operandi for the new FCALP has not yet been decided. One option is for FCALP to run trains to and from Visviri to connect with FCA. Another is for FCA trains to run down to Arica, as an open-access operator. Hinojosa says FCALP could handle up to 900,000 tonnes of freight a year in the medium term, given an expanded locomotive fleet.

The port of Arica is operated by the concessionaire Terminal Puerto Arica (TPA) which 10 years ago claimed that the cessation of FCALP operations was costing it at least 100,000 tonnes a year of lost throughput to or from Bolivia. But since then, Bolivian road freight through the port has soared from 1 million to 2.5 million tonnes annually and TPA´s enthusiasm for a relaunch of FCALP has waned, due to restricted availability of land in the port area.

Another challenge for FCALP´s attempt to attract traffic back is the $US 244m that the Chilean government is investing between 2016 and 2024 in upgrading the toll-free highway along the border with Bolivia. The roadworks are currently disrupting lorry traffic, which is of potential benefit to the railway, but in the medium term these two external factors will limit the ability of FCALP to attract freight.

In the meantime, the management is trying to reintroduce the railway into the tourism market, in which FCALP has dabbled in previous decades. Two mid-1950-vintage Schindler railcars are being rebuilt as unpowered coaches to be hauled between Arica and the picturesque village of Poconchile, 37km along the line in the Lluta valley. The services were due to start by mid-February - this being the peak month for vacations in Chile - provided EFE has certified the rolling stock in time.

Eventually it is planned to fit one of the railcars with a Cummins engine to dispense with the need for a locomotive and reduce operating costs.

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