ARGENTINA’s railways are woven into the country’s national fabric. Carrying European immigrants into the country’s interior, and exporting agricultural produce the other way, the system helped Argentina to become the seventh-wealthiest developed country in the world by 1908. After a period of rapid expansion, the network peaked at around 47,000km, making it the largest in South America, but political instability, economic crisis and improvements to the road network triggered a decline from which the railways never really recovered.
After decades of underinvestment and decay, Argentinean Railways (FA) was broken up and sold off in the 1990s as the government of president Mr Carlos Menem implemented a sweeping programme of privatisation. Commuter operations in Buenos Aires came under the control of Metropolitan Railways (Femesa) in 1991, which in turn granted operating concessions to private companies for all seven lines between 1994 and 1997. The freight operations of FA were privatised through long-term operate-and-maintain concessions.
However, concessioning failed to stem the decline on much of the network. On the metre-gauge Belgrano Cargas network, which spans much of central and northern Argentina, freight traffic plunged from 3.3 million tonnes in 1998 to 500,000 tonnes in 2006 as infrastructure, which was already in a critical condition when the concession began, continued to deteriorate. With chronic shortages of serviceable locomotives and wagons, and declining reliability, many customers abandoned the railway. The government revoked Belgrano Cargas’ concession in 2008, and after five years under state control, the company was formally nationalised in 2013.
Privatisation also failed to bring improvements to the Buenos Aires suburban network. The poor condition of the system was thrown into sharp focus on February 22 2012, when a Sarmiento Line service operated by Buenos Aires Trains (TBA) ran into the buffers at Buenos Aires Once station, killing 51 and injuring 703.
Following the accident, the government rescinded TBA’s concession to operate the Mitre and Sarmiento lines and by 2015, control of all seven suburban lines had passed to state-owned train operator Sofse (now known as Argentinean Trains Operations). Renationalisation was formalised in May 2015, when president Mrs Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner signed a bill reviving Argentinean Railways (FA) as a state company, bringing infrastructure and operations together under the Argentinean Trains brand.
With the backing of Chinese loans, the Kirchner administration began the modernisation of infrastructure and rolling stock on the Buenos Aires suburban network. In 2013, 709 EMU cars were ordered from CSR Qingdao Sifang to replace life-expired rolling stock on the San Martin, Sarmiento, Mitre and Roca lines. CNR Tianjin supplied 27 three-car DMUs for the modernisation of Belgrano Sur suburban services in 2015, while domestic manufacturer Emepa has built 20 two-car DMUs for the Belgrano Norte.
China has also financed the modernisation of freight lines. In July 2014 Argentina signed a $US 2.1bn loan agreement with the Chinese government to finance the revival of the Belgrano Cargas metre-gauge network. CSR Corporation was subsequently awarded a contract to supply 100 locomotives and 3500 wagons, which are now being delivered as part of the modernisation programme.
Chinese locomotives and coaches have also been procured for long-distance services from Buenos Aires to provincial centres including Cordoba, Rosaria, and Mar del Plata.
Investment looks set to continue under the government of president Mr Mauricio Macri, which was elected in December 2015, and the Ministry of Transport plans to invest $US 16.6bn between 2016 and 2023 including $US 14.2bn for the Buenos Aires suburban network and $US 4.4bn for freight lines.
The Ministry of Transport’s $US 14.2bn Comprehensive Plan of Works for the Metropolitan Rail Network aims to triple urban rail capacity in Buenos Aires through the development of the Regional Express Rail (RER) network. This key strategic project involves the construction of a north-south tunnel beneath the centre of Buenos Aires connecting the Mitre and San Martin lines into Retiro with the Roca and Belgrano Sur lines, which link Buenos Aires and Constitución stations with the southern suburbs.
In the second stage of the project, an underground link will be constructed between Retiro and Once station, which will connect the Mitre and Sarmiento lines. In the longer-term, the government also proposes linking the metre-gauge Belgrano Sur and Belgrano Norte lines and incorporating them into the RER network.
Tendering began recently for contracts to build the underground station at Constitución and construction is due to start in the first half of next year. Five other underground stations are also planned on the core section of the RER network, including interchanges with the Buenos Aires metro network.
The RER project will enable a step-change in frequencies on the suburban rail network, reducing headways from 10-15 minutes to just three minutes at peak times.
Level crossings have long been a major obstacle to higher frequencies on the suburban network and there are still more than 120 level crossings in the Buenos Aires area. The response to this problem involves major civil engineering, particularly on the Sarmiento Line, where a 22.4km tunnel is being built to replace the surface alignment and eliminate 49 level crossings.
This $US 3.8bn project involves constructing two 10.46m-diameter single-bore tunnels running up to 22m below the existing alignment between Caballito and Castelar. The first phase of the project involves constructing a tunnel between Caballito and Haedo, with Phase 2 extending the tunnel to Castelar. Originally scheduled for completion in 2011, the project has suffered numerous delays due to difficulties in obtaining financing, and the first TBM lay dormant in a shaft at Haedo for four years until October, when tunnelling finally resumed. The government now expects the first section of the tunnel to open in 2020.
In addition to the Sarmiento Line tunnel, there are also three projects to replace surface alignments with viaducts in a $US 500m programme which will eliminate numerous level crossings. Tendering for the first of these projects is now underway.
Track renewals are required on around half of the suburban network and $US 570m has been allocated for this purpose in 2016-23.
Safety is another key focus of the plan, which envisages spending $US 816m over the next eight years on resignalling, including $US 250m for the continued rollout of Automatic Train Stop (ATS) technology, which is currently only installed on around 10% of the network. The rollout is due to be completed across all seven lines by 2019.
The plan envisages the elimination of diesel operation by 2023, when the entire network will be electrified. Electrification of the 23.8km Berazategui - La Plata section of the Roca Line is due to be completed in the first quarter of 2017 and electric operation will also begin on the Claypole – Bosques section of the Roca Line next year. The Belgrano Norte (54km), Begrano Sur (64km) and San Martin (73km) lines, together with the remaining diesel-operated sections of the Mitre line, are also earmarked for electrification by 2023.
Alongside investment in infrastructure, the rolling stock fleet will be expanded to operate the intensive timetable planned under the RER programme. According to the Ministry of Transport, “100% of the fleet will be completely new” by 2023. By 2019, the number of new vehicles in operation will reach 1748, increasing to 2798 by 2023, and the fleet will be maintained in “modern workshops with local labour.” Two tenders for new trains are planned, the first of which was due to be issued this month with the second scheduled for mid-2017.
Only 4% of inland freight volumes are transported by rail and transit speeds compare poorly with road, averaging just 12-15 km/h. With a $US 4.4bn investment in the network, the government hopes to more than double rail freight volumes from 18 million tonnes to 40 million tonnes per year.
The revival of the Belgrano Line seeks to provide an efficient corridor for freight traffic from northwest Argentina to the ports of Santa Fe and Rosario. The project is divided into three phases. Stage 1 is worth $US 345m and covers the rehabilitation of three sections of the line totalling 535km in Santa Fe, Chaco, and Santiago del Estero provinces.
Tendering began in September for the $US 380m Stage 2, which involves track renewals on two sections of the route. In the south, 84km of track will be renewed on the Coronda - Laguna Paiva - Naré section in Santa Fe province. The $US 65m project will be financed by the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF). At the northern end of the line, 277km of track will be renewed on the Talavera - Pichanal section in Salta province at a cost of around $US 210m, while $US 105m will be invested in the renewal of 139km of track between Embarcación in Salta and El Chalicán in neighbouring Jujuy. Both of these projects are being financed by China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation (CMEC). Work is due to begin on Stage 2 in February.
Tendering is due to start in April 2017 for Stage 3, which covers a total of 558km in Tucumán, Salta, and Jujuy provinces and has an estimated value of $US 421m. This phase encompasses renewals on the 359km Joaquin V Gonzales - Metán - Tucumán line and the 197km Metán - El Chalicán line. Contracts are due to be awarded in the third quarter of next year and work will begin in early 2018.
Argentinean Trains Infrastructure has begun tendering for the first stage of the renewal of the 486km Mitre Line from Rosario to Córdoba. Tendering for the three remaining stages of the project is due to start in March 2017, with work scheduled for completion in 2019.
Modernisation of the San Martin Line from Pilar near Buenos Aires to Mendoza, together with the 240km line from Rufino to Soldini on the Mitre Line, has an estimated pricetag of $US 1.6bn and is expected to take three to four years to complete. Argentinean Trains Infrastructure says it expects to finalise the executive project in the fourth quarter of this year and implementation will be divided into three phases. Stage 1 covers the eastern section from Cabred to Safocarda, and track-doubling is planned on this 391km stretch.
Upgrading of the Roca Line from Buenos Aires to Bahia Blanca, Cipolletti, Añelo Rincón de los Sauces is considered vital to the exploitation of the shale oil and gas reserves of the Vaca Muerta deposit in the Neuquén Basin, which has proven oil reserves of around 927 million barrels. The four-year project is forecast to cost around $US 1.2bn.
Argentinean Trains Infrastructure is currently looking at funding options for a four-year project to upgrade around 800km of track on the standard-gauge Urquiza Line, which connects the northeastern Mesopotámica region with Buenos Aires port. This line includes an international link to Encarnación in Paraguay, and serves provinces bordering Brazil and Uruguay. The project is expected to cost around $US 1bn and will not be completed until after 2023.
In the longer-term, the government is aiming to achieve a “complete recovery” of the freight network by 2035 with the renewal of 20,000km of track.
Despite the recent renationalisation of Argentina’s railways, the new government is taking a much looser approach to private sector investment than its predecessor. Speaking at a seminar at the InnoTrans exhibition in Berlin in September, Argentinean Trains Infrastructure president Mr Guillermo Fiad explained that public-private partnerships (PPPs) could play a key role in reviving the network.
“All projects could be implemented sooner with private investment,” Fiad says. “There will be opportunities for companies to bid to finance, upgrade and maintain lines under a PPP structure and PPP will be paramount to making all initiatives happen. The president and the transport minister are very committed to making these projects happen, and happen soon. The country needs them.”
With such a huge uplift in the scale of rail investment after a long period of relative inactivity, Argentina is not well equipped to take on a programme of such magnitude, and Fiad stresses the support of international partners will be crucial to realising the government’s plans for the network. “None of these initiatives will be possible without help,” he says. “Years of poor investment means we need skills and capacity from outside Argentina and we are determined to remove barriers for international companies. However, we also want to create jobs in Argentina, and that means we have to come to a combined solution with local benefits. We need to support our own professionals in the rail sector, but we want competition and we want an open and transparent procurement environment.”
With such a bold programme and a limited timescale for implementation, securing international finance and expertise from abroad will be key to achieving all of the government’s objectives. However, with international lenders seemingly willing to back rail investment and a commitment to transparent procurement, Argentina’s long-suffering railways could be on the brink of rebirth.