STATE-owned Chilean State Railways (EFE) is responsible for some 2100 route-km, and its main activities comprise supervising infrastructure maintenance contractors and running suburban services through wholly-owned subsidiary companies.


Two privately-owned concessionaires also operate railfreight services on EFE's tracks: Ferrocarril del Pacìfico (FdP) and Transportes Andrés Pirazzoli (Transap). EFE itself operates no freight services, although it has plans to do so, possibly in 2016, using infrastructure owned by its Arica to La Paz Railway (FCALPSA) subsidiary. The line is separated from EFE's southern core network by almost 2000km and it has carried only internal service trains in the past 10 years.

EFEEFE´s current passenger operations are limited to less than 1% of all public transport in Chile due to suspension of some services due to infrastructure works. This includes the MetroTren suburban service over the 81.8km stretch between Santiago and Rancagua, and the twice-daily 397.6km Santiago - Chillán service. Operations continue on the 43.2km Valparaíso Regional Metro (Merval) service between Valparaíso and Limache, BioTren surburban services in the Concepción area, and three low-frequency rural services, from Concepción to Laja, Victoria to Temuco and Talca to Constitución.

EFE draws up three-year development plans, which must be approved by the Finance Ministry if they involve state-funded disbursements, which they invariably do. Projects must meet the Social Development Ministry's criteria for project evaluation, which, in principle, are quite conservative, not admitting, for instance, benefits from greater willingness to pay for improvements in service quality unrelated to journey time savings.

On the other hand, the financial resources available for transport projects in regions away from Santiago have mushroomed since Congress insisted that, as a quid pro quo for approving a funding law for TranSantiago, the capital's deficit-ridden public transport system, equivalent financing must be made available for transport projects elsewhere in the country. However, this has created a situation in which investment funds are looking for projects rather than the other way around.

The main projects which EFE is currently developing are:

  • Nos/Rancagua Express: This amounts to a thorough modernisation of the current MetroTren suburban service which operates on the main line between Santiago's Alameda (Central) station and the city of Rancagua, some 81.5km to the south. The project is behind schedule but should be completed in the first quarter of 2016. It will offer a four-minute peak frequency service as far as Nos, 20km from Alameda, and a 15-minute service onwards to Rancagua using Alstom Xtrápolis trains. Work has required the suspension of both MetroTren operations and the sparse interurban service to Chillán. The project is estimated to cost $US 545m and services should have an annual ridership of 23 million passengers due in part to the inclusion of Nos Express in the TranSantiago integrated fare structure, thereby permitting passengers to continue their journeys by metro or bus without having to pay an extra fare or, at least, paying only a minimal surcharge.
  • Valparaíso Regional Metro (Merval): The current Merval suburban service, inaugurated in 2005, operates on a 43km corridor between Valparaíso and Limache. With ridership of 22 million annual passengers, Merval is finally reaching the initially forecast levels, and should increase further due to an integrated fare structure for all electrically-powered public transport in the Valparaíso area. To meet this demand, Alstom is delivering an additional eight Xtrápolis trains, with a further five under consideration. The investment cost is $US 75m.
  • Concepción area BioTren: This involves the electrification of the 17km stretch of line from the current suburban railhead at Lomas Coloradas to Coronel, a former coal mining town and now a satellite of Concepción. The project, which is budgeted at $US 88m, was reported as 60% complete in August and is due to be completed early next year with forecast ridership of 3.5 million annual passengers. The suburban trains will access the city of Concepción via a single-track, 124-year-old bridge over the Biobio River, which is the longest in Chile. The bridge is also used by freight trains transporting cellulose and other products, and with the traffic set to increase, construction of an additional bridge is under consideration.

Master plan

In addition to its three-year plans, EFE also has a longer term Master Plan, which consists of 18 projects valued at $US 7.6bn, which are in different stages of evaluation and design.

One of the most advanced is what is popularly known as the Melitren, a suburban service over an existing right-of-way which is planned to link Santiago´s Alameda station with the dormitory town of Melipilla, 61km southwest of the capital. This was unsuccessfully tendered in the 1990s, and fell foul of a disagreement between EFE and the Santiago Metro company.

For cost reasons the former wanted to locate the city terminus at Alameda. However, the latter argued that a new intermodal terminal at Quinta Normal was necessary to avoid overburdening the EFE-Metro interchange facilities at Alameda and to encourage EFE´s passengers onto metro Line 5 rather than Line 1, which has no spare peak capacity. The result was the partial building of the intermodal terminal but without a new tunnel to connect it to the line to Melipilla.

The new Melitren service, which is estimated to cost $US 1.07bn to realise, will not be tendered but instead operated by EFE. The potential overload problem at Alameda has not gone away, and to some extent has become more critical. Although some of the Melitren's 31 million annual passengers and the Nos/Rancagua Expresses' 23 million would switch to metro Line 6 at stations short of Alameda, most would prefer to change to Line 1, which serves both the city centre and more recently-developed business districts further east. As a result, the Transport Ministry is currently trying to find a suitable solution through a dedicated working group.

Once completed, these projects will increase EFE´s annual ridership from an average of 30 million in recent years to nearly 100 million. The implementation of other projects included in the Master Plan, such as a 27km suburban service from Quinta Normal to the north-easterly town of Batuco, and a 24km extension of the Merval service to La Calera, would push the total beyond 100 million.


One of the features of EFE´s network is that the distance by rail from the capital to Valparaíso/Viña del Mar and Talcahuano/Concepción - the second and the third most important urban agglomerations in the country - are, respectively, some 60% and 13% greater than the corresponding distance by road. Speeds are restricted, with the railway climbing at 2.5% through sharp curves on the Valparaíso/Viña del Mar line and winding around the northern banks of the Biobio River to reach Talcahuano/ Concepción. Both lines are also mainly single track, meaning that the railway is at a competitive disadvantage for daytime passenger traffic.

A new railway to Valparaìso has been proposed almost from the moment the existing one was opened 152 years ago and the EFE Master Plan includes a prefeasibility study of a direct tunnelled route via the scenic La Dormida pass through the coastal mountain range. The line would link stations at Til-Til and Limache on the existing route and is estimated to cost $US 1.2bn.

One difficulty of implementing the project is to combine high-speed intercity trains and greatly increased freight movements with the frequent Merval suburban service between Limache and Valparaíso. A study of a possible link to Santiago's international airport from the existing line is also underway.

The new line to Concepcíon would diverge from the main line to the south at Rucapequén, a few kilometers beyond Chillán, and would essentially follow a secondary line which was in use until around 20 years ago but never for inter-city services.

Railfreight traffic in Chile is close to a historical high, mainly due to the transport of minerals by privately-owned railways in the north, and so too is passenger traffic. However, rail's modal share remains low in both cases, and this is what EFE is aiming to address.

For financial, economic, and technical reasons the entire package of 18 projects has no chance of complete implementation by the plan's 2022 target deadline, but some of them will get off the ground, which will provide a real boost for rail in the country, and take ridership to new heights.