DURING recent years, rail passenger volume in Chile has been increasing sharply and will soon reach an all-time high. Almost all of it is urban or suburban in nature whilst elsewhere, in the land-borne passenger transport market, rail´s share is minimal, at around 0.6%.

All passenger trains in Chile, apart from those run by the Santiago metro, are provided by Chilean State Railways (EFE), which is purely a passenger operator. Just three or four interurban trains now run daily from Santiago, none reaching further south than Chillán, 400km from the capital. Their average speed is less than 80km/h, which more or less equates with that of competing buses, but the latter offer a far higher frequency.

In the Santiago urban area, whilst the metro accounts for around 48% of public transport volume and buses 52%, EFE´s trains handle less than 1%. EFE´s minimal share has two causes: it operates over just one 21km route and the trains running over this route are excluded from the TranSantiago smart card ticketing system. This means people travelling from the city centre to the southern suburbs have to pay an extra fare if they take a bus or the metro to Santiago's Central station and then continue by an EFE train, whereas if they make the whole journey by bus or bus and metro, no extra fare is needed.

chileThe National Public Transport Subsidy Law, passed in 2009 to finance the deficit of the TranSantiago transport system and to compensate operators for providing reduced-rate fares for students, was amended in September to grant an extra $US 720m per year to be channelled into a regional support fund (FAR), half for Greater Santiago and half for the rest of the country. The fund can be used for large scale public transport infrastructure projects and to finance rail services.

In 2011, EFE published a master plan, fixing medium term objectives that had been outside the scope of its successive three-year development plans. The master plan, which will benefit from FAR, includes important suburban projects in Santiago, all involving existing rail corridors:

• Nos Express: Nos is a satellite town 21km from Santiago Central on the main line to the south over which a service modelled on that already offered by Valparaíso Regional Metro (Merval) will be introduced. The current twin tracks are being doubled and level crossings are being replaced by bridges or tunnels to handle four-minute peak frequencies. The station at Pedro Aguirre Cerda will be relocated to provide an interchange with the metro´s new Line 6. Fares will be integrated within the TranSantiago smart card ticketing system. EFE has ordered 24 two-car Xtrápolis trains from Alstom, the first of which was delivered in mid-October, and the service should be inaugurated in mid-2014, with full implementation at the end of the year.

• Rancagua Express trains will dovetail with Nos Express, running non-stop to Nos, and then all stations to Rancagua, a regional capital 81km south of Santiago. A 15-minute interval peak-period frequency will be offered, using Xtrápolis units.

• Melitren will provide a new service between Santiago and Melipilla, a dormitory town 61km to the southwest, on the currently freight-only line to the port of San Antonio. This is a long-standing project which came close to being tendered in the 1990s. Now it will be operated by EFE, using a modus operandi similar to the Nos/Rancagua Expresses, with a peak four-minute frequency and fares integrated within TranSantiago, at least as far as Maipú, 16km from Santiago. The current single track will be tripled on some stretches and doubled on others. New stations will be built and level crossings replaced by bridges or tunnels. Interchange with the metro´s Line 6 is planned at Lo Errázuriz. The project has an estimated cost of $US 590m. Tenders for the supply of 22 trains were invited in October, and the service should start in 2017. A journey time of 45 minutes is envisaged, a saving of one hour compared with the existing bus service. As a result, the new train service is expected to carry 30.4 million passengers a year, which EFE says is equivalent to the total number of passengers it carries today.

• The MetroTren to Batuco is a longer term project. The once-electrified railway from Santiago northwest to Valparaíso has never been used intensively by suburban services, but new housing developments in the Colina/Batuco area have provoked feasibility studies which are currently underway.

The master plan´s suburban projects are not limited to Greater Santiago, the others being:

• Merval runs for 43km from Valparaíso inland to Limache and, when renovated in the mid-2000s, acquired a fleet of 27 Xtrápolis trains to deal with a predicted 23 million passengers per year. Ridership has not met forecasts, due in part to an integrated transport plan not being fully implemented, but traffic has been creeping up to reach 19 million in 2012. Eight extra Xtrápolis trains have been ordered, and an eye is being kept on the feasibility of extending the service to Quillota or La Calera.

• Bíotren is an inverted Y-shaped suburban network operating mainly during peak periods in the Greater Concepción area, converging at the main station in Concepción. The 11km line running southwest to Lomas Coloradas will be extended a further 17km over a freight-only route to the one-time coal-loading port and now dormitory town of Coronel. By 2017, EFE estimates that it could be carrying more than 90 million passengers a year, implying an increase of more than 200% above the 2012 figure.

Clearly, suburban rail services in Chile are prospering which contrasts with where they were a decade ago, and there is considerable potential for further development.

Chilean freight recovery gathers momentum

ALL freight traffic on tracks owned by Chilean State Railways (EFE) is handled by two concessionaires - Fepasa or Transap - with the former accounting for around 75% of the total tonnage, which reached 10.8 million in 2008. The worldwide recession and a severe earthquake in 2010 had shrunk this by 18% two years later, but traffic has since recovered. EFE forecasts a 122% increase in tonnage by 2020, but the outcome will depend on factors largely beyond EFE's control.

EFE owns the Chilean section of the Arica to La Paz Railway (FCALP), over which no commercial trains have run since October 2005. Its infrastructure has been rehabilitated at a cost of $US 45m, although some work continues. It was once intended to tender an operating contract for FCALP, but EFE's current position is to invite open-access operators, none of which have yet appeared. The most likely operator would be Bolivia's Andina Railway (FCA), which connects with FCALP at the border and possesses workshop facilities at its base in Viacha.

Freight traffic in the country as a whole also peaked in 2008, at 27.1 million tonnes, generating 4.29 billion tonne-km, before tailing off slightly. Overall, rail accounts for around 7% of all overland freight movement. Around 55% of rail tonne-km is handled by private railways in the north which depend critically on the mining sector. Although the mining sector confronts high energy costs, ores of declining quality and a scarcity of water, production is expected to increase. In recent years mine output has increasingly been of concentrates, which can be transported by pipeline, rather than metal, which is the preserve of railways and trucks.

An interesting development has been the signing of a long-term contract, up to 2029, between Ferronor and Compañía Mineradel Pacífico, for transporting iron-ore from the Los Colorados mine to the port of Huasco. This has encouraged Ferronor to do something which no railway in Chile had done for almost 40 years: order new locomotives, in this case a variant of the EMD SD70. Ferronor is also considering an important investment in infrastructure by rerouting the Los Colorados - Huasco line around the town of Vallenar rather than running through it, thereby shortening the route length and reducing environmental impact.

Another company acquiring new locomotives is the Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM) which owns the only surviving nitrate carrying railway. SQM's railway includes a difficult stretch from the port of Tocopilla to the "pampa" where the ruling gradient is 4% and the radius of some curves is down to 55m. The line was electrified in the mid-1920s, operating with General Electric locomotives which soldiered on until little short of their 90th birthdays. Chilean engineering company Casagrande Motori is now completing an order for five BB electric locomotives to replace them. They are built on second-hand U10B frames acquired in Brazil, but everything else is new, designed and built by Casagrande.

ferronorTraffic on Antofagasta Railway (FCAB) has stabilised in recent years at between 6 and 6.5 million tonnes, with prospects for an increase in the near-term as mining projects such as Sierra Gorda come on stream. By gross and net income, FCAB is the largest railway company in Chile, and prides itself on its technical excellence and efficiency. FCAB generally acquires second-hand materials and equipment, such as rails from the United States and locomotives from Australia, which are rebuilt in its workshops in Antofagasta and fitted with fault-detecting sensors and on-line systems for optimisation of fuel consumption and line occupancy.

Finally, Antofagasta, the group to which FCAB belongs, is the major shareholder in FCA, the concessionaire of Bolivia's Andean network with which FCAB connects at the border. Whilst the two companies are operationally independent, their interlocking at the managerial and directorate levels facilitates commercial collaboration. This is most evident in a long-term contract signed with the Bolivian mining company Minera San Cristobal for transporting 550,000 tonnes annually of lead and zinc concentrates for shipment through the Chilean port of Mejillones.