About a hundred railway specialists and transport politicians came together a few months ago in the prestigious Abasto Hotel, situated in the lively centre of Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, for a meeting that has had a few years’ tradition in Latin America: Rail LatAm. Presentations, discussions, expert talks – for two days, no less was at stake than the future of the railway in Latin America. As regards land transport, the continent has exclusively focused on cars for decades – on private cars, buses and coaches, as well as trucks.
There is, at best, a rudimentary continuous railway infrastructure, often dilapidated after the networks were privatized a few decades ago. Interoperability is virtually absent, with the systems often changing from country to country or even from region to region. According to the International Union of Railways (UIC), there are as many as seven different rail gauges and hardly any electrified or double-tracked lines. 18 countries are reported to have railway operations, but only in 10 countries are they of some notable scope, in the experts’ view.
While passenger mainline and freight transport only provide more extensive services on a small number of routes, the tram and metro networks as well as regional and suburban transport are growing in the large cities of the continent. In “medium-sized” cities with two million inhabitants, for example in Brazil, it is said that the only way to finally eliminate congestion and chaos in urban traffic is using rail passenger and transport systems. Roughly ten major cities, including São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Santos and Belo Horizonte, have begun to develop efficient light rail, metro and commuter systems.
At their disposal is the latest railway technology. A prize-winning example is the BOMBARDIER INNOVIA Monorail 300, which Bombardier currently implements in São Paulo (see box). Another top technology, developed in Europe and used in conjunction with BOMBARDIER INTERFLO 150, is also being introduced in South America: the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) for operation control technology, which is being implemented in several projects, such as the SuperVia commuter service in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, a railway network of more than 200 kilometres is being completely renewed and modernized; new signalling will allow the trains to run every three minutes.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is a good example. It is like a long hose: the endless houses and streets spread in the north–south direction over 45 kilometres, in the east–west direction it is a maximum of five kilometres. On the roads, incessant traffic jams in the main traffic directions are virtually programmed. “This is a constellation that is almost ideal for mass transit on rails,” says Martin Zimmek, Head of Sales, Latin America at Bombardier Transportation.
Lima is one of the megacities that are already one step ahead on the way to efficient rail mass transit. “The capital of Peru provides good examples of how the chaos of urban traffic and the associated air pollution can be reduced by consistently building and extending a metro network,” explains Pietz. “Since 2011, work has been carried out on four lines of the Tren Urbano under government management, but financed by Public Private Partnerships (PPP).” For the inhabitants of Lima, the metro is a blessing as it allows them to escape the daily disaster of traffic jams. Many of them who live outside the city centre but work in the city have to leave home as early as at 4.30 am to get to their workplace before the morning traffic peak. And it is late evening by the time they are back home. According to Martin Zimmek, Line 1 of the Lima metro – equipped with Bombardier signalling – is already making a major contribution to overcoming the city’s mobility challenges, because the average journey times have been cut to 30–45 minutes compared to around 90 minutes by car. “What is also remarkable is that the residents of Lima have developed such a great sense of ownership for their metro system and appreciate it accordingly,” says Martin Zimmek.
Urban rail transport is also an important topic in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires. “There is already a good network for regional rail transport and the metro, but the two must be interlinked more closely,” says Pietz. It is planned to build a 16-kilometre north–south tunnel to connect the different lines around the city. The Argentinean Ministry of Transport and Railways has started the project “Red de Expresos Regionales” (RER), and has mentioned possible large contracts for 1,400 to 1,500 cars for more than 170 trains.
Many of the major urban agglomerations also think beyond their centres and can imagine fast or high-speed routes. In Brazil, for example, there have long been discussions about a new line between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but the South America expert at Deutsche Bahn is sceptical: “The distance of around 500 kilometres is ideal for a high-speed line. However, this project faces considerable topographical problems, starting with the fact that Rio is located at sea level while São Paulo is at an altitude of 800 metres. This is pushing the financing requirement up.”
Another potential project is even more colossal: a continuous freight train from the Atlantic to the Pacific, covering nearly 4,000 kilometres and crossing the Andes. This ‘project of the century’ would be equivalent to a Panama Canal on rails and is seen by many countries in South America as a highly promising opportunity to boost trading activities; at the same time, it enjoys the support of international partners. The future of the railway has many perspectives in Latin America.