Interview: Pablo Martorelli, President of the Argentine Institute of Railways
Simon Edwards interviews the President of IAF and the director of REDES magazine about current transport projects in Argentina, the countries halted attempts to introduce high-speed rail and some of the opportunities international companies have in the country.
What is the state of public transportation in Argentina at present and what future projects are being developed?
By public transport we prefer only to land passenger transport, and in Argentina almost all public transport is centered around the buses; there are a great number which operate nationally in all of the small, large and medium sized cities. Urban transport is also primarily provided by buses. The only city that operates an urban rail network is Buenas Aires, which has a subterranean metropolitan railway (El Subte; a service operated by the Metrovías concessionaire) as well as metropolitan rail network which operates throughout the city and into the surrounding areas. This network is mostly electrified but also has diesel-electric stretches.
This comprehensive system is currently under a process of modernization lead by the Argentine state, following years of under-investment by private concessionaires who left a deficit in the quality of services, safety and operation. In recent years the Argentine state has regained control of the operation of metropolitan passenger services and investments. The state is also investing in rail infrastructure in the North of the country. The main objective is to increase the proportion of rail passenger transport, to achieve increased ridership, reduced costs, greater profitability, a reduction in road accidents and a reduced environmental impact.
How does the IAF support the development of rail transport in Argentina and what plans do you have for the future?
The Instituto Argentino de Ferrocarriles (Argentine Institute of Railways) was not formed as part of the government, and is a fully independent professional organization. From this position the IAF supports and works with the government to conduct studies and form proposals to support the recovery of lines and enhance Argentina’s railways. This is currently possible because the current national government of Argentina supports railway development and is committed to repairing the network. Previously, with the governments between 1989 and 2002 it was not possible to collaborate as the policies were in conflict with the interests of rail transportation, and as such, the organization worked predominantly on regional and provincial projects.
One such proposal which was well-received was the 2003, ‘Plan Encarrilando Argentina’ (Argentinian Alignment Plan), which proposed a number of interesting points to be achieved. For example, the creation of companies dedicated to infrastructure and operations in 2008, which are now leading the system of rehabilitation.
We have also created the first inter-regional consortia of railwaiays, which are working towards the repair and rehabilitation of services and routes in different parts of the countries. These are Ferrocarril Deseado’ (www.ferrocarrildeseado.org.ar) in Patagonia, which has overseen 95% of the rehabilitation necesary in the region. The other is the Ferrocarril Unión Pacífico (Union Pacific Railway) (www.unionpacifico.com.ar) which is a system that spans more than 1.400 km, with the first repairs made in 2011 on a regional passenger service of 255 km, followed by the further rehabilitation of 150km as part of an investment project which will take place over the next year and a half.
IAF is also involved in the training of railroad professionals alongside the Universidad Tecnológica Nacional; providing courses, conferences and lectures. Our magazine is published bimonthly, REDES DE INTEGRACIÓN (RDI), and is distributed to the full professional, governmental, private and academic sectors involved in railways, transport, logistics in Argentina, as well as the rest of the Americas, Europe and the rest of the world. The IAF magazine RDI also participates in national and international conferences, including those in Brazil hosted by Global Transport Forum, Innotrans in Germany and Eurasia Rail in Turkey. Moving forward IAF plans to increase its work in these areas and expand into further projects.
Recently, I have read about the renovation of railway lines in Argentina, and I know this is something you have been a passionate supporter of. Why do you believe this to be so important and do you believe that this process will continue?
The renovation of the railway system in Argentina is fundamental, both through modernization and repair. Over the past 25 years the railways of Argentina, both cargo and passenger, have suffered a major decline, with irreparable loss in human capital (Argentina was the foremost training center for Latin America’s railways up until the 1980’s) and a 60% decline in the national rail network. The technology and operational capability of priority routes are currently being renovated and modernized, while also working closely with national universities to produce a new generation of technicians and railway engineers. This is the most important guarantee that the Argentina Railway system (including factories and railway repair centers, both private and state) can continue the process of complete renovation by 2050. This processes has begun, for example, with the arrival of the first new trains in 2015.
How do the changing priorities of governments affect long term projects and what is the position of the current administration?
The current Argentine government had the wisdom to make changes to the transport priorities of the country. Previously, the most important area was road transport, with air and rail taking somewhat of a back seat. These modes of transport are very important in a country as large as Argentina, which has many large distances to travel. For this reason, in recent years the government has fully repaired and modernized the countries state owned internal and international airline operator (Aerolíneas Argentina) so that it once again operates with efficiency and quality, restoring many of its international routes and expanding coverage within the country. There was also a very positive change in the railways, as I outlined previously. The Argentine rail industry once again has begun to plan, design and manufacture its own rolling stock, as it had done previously.
The Argentine government ultimately chose to scrap plans for a high-speed rail network. With governments in the UK and Brazil moving forward with what some consdier controversial plans, what are yours thoughts on this decision and why has high-speed rail not been introduced in Argentina?
The high-speed rail project did not originate with Argentine government officials. The government proposal was to repair the network to allow speeds in the range of 160km/h (which is now what will be realized on major routes, with the completion of current plans).
The high-speed rail project was initiated by the private company Alstom, with complete financing for the project coming from private European investment banks. While the project was being assessed by the Argentine government, one of the investors went bankrupt and then came the European economic crisis which continues to this day. As a result of this, the bidders were unable to acquire the necessary funding for the project. The government had the option to call for other bids for the project and to provide their own funding. However, the private consultants involved in the project made many errors with the plans, with the proposed routes failing to effectively service the major cities (the proposals were absurd, without any real consideration of practicalities).
In response, the government had the good sense to cancel the process, as the routes proposed would not attract sufficient traffic to justify the introduction of high-speed rail. In the case of Brazil, I know that Spain, France and Italy have made proposals, but that the president of Brazil has decided to postpone the project given its high cost.
In Argentina, a high-speed rail project could be possible if there was a high-concentration of traffic on intercity routes which was sufficient to justify the additional investment and if there was a determinable advantage. The IAF is currently preparing a report to be presented to the government shortly, with an outline of a coherent and reasonable medium term plan.
¿What is the current state of the Bi-Oceanic rail network and what impact would this have on the countries of the southern cone of the continent?
International cargo and passenger traffic between Argentina and Chile, from Mendoza to Santiago, Valparaiso and other Chilean ports is very important. International cargo traffic between Brazil and Chile, crossing the Argentine territory is also of vital economic importance. Other countries like Paraguay and Uruguay also have traffic crossing Argentina to Chile, but these are comparatively smaller in scale. At present these transaction are made entirely by trucks traveling up to 5,000 miles by road from three countries, crossing the Andes via a pass located at 4,500 meters above sea level. The traffic level is very high and this is the most important transport corridor in South America.
It is clear that this demand would be well served by a railway solution, given the magnitude, density and distances involved. However, it will be difficult for a single railroad to meet all of these demands. Brazil has a meter-gauge route that connects with Argentina with a stretch of international gauge of 1,435mm, which after crossing the great Paraná River (Zarate) becomes a broad gauge of 1,676 mm. To cross from Chile and into Mendoza you have a meter gauge track then once you enter the town of Los Andes you once again return to a 1,676mm broad gauge. This means that heavy cargo will require 4 changes to complete the journey. This is a problem compounded by the closure of the high mountain pass in winter, with heavy snow reading more than 4 or 5 feet high. The governments of Argentina and Chile have to invest in extensive mountain rescue services on these routes as trains run into problems. This is something not easily resolved with the existing available infrastructure. Apart from this, Uruguay and Paraguay operate a 1,435mm gauge and in the case of the latter rail operations are almost nonexistent today.
It is therefore difficult for this project to be realized. There have been more than 5 years of delays and the completion would take more than 20 years of work under mountains, which are not very stable and susceptible to earthquakes, some of which are significant.
An alternative to this project would be the Union Pacific Railroad, a solution that would require the reinstatement of a route that crosses a mountain pass along a corridor called Las Leñas, which runs south of Aconcagua and is at less altitude. The topology is simpler and would only need a tunnel of 13km. It’s main advantage is that it connects rail of the same gauge (1.676mm) on an area of heavy traffic and would connect directly to the Port of San Antonio, which is currently the most important in the country. This project would also allow access to other Chilean ports and connect the 7 Argentine ports of the Atlantic Coast, creating a truly bi-oceanic railway and without having to change track, so that trains can pass without disruption.
The project would also allow for the use of double stack containers and automatic couplers. IAF carried out the preliminary study into layout and possible connections. Furthermore, in addition to cargo vehicles the route was also allow for a high-quality passenger service, directly connecting Buenos Aires and Santiago. We believe this project could truly have a positive impact on the Southern Cone of the continent and resolve many problems, including increasing safety in the winter and saving many lives.
There are also provisions for rail connections to Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay but these routes and their connections will depend on these countries.
What opportunities exist for international companies in Argentina and what advice do you have for them?
In Argentina there are currently commercial offices and industrial plans for various important international railway companies including Siemens, Alstom, CAF etc. Some representatives of Pandrol, Knorr Bremse, Talgo and other companies are also doing business in Argentina. All have good opportunities to present solutions and proposals. Currently the Argentine government has an agreement with the Chinese railway industry to provide new trains and operating systems. This was possible because of a trade agreement made between the two countries, the financial support by China with the guarantee made by the Asian country to important Argentine exports. Two Chinese companies (CSR and CNR) plan to set up factories in Argentina to export to the rest of America. One of these firms has already chosen where these factories will be located. Chinese rolling stock, especially locomotives, feature international equipment, including the German MTU engine systems, North American Caterpillar, German Knorr Bremse brakes, French pneumatic equipment by Faiveley etc.
This means these countries can provide parts and equipment for modernization in the near future. Currently the renovation of fixings on the metropolitan track in Buenos Aires (500km) are being updated with English Pandrol clips. Elsewhere in the country fastenings are being deployed by Vossloh. All of this is currently being undertaken and it is likely that many international companies will begin operations in the near future. The above only refers to foreign companies in Argentina and there are likely to be many more companies shortly.
It is also important to note that there are many Argentine companies who have been working in the railway industry for many decades and they have substantial experience in the construction of parts, replacements, assembly and complete rolling stock. Currently there are some very important workshops that have been important technology to modernize their processes. Because of this there is good reason to believe that railway industries from around the world will be drawn to Argentina, as there is no doubt that these modernizations will continue for the next 20 years
For them, the IAF offers these companies all of the necessary information to penetrate the Argentine market.