ONE OF THE MOST RELEVANT INTERNATIONAL TRANSPORT WORKS, BOTH FOR BOLIVIA AND NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES LIKE BRAZIL AND PERU, IS THE CENTRAL BI-OCEANIC RAILWAY CORRIDOR (CFBC). THIS INITIATIVE AIMS TO JOIN THE PACIFIC OCEAN WITH THE ATLANTIC THROUGH A RAILWAY LINE RUNNING 3,755 KILOMETRES.
This project has also been dubbed “The Panama Canal of the 21st Century”, and is already considered as the largest infrastructure project in Latin America. The journey will start in Puerto Santo (Brazil) entering Bolivia through Puerto Suárez, passing through the eastern municipalities of Santa Cruz: Montero and Bulo Bulo, until reaching the high plateau of La Paz, to conclude at the Port of Ilo, in Peru. On its way it will cross the Andes mountain range and the Bolivian Amazon Rain Forest. The estimated cost of the works is 13.7 billion dollars. This project aims to increase transport capacity to 10 million tons per year at around 100 kilometres per hour. With regard to passenger traffic, the estimated speed for the transport of up to six million users is 160 km/h, more than double the current one.
The significance of this new connection lies in the major boost it will give to trading exchanges between the surrounding countries, as well as in the increase that exports and imports will experience to other markets, by reducing costs and transport times. Likewise, it will be an axis of territorial integration that will foster economic and social cohesion, thus driving the evolution of the population, sustainable development and improving competitiveness. The corridor will become a bridge between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans designed to consolidate regional connectivity conditions and take advantage of cross-border synergies.
Another of its great advantages for international trade is its increased outreach to the Asian market. In this sense, it is considered that the network would contribute to reduce to 25 days the journey between Brazil and Asia. In this way, the connection times would be considerably reduced.
In order for the entire 3,755-kilometre route to become operational, modernisation and expansion work must be carried out in the countries through which it will pass. On the one hand, in Brazil, 1,900 kilometres of track will be rehabilitated. On the other hand, the construction of another 340 kilometres is scheduled in Peru, between La Paz and the port of Ilo, the adaptation of the Brazilian infrastructure in the borders and the branch of Paraguay, which in turn would connect with Uruguay and Argentina. The bulk of the works will take place in Bolivia, through which 1,894 kilometres of the network will run.
In this territory, around 1,500 kilometres of track must be modernised or added. Precisely, it is in this country where the largest investment is planned (between 7 and 10 billion dollars / 8.163 and 11.661 billion euros) since it is necessary to connect its two rail networks (the Andean and the Eastern). Furthermore, 500 kilometres of network have to be built to connect Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Oruro / Cochabamba. In turn, the railway infrastructure must be updated to improve operations, since tons per axle and a speed of 70 kilometres per hour for passengers and 40 for freight.
The construction of this transcontinental corridor is driven by Bolivia, along with Peru, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. In addition, as indicated by the Bolivian Ministry of Public Works, Services and Housing, the project “is advancing at a steady pace” and has the international backing of countries such as Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, with which there is already signed Memorandum of Understanding for technological and financial cooperation.
The weight of this project has gained relevance in recent years. The reports began in 2013, with clear aims in line with the “National Development Plan of Bolivia”. Amongst these, the bolstering of Latin American integration and the expansion of opportunities to access the advantages of a complementary neighbourhood.
In this context, the Ministry of Public Works, Services and Housing through the Deputy Ministry of Transportation, announced the construction of a first phase that included the “Railway Studies of the Pre-Investment Programme in Strategic Transportation Projects”, through the Loan Agreement Number 2498 / BL-BO with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for 6.8 million dollars (7,929,870 euros). The aim was to ascertain the technical, economic, social and environmental viability of the corridor. All of the foregoing was reflected in four reports: 1. Study into Commercial Prospects, Market and Logistical Alternatives; 2. Strategic Study and Resulting Corridor. 3. Strategic Environmental Assessment Study. 4. Complementary Study of Layout and Definitive Alignment Alternatives, Preliminary Basic Design of the CFBC, Construction and Operation Costs.
Amongst their findings, it is worthwhile highlighting that it is indicated that by the year 2021, 6.16 million passengers / year could be transported, with a service programme composed of 11 daily departures in each travelling direction. This figure would increase to 13.35 million passengers in 2055, which means an average annual growth rate of 2.3%. The main departure-arrival relationships are focused between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba and Santa Cruz Puerto Quijarro. With regard to freight rail, the volume that will be reached by 2021 is estimated at 9.9 million tons. An amount that will be exceeded until reaching a maximum of 24.2 million tons by 2055, in line with forecasts. In this case, as indicated by the Ministry of Public Works, Services and Housing, the most important origin / destination relationships within the corridor are those between the Port of Ilo and La Paz and between Santa Cruz and Puerto Quijarro. In terms of signalling, a global configuration is intended for the entire corridor, which envisages two locations for the Central Control Post (CCP) and Centralised Traffic Control (CTC). The first one in Cochabamba and the other in Santa Cruz.
The line has been designed using conventional signalling and a CTC for the centralised remote control of the security installations. An ATP system (Automatic Train Protection) ASFA model (Signal Announcement and Automatic Braking) will also be installed. The communications system would be formed by a longitudinal fibre optic line and fixed and mobile networks. With regard to the rolling stock, at the end of 2017, the Andina-FCA Railway Company awarded Stadler Valencia the tender for the supply of three state-of-the-art SALi locomotives. Due to their design and performance levels, they will become the benchmark in this corridor. In the last two years there have been a series of agreements that have given a major boost to the project. In September 2017, the “First Plenary Meeting of the Bi-Oceanic Operating Group (GOB)” was held. In this event, in San Benito (Cochabamba), there were delegations from all the countries that are involved in the development of the future corridor. Germany, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Paraguay, Peru, Switzerland and Uruguay were interested in knowing the results of the technical roundtables set up to delimit the characteristics of the works.
In June 2018, the ministers of the transport area of the five participating countries (Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) met in Lima to evaluate the technical and financial studies already completed, with a view to commencing works in 2019. According to the Bolivian minister of Public Works, Milton Claros, the act served to advance in the selection of the most suitable financial options for the project with an estimated cost between 7 and 10 billion dollars, confirming that a Swiss-German consortium proposal is on the table, along with expressions of interest from the United Kingdom and Spain, among others.
At the end of August 2018, the President of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” in Santa Cruz, which opened the door to the participation of Spanish companies in the construction of this mega-project.
The most recent step took place in September of this year, in Innotrans, where Bolivia has submitted to the international sector the project with the highest potential in Latin America. The challenge for the countries involved now is to start work in 2019.