The railway gathers momentum in Colombia


Colombia, with a surface area of 1,147,748 km², is the fourth largest territory in South America and the third most populated area with 48 million inhabitants. It has land borders with Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, a strategic position that has turned the country into a key core for commercial transactions by land and sea that has more than 4,500 maritime export routes and access to 680 ports spread all over the globe.

The growth recorded in recent years, a period in which the economy increased by an average of 5.3% per year, places it also in position 32 in the ranking of the world’s largest economies and fourth in Latin America. In this context of improvement and aware of the importance of having competitive and strategic infrastructures, the administration is working on the global boost to transport networks; an aim in which there are also plans to recover the railway after years in which numerous lines have remained disused.

The railway sector

The railway network of Colombia has more than 3,300 kilometres of track laid. Of these, 150 are of standard width (1,435 mm) of the branch that connects the coal mining area of Cerrejón (Department of La Guajira) with the seaport of Puerto Bolívar, in Portete Bay. The other 3,154 kilometres are narrow gauge (914 mm), and 2,611 kilometres of them have fallen into disuse. The lines in operation are mostly intended for freight transport, while the passenger services are tourist routes, for example, the Tren de la Sabana between Bogotá and Zipaquirá.

Due to the geographical conditions of the country, the natural corridors go in the South-North direction and two of them correspond to the great valleys of Cauca and Magdalena. In turn, the eastern route passes through Bogotá.

In this system there are two corridors with significant potential. The first of them, the Atlantic Railway Network, which covers an area of 1,493 kilometres and passes through the departments of Cesar, Magdalena, Santander, Boyacá, Antioquia, Cundinamarca and Caldas. Its route travels from the city of Bogotá (Cundinamarca) to Santa Marta (Magdalena), with two branches: Bogotá – Belencito and Bogotá – Lenguazaque. The infrastructure contains the following streches: Chiriguaná- Ciénaga; Ciénaga – Santa Marta, Bogotá – Belencito, La Caro – Lenguazaque, Bogotá – Dorada, Dorada – Barrancabermeja, Barrancabermeja – Chiriguaná and Puerto Berrío – Medellín (Bello) Chiriguaná – Ciénaga, Ciénaga – Santa Marta. This network is one of the most important in terms of freight transport. In 2017, 89.4 million tons of coal were transported in the country, of which 60% were mobilised by Fenoco, the operator of part of this connection.

The activity of this company centres the route between Chiriguaná and Santa Marta, measuring 245 kilometres, used to export around 40 million tons of coal per year. Furthermore, for the transport of this mineral there are another 150 kilometres of private property that Drummond operates in the department of La Guajira.

At the end of 2018, rail transport of coffee started from La Dorada (Caldas) to the Santa Marta Port Authority along a route running 767 kilometres. The aim of the test expedition of this “coffee train” was, as the Government has indicated, “analyse the conditions and capacity of the infrastructure, as well as the logistical needs, journey times and the cost in comparison with other means.” The idea is to foster these routes as a motor for the development of the regions and expand the export routes.

In second place is the Pacific Railway Network, with 498 kilometres, which runs between Buenaventura – Cali Zarzal – La Tebaida in the departments of Caldas.

As stated in the report entitled “Challenges faced by freight rail transport in Colombia”, the Pacific tender has had in the last 10 years different shareholders who pledged to provide additional capital and resume operations. Although the average traffic has been weak (around 200,000 tons per year), a growing trend is now detected with the arrival of the Swiss group Impala Trafigura. This company has within its short-term goals the transportation of one million tons per year. To achieve this, it has already invested 1 billion dollars. With these funds, it is transforming the Magdalena River into a multimodal transport logistics corridor.

A completely multimodal logistics chain connects the main coastal ports with the economic heartland. Coal, oil and other liquid products in bulk, containers and basic articles are transported to the main Colombian ports in the Caribbean Sea. Furthermore, for this purpose, a river port has been built in Barancabermeja that acts as a consolidation centre, connecting the fluvial, road and railway loads.

The efforts are now focused on recovering disused lines and progressively activating this transport network. By the end of 2018, notable advances had already been made in the railway network with 1,769 operating kilometres, a process in which work continues in the country to make this means of transport competitive.

The Government is committed to public-private partnership (PPP) as a key instrument to undertake new investments in infrastructural aspects in the country.


Sectorial Structure

Amongst the main challenges they will have to face in order to promote the railway are the current routes, many of which would have to be re-designed to get the most out of the network, and the non-standard gauge. Until 1991, the lines were managed by the company Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Colombia that operated 2,600 kilometres of track. Afterwards, and until 2004, it was transferred to the Colombian Railways Company (Ferrovías). Currently, since 2011, the National Infrastructure Agency (ANI) is in charge of tender operations. The company also structures the intermodality and logistics PPP projects.

The National Planning Department of the Ministry of Transport is entrusted with defining and implementing investment programmes in infrastructures. Another important player in the sector is the operator Fenoco (Ferrocarriles del Norte de Colombia), which has a 30-year concession for the Chiriguaná (Cesar) – Santa Marta section of the Atlantic rail network. For its part, the Ibines – Férreo consortium is responsible for the rehabilitation and operation of the railway corridors now in tender. As for urban passenger transport, it is worth highlighting the firm named “Empresa de Transporte Masivo del Valle de Aburrá Ltda, “Metro de Medellin Ltda” entrusted with the running of the Medellín Metropolitan Railway, the Ayacucho tram and the Metrocable cable car system, as well as the “Empresa Metro de Bogotá SA (EMB SA) that will manage this future network.


The recent completion of the National Development Plan 2014-2018 has achieved the goal that was set out in the field of infrastructure and transport, namely to: “increase the competitiveness of cargo transport and consolidate a multimodal network that encourages the use of the rail, river and air modes of transport.”

Together with the investments already made, which meant that 1,121 kilometres were added to the network at the end of last year, the new line recovery plans are now being followed, as detailed in the “2018-2022 National Development Plan”.  Among the most outstanding initiatives is the reactivation of freight transport, to promote intermodality, in the corridors Dorada-Chiriguaná, Bogotá-Belencito and the railroad network of the Pacific, as well as support for regional initiatives (Cundinamarca, Antioquia, Valle and Caribbean Region).

These three projects are detailed in the “Master Plan for Intermodal Transport: 2015-2035” endowed with an investment of 69.3 billion dollars (61.55 billion euros) for numerous improvements to airports, road, rail and river networks.

The PMTI is a long-term commitment of the State of Colombia, which in its first module includes a roadmap of the most important intermodal infrastructure projects for the country.

La Dorada-Chiriguaná Corridor

In the central corridor La Dorada-Chiriguaná, key to foreign trade, investments of around 212,000 million dollars (188,303 million euros) have been made to date in two public works contracts running from 2013 to 2018. It is a strategic rail line for the connectivity of the centre of the country with the ports of the Atlantic Coast.

In April 2018, a train test operation was carried out, covering a distance of 522 kilometres, from Chiriguaná (Cesar) to La Dorada (Caldas), with some 700 tons of steel and cement. The train already has the ability to move freight in a real way. In this branch there is also passenger transport. The Ibines Férreo consortium coordinates six authorised routes that connect Barrancabermeja (Santander) with Puerto Berrio (Antioquia) and on which around 76,000 passengers a year travel.

Bogotá-Belencito Corridor

The rail corridor that connects Bogotá with Belencito, in Boyacá, is another strategic network that is being modernised. It has 257 kilometres currently operational to provide services of regular mobilisation of goods and freight. For its reactivation, the La Caro-Zipaquirá and Bogotá-Facatativá stretches have been repaired, especially with regard to Bogotá-Belencito. The commissioning of this corridor will also boost passenger transport.

Pacific Train

The reactivation of this is similarly key for foreign trade. It is a strategic road that runs through the departments of Caldas, Quindío, Risaralda and Valle. In order to have a more competitive and efficient branch. The National Infrastructure Agency, ANI, has allocated more than 20 billion dollars (17.764 billion euros) to structure the new rail corridor for the Pacific. Amongst other points, the deviation of the El Cerrito-Yumbo route is considered. Furthermore, the ANI is currently preparing a new agreement with the Tren de Occidente company to recover the connectivity between the Saragossa Free Trade Zone and Pereira. The project will cost 120 billion dollars (106.586 billion euros) and involve a construction period of 24 months.

The works will be carried out in a section of 30.22 kilometres and will include the recovery of 10.6 kilometres of railways already in existence, the construction of the Caimalito variant along 3.3 kilometres and the Carthage variant with 16.3 kilometres. The new rail corridor will also prevent the passage of cargo through the municipalities between the north of Valle del Cauca and Risaralda.