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BNamericas – Colombia’s big bet on rail infrastructure

Colombia’s government is pursuing an ambitious rail infrastructure agenda to increase efficiency and reduce the environmental footprint.

In this interview, William Camargo, the head of infrastructure agency ANI, provides some project and investment details.

BNamericas: What’s ANI’s portfolio focused on?

Camargo: It is mainly focused on interurban rail components, freight trains, but also road, airport, fluvial and port components. Regarding ports, we make concessions viable, so operators, based on an investment plan, build logistics in areas that need the ports to function.

BNamericas: Why is the government prioritizing the rail system?

Camargo: It’s part of the climate change agenda President Gustavo Petro has been proposing since he was mayor [of Bogotá]: migrating to clean energy for cargo and passenger transport.

Along this line, mass transport systems such as subways, trams and commuter trains are better alternatives.

Regarding cargo, due to a decision decades ago, our country migrated toward the construction of highways and that has impacts in environmental terms.

This decision, although it allowed us to connect the country and a complex system involving the coasts, imposes quite long distances on the transport of products, for import and export, on smaller units such as trucks, which can move between 12t and 35t, with quite high transport costs and a significant environmental footprint.

BNamericas: Do transport costs make trains more efficient?

Camargo: The lines we had in operation at the time, in the order of 3,400km, made it possible to completely structure the economy, the Andean region with the coasts, and were an efficient system for transporting large volumes of cargo.

This rupture and lack of understanding of intermodality in the past led to a prevalence of road transport, which is more expensive and more inefficient in terms of emissions and generates additional externalities such as accidents.

Trains have lower transport costs per ton and per passenger mobilized, and today they are being widely used in China, Europe, Japan and the US.

South America, unfortunately, fell behind that development engine.

The president, the government and the transport sector are aware of this [shortcoming] and of fuel becoming more expensive and that will generate a significant impact in terms of emissions. We are looking to migrate to a cleaner energy matrix, more sustainable and more efficient for the country.

BNamericas: What are the investment opportunities regarding metro and urban train systems?

We have projects such as the Avenida 80 light rail; line No. 1 of Bogotá’s metro, which is under construction; line No. 2, for which we’re seeking resources; Regiotram del Norte, in the structuring phase; Regiotram del Occidente, under construction; and Tren del Caribe, which is in the feasibility phase.

There is also the Cercanías train between Cali, Jamundí and Yumbo and other projects that are in early stages, moving into prefeasibility and feasibility stages [and involving] mainly the passenger component.

BNamericas: Where do you seek to get the resources for Bogotá’s metro line No. 2?

Camargo: One option involves the district looking at an international bank to leverage the financial closure of the project and begin execution.

BNamericas: What are ANI’s main rail projects?

Camargo: ANI manages a 1,610km network, including the La Dorada-Chiriguaná line, the Bogotá-Belencito corridor and the Tren del Pacífico, to which we can add the Antioquia line, which is being structured, and the Central rail corridor, for which we are exploring feasibility between La Caro and Barranca or between Belencito and Barranca.

BNamericas: And what’s the estimated investment for these projects?

Camargo: We estimate 6tn pesos [US$1.25bn] for the Tren del Pacífico, 1.5tn pesos for the Bogotá-Belencito line, 1.6tn pesos for the Bogotá-Central rail corridor, and 1.6tn pesos for the La Dorada-Chiriguaná section.

The Bogotá-Central rail corridor is relatively new and we are exploring to connect Bogotá and the rail network between Chiriguaná and La Dorada.

In addition, we have the Chiriguaná-Santa Marta concession, valid through 2032.

In advanced stages are Tren del Pacífico, Bogotá-Belencito, Dorada-Chiriguaná and Ferrocarril de Antioquia, while the Central rail corridor is in phase 2 studies.

BNamericas: Are there other rail projects?

Camargo: Yes. We are exploring others at the project profile level and that may advance to feasibility at the end of this government period in 2026: Tumaco-Puerto Gaitán, which is part of an intermodal corridor that we call Pacífico-Orinoquía; the Cali-Ipiales corridor, to extend the network that reaches Cali; Cupica-Turbo corridor, a connection on the Pacific coast; the Café-Manizales-Armenia train, using networks that transported coffee; Cúcuta-Red Central, to connect the Catatumbo area and northern Santander and the La Dorada-Chiriguaná corridor.

There is also the La Dorada-Espinal connection in the country’s center, the Bucaramanga-Puerto Wilches link; Medellín-Turbo, to connect the ports of Pisisi and Antioquia; Chiriguaná-Coellas, which is also a possibility to extend the freight corridor to Guajira; Buenaventura-Turbo, which is key to agricultural-industrial production; and Neiva-Cali, to connect the southeast and the producing area of Valle.

To the extent that we can attract and generate resources to [advance] structuring and construction, they will pass to feasibility and surely to PPP mechanisms.

BNamericas: What rail tenders are you planning to launch and which projects are expected to start construction during the government term?

Camargo: We have La Dorada-Chiriguaná practically ad portas. For the Tren del Pacífico, we expect to open bidding under PPP mechanisms no later than the first quarter next year. A tender for the Bogotá-Belencito line would also be launched next year, or the following one at the latest.

We hope to draw up the Central rail corridor in the government’s third year. We are also waiting for the Antioquia railway, based on financial viability.

These projects are obviously part of the country’s historical network and are going to migrate from ‘yard gauge’ [trocha yárdica] to standard gauge, in line with what is planned for the Dorada-Chiriguaná line, which in 2032 reverts to the State.

The first standard gauge projects should be the Tren del Pacífico and the Ferrocarril de Antioquia. The others will gradually be integrated to update our rail infrastructure to international standards.

Additionally, we are updating regulations and the rolling stock technology.

BNamericas: Why is it attractive to invest in Colombia’s rail tenders?

Camargo: The country has been consolidating a road portfolio, which, with the rail component, generates a perfect intermodality match. This is an opportunity not only to transport the goods that Colombians are consuming and that we produce for export, but also for a series of logistics chain issues, logistics platforms and business opportunities.

There is an investment opportunity in a stable country, which has generated an attractive portfolio and which honors its commitments.

BNamericas: How important are urban trains for Colombia?

Camargo: In addition to representing an opportunity for mass transport, they allow for the reconfiguring of urban opportunities for the development of real estate projects around stations.

On the one hand, they solve a mobility problem in a cleaner way and open up other opportunities, for example, in the real estate sector for investors who can develop homes, commercial premises, offices around stations, and obviously along the developing corridor.

We are talking about long-term investments because the useful life of an underground metro system can be 165 years, as demonstrated by the London tube.

Roads have a similar useful life but imply reconstruction efforts every 20 years. With trains, tunnels and underground projects, that rebuilding is longer term.