Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A railroad tunnel through the Andes

This would be very cool, should it actually come to pass:
South American engineers are trying to tackle one of the continent's greatest natural challenges: the towering Andes mountain chain that creates a costly physical barrier for nations ever-more-dependent on trade with Asia.

Instead of pushing cargo over a 10,500-foot (3,200-meter) pass that is often blocked by snow for weeks, they plan to build the longest tunnels in the Americas right through the mountains. That would make billions of dollars worth of Chinese electronics, Chilean wine, Argentine food and Brazilian cars cheaper and more competitive.

The proposed $3.5 billion private railway known as the Aconcagua Bi-Oceanic Corridor would link train and trucking hubs on both sides with a 127-mile-long (205-kilometer) railway, including twin 32-mile (52-kilometer) tunnels. Construction would take 10 years, but once completed, it could save millions of dollars and carve days off shipping times.
The existing crossing, which includes a two-mile-long tunnel between the two countries, connects Argentina's National Route 7, which stretches all the way from Buenos Aires, with Chile Highway 60, which continues on to the Pacific seaport of Valparaíso. The highway at this crossing is a narrow two-lane road which negotiates multiple switchbacks (especially on the Chilean side) and is clogged with truck traffic when it's not closed due to snowfall. There used to be a railroad linking the two countries at this location as well, but it has been out of use since the early 1980s. The result is a bottleneck hampering trade between Chile, Argentina and Brazil, which are three of South America's four largest economies:
Currently, much of the processed soy oils, wine and meat Argentina sends to China, as well as Asian electronics destined for Brazil, must first sail around the tip of South America, adding nearly 3,000 nautical miles and another week to the trip. Shipping by rail between Atlantic and Pacific ports would unite the most productive regions of Chile and its South American neighbors, making trade more competitive for all involved.

The shipping cost would drop from $210 to $177 a ton for cargo that now moves between Cordoba, Argentina, and Manzanillo, Mexico, the closest major port with direct rail links to the eastern United States.

"This project is just what's needed," said Mauricio Claveri, an economist with the consulting firm in Buenos Aires. He called it a strategic necessity for the Mercosur nations of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Venezuela to develop more efficient trade links with China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
The plan is for this project to be privately built and operated by a multinational consortium, which would then recoup their investment through usage fees. The Chilean and Argentinian governments would provide loan guarantees, but public money would not be used to build this railroad. Bidding on this project has yet to occur.
The train engines, which would be powered by electricity rather than coal or diesel to reduce the environmental impact, are to link a transportation hub in Lujan de Cuyo on the Argentine side with Los Andes, Chile. The tunnels will descend from Punta de Vacas, Argentina, at 7,851 feet (2,393 meters) above sea level, to Saladillo, Chile, at 5,039 feet (1,536 meters), both below the steeper slopes and higher altitudes that get paralyzing snow each winter.

The initial phase would open a single tunnel and cost $3.5 billion with a capacity of 24 million tons of cargo a year. Depending on demand, the capacity could grow to 77 million tons and the total price tag to $5.9 billion by adding a second tunnel and additional rail lines on either side. As many as four mechanical excavators will be used to carve through the mountains.
I suppose the railroad could also carry passenger traffic in addition to cargo if the demand were there, but that's obviously never going to be its primary purpose. The tunnels would be among the longest in the world, just a few miles shorter than the Gotthard Base Tunnel set to open in the Swiss Alps later this decade. They would nevertheless be an incredible engineering feat for Latin America, not to mention a huge boon to its economy.

There are, to be sure, several hurdles this project must clear. In addition to the technical challenges of tunneling 32 miles through the Andes, there is the question that invariably arises when infrastructure projects of this magnitude are proposed to be constructed entirely with private funds: will it really be profitable, or will the Chilean and Argentinian governments be forced to come to the project's rescue at any point? And then there are the usual risks associated with doing business in Latin America: political unrest, economic instability, and corruption.

Nevertheless, and in spite of its cost and the obstacles it faces, this seems to me like a reasonable, feasible and beneficial project and I'm hoping to see it happen. Time will tell.

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