Traveling by rail

Chile bets on trains for future transport in Central Valley

Rail connections from Santiago to Rancagua and Chillán to improve in light of growing demand and sustainability studies.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 Category: Business - Technology - Enviroment
Traveling by train offers a unique view of the countryside. (Photo by Oscar Maltez/Flickr) Traveling by train offers a unique view of the countryside. (Photo by Oscar Maltez/Flickr)

Chile has a long romance with railroads. The coal-mining towns along the central coast fueled a fleet of trains that shuttled passengers, lumber and the fruits from the Chilean countryside into the growing metropolis of Santiago at the turn of the century.

The devastating 2010 earthquake left many of the tracks in southern-central Chile out of service. Now, instead of just repairs, railways in the central valley are getting a full makeover after the Chilean state rail company (EFE) decided to invest in trains as a long-term transportation alternative.

“This master plan is looking for long-term sustainability for railways, so that Chile can take advantage of trains’ competitive advantage over other modes of transport,” said the EFE president, Víctor Toledo.

According to EFE studies, potential demand for rail transportation in Chile’s central zone could reach 20 million passengers, which would almost triple the eight million passengers who currently travel by train in the region.

Starting in 2013, EFE will be unveiling the first pieces of a new National Railways Master Plan, with expanded service and faster trains throughout Chile. Chile is hoping to increase the total number of train passengers from the 26 million of today to 50 million by 2014.

Among the measures planned for the railway makeover is a plan to streamline the rails between Santiago and Chillán, which currently crosses 400 stations. An investment of US$140 million will eliminate 20 stops and install barriers that allow the train to speed up its average velocity from 37 mph (60 km/h) to 93 mph (150 km/h). 

The current rail connections between Santiago-Chillán (currently called Terrasur) and Santiago-San Bernardo-Rancagua (Metrotrén) will be transformed into several express lines: Expreso Chillán will connect the southern city to Santiago in four hours; Expreso Rancagua will zip up from the agricultural hub to the big city in just 50 minutes; and Expreso San Bernardo, a 15-minute ride from the capital will be integrated with the capital’s Transantiago metro system and payable with your Bip! card.

Changes are also afoot for Valparaíso’s regional metro system, Merval. When EFE looked at Merval in 2005, it expected the network to reach its potential of 18 million passengers by 2015, but demand will have surpassed that figure by the end of this year.