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Colombia eyes rail network reboot with key role of Chinese firms

By SERGIO HELD in Cajica, Colombia | | Updated: 2022-01-30 12:13
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After decades of neglect and disuse, Colombia now aims to revive its rail network to transport both cargo and passengers.

Such revival could have a significant impact on the Latin American nation's economy, offering an affordable alternative for transport to the existing 215,000 kilometers of roads across the country.

Experts say that China can become a key partner in the efforts, with several companies from the country already making their way to Colombia and involved in various projects.

"Railway development in Colombia is quite incipient. Of the approximately 3,500 kilometers of railroad network, 73 percent is inactive, abandoned," said Diego Dorado, consultant in public management and regional development and former deputy general territorial director of Colombia's National Planning Department.

Meanwhile, "the used extension is concentrated in five corridors, two for private use and the other three under concession. All of these are dedicated exclusively to freight transportation, mostly from mining," he noted.

In late 2020, the Colombian government launched a Master Railway Plan to give new life to a much-needed railway network, making logistics and transportation cheaper and easier in a country with enormous potential to supply a variety of goods, including much needed food, to international markets.

"Today we can say that 70 percent of the cargo that moves in Colombia, or a little more, is in road transportation. We need to diversify and complement it," said Colombia's president, Ivan Duque, in November 2020.

"We have a challenge, and it is the most demanding geographical challenge. There are about 490 kilometers that we have assigned in the Colombian Pacific, and we have not yet given them that scope due to various difficulties," he said.

The important port of Buenaventura along the Pacific Ocean is a gateway for about 25 percent of the country's imports. As such, it is a key connector between Colombia and China.

Chinese company BYD, from Shenzhen, is bidding for some work related to the Regional Caribbean Train that will connect Santa Marta, Barranquilla, and Cartagena, three important cities along the Colombian coast and all home to important ports.

"China's interest in Colombia's railway development has been latent for several years. Important companies interested in projects in Colombia have started to arrive," Jaime Suarez, executive director of the Colombia-China Chamber of Investment and Commerce, told China Daily.

"BYD has expressed interest in these types of projects, betting on the Caribbean train and this will continue to happen. We will continue to see the interest of Chinese companies in railway projects and other infrastructure projects."

David Castrillon, research professor at the School of International Relations at Externado University of Colombia, believes that Chinese experience in railroad projects can add a lot of value and knowledge to countries like Colombia.

"China is a recognized expert in the participation of railroad construction projects and other types of systems around them. According to data from the American Enterprise Institute, from 2005 to 2021, Chinese companies have participated in contracts worth $99 billion, representing about 12 percent of the value of all contracts of Chinese companies (abroad) in this period," noted Castrillon.

BYD's decision to participate in the Colombia project is "a clear sign of confidence on the part of Chinese companies in the Colombian market. This is especially important when coming from BYD, a private company that is guided by market incentives," he said.

"BYD is showing that it believes it will be a profitable and successful project, and this speaks well of the state of the Colombian economy, to stand out at a time when many of the neighboring economies are going through different shocks," Castrillon added.

A light train project connecting Bogota, the capital city, with the western region that surrounds it, is being developed by China Civil Engineering Construction, while an elevated train inside the city is being built by a consortium comprising China Harbour Engineering Company and Xi'an Metro Company. Chinese participation in similar projects being drafted for other Colombian cities is expected to happen.

"The development of rail transport in the country could be used to compensate for some of the major shortcomings of Colombian transport and connectivity," said Dorado, the former National Planning Department official.

China is becoming a key partner for Colombia in helping the latter overcome its infrastructure issues. Bogota and Beijing are working together on broader projects to enhance the diplomatic and economic relationship.

Colombia has shown interest in joining China's Belt and Road Initiative, but a government transition taking place in August this year could delay those talks.

"We at the Chamber believe that this will not happen in the short term. The government raised the possibility of the China-Colombia 2040 initiative, to take the bilateral relationship to another level in terms of trade, investment and tourism. In the remaining months of the Duque government, perhaps Colombia will not join BRI, and we will need to see what will happen in the next government," said Suarez from the Colombia-China Chamber of Investment and Commerce.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.

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