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JUNE 20, 2022

[INTERVIEW] Transport Minister: “The President sees the train as an attractive response to the massive congestion we face on many of Chile’s roads”

Juan Carlos Muñoz has carried out a complete analysis of the government plan that seeks to promote rail transport in Chile. He explains which projects are in the pipeline, the challenge of implementing the Santiago-Valparaíso railroad, the port railroad strategy and the plan to have trains with maximum speeds of 170 km/h.  

Transport Minister Juan Carlos Muñoz, a frequent public transport user and keen cyclist, has always promoted the use of sustainable means of transport to move around the city on his social networks.

Another of his great passions is to travel by train. He was therefore delighted by President Gabriel Boric’s recent announcement that his government is to promote a robust railroad plan in Chile.

The minister spoke to us at length about the government’s railroad strategy, the projects that are in the pipeline, planning for the Santiago-Valparaíso train, his desire to create a port railroad corridor, the importance of trains for constructing a national identity and the promotion of more sustainable means of transport. He even shared some anecdotes about his passion for trains.

- Minister, you have always been a staunch supporter of public transport, and I understand that the train has always been one of your favorite forms of transport. What memories do you have of train journeys?

I have great memories from my youth, when I occasionally traveled to the south by train. My best anecdote was a trip from Santiago to Concepción on a sports tour in June 1982. There were about 80 of us; children of different ages and teachers. In Concepción, we were caught in the great storm that brought historic levels of flooding to Santiago and the whole of central southern Chile. On the way back to Santiago, the railroads were cut off and we only got as far as San Fernando. We had to stay in San Fernando as an emergency. At that time the capacity of the hotels in the city was much lower than the number in our group and so we children slept two to a bed. We didn’t have enough money to feed the whole troop either. The next day, we took the first train to Santiago, which was very full and took almost 20 hours to complete the journey, because the track was being restored as the train advanced. An odyssey. 

- In your opinion, what factors have impeded the development of railroads in Chile?

- Chile’s railroads developed throughout the last century and grew steadily until the 1970s. They began to decline during the dictatorship, because I think people confused the role that trains play. We don’t have trains because they are a good private business, but because they generate attractive social benefits. Demanding that EFE (the state-owned railroad company) have profitable services and then progressively cutting off those services that weren’t profitable led to a spiral of deterioration in which reduced service frequency and lack of maintenance diminished demand until it virtually disappeared. The railroads were neglected, and we lost highly valuable assets in good locations in different cities throughout Chile. With the turn of the century, people once again started to appreciate trains and their impact on cities, thus triggering a slow but sustained recovery. This period of decline was basically due to public policies that encouraged other forms of transport to the detriment of the railroads.

- Why has President Boric’s government decided to take a more robust policy regarding the development of trains?

- This was made clear in President Boric’s own words during his first state of the nation address, when he said that Chile deserves to recover its railroad tradition. There is cross-sector support for recovering the railroad network in Chile, and the President has said that strengthening the railroad policy is linked to the fact that trains were so important in building our national identity, as well as the desire to promote more sustainable forms of transport. The President sees the train as an attractive response to the massive congestion we face on many of Chile’s roads, and a key ingredient for both the path to carbon neutrality and decentralization. 

- What are the main advantages of the railroads for transport in Chile?

- Trains have many characteristics that make them not only a sustainable form of transport, but also a positive agent of change for our cities and therefore our country. They are the means of transport that generates the least amount of greenhouse gases, after walking and cycling. They are a means of transport that decongest roads, and therefore generate a positive impact on highways and access to cities. They offer safe, reliable and regular journeys for users. What is more, they also foster the comprehensive development of Chile, allowing services, education and job opportunities to be brought closer to those living outside of urban areas.

- One of the most talked about and anticipated projects is the Santiago-Valparaíso train. What are the deadlines that have been established for its implementation and what will it mean in terms of time savings?

- President Gabriel Boric has commissioned the Public Works Ministry (MOP) and the Transport and Telecommunications Ministry (MTT) to work on implementing this project, which is a long-held desire among those of us who live in the Valparaíso and Metropolitan regions. We are working on it at the moment, working quickly to study the private projects that are being reviewed by the MOP General Concessions Directorate and looking at the best ways to develop this project. Regarding deadlines, we have to be very emphatic and responsible. Just as it takes time to make a Metro line happen, the same is true of a train service connecting Santiago and Valparaíso. We have to take it a step at a time, and that is where we are at the moment. This project has our total commitment, and we will work hard to bring to fruition this aspiration of so many people.

- Minster, is having a bullet or high-speed train a utopia today?  

- Everyone would like to have quick, efficient and sustainable means of transport that connects us with different parts of the country in the least time possible. But Chile and its “crazy” geography that we are so proud of, also sets us challenges that are difficult to overcome. Our natural features with mountains, valleys and mountain ranges make it difficult to have a bullet train like those in Japan, China and some parts of Europe. I’m not saying that it’s impossible, but we must recognize that it implies greater challenges. At the moment we are considering services that offer maximum speeds of around 170 km/hr.

- I imagine that your dream would be to have a train that goes as far as Puerto Montt…

- An instant train between Santiago and Puerto Montt, like the one once imagined by Nicanor Parra, but one that moves! To get there, we still have a lot of work to do. We have to take things one step at a time, recovering that railroad tradition that President Gabriel Boric spoke about. That is why the railroad development plan that we are working on is interesting, built on suburban services like the Limache-Valparaíso or Santiago-Rancagua railroads, which are showing levels of demand that justify them. In this way, we intend to connect some regional capitals with their immediate surroundings. Then we can strengthen local networks and continue towards interregional trains. We have already been making progress! We already have two departures from Santiago to Chillán, which people have welcomed. And we soon hope to increase them to six and improve travel times. This is how we are responsibly recovering that backbone of the country that is so longed for and valued. That’s our commitment and it’s what we’re working on.

- And what plans are there for the north? In the Fourth Region, for example, there is the idea of creating a tramway or light rail linking the Coquimbo-La Serena conurbation. Unfortunately, from the Coquimbo Region northwards, the rail network was privatized, which prevents EFE from being able to offer services there. 

 Any initiative will require a greater amount of effort with the private companies that own those railroads. It’s a model that’s worth reviewing, as there are services of social interest that we would like to get involved in. Regarding an urban tram in Coquimbo-La Serena, this is a project that we are studying.

- Freight trains currently exist - are there plans to promote this type of transport even more?

- Regarding freight trains, among the projects being studied by the MTT, there is one that is especially relevant for the country’s development. Chile is a country that is open to the world, which has very strong trade links with Asia, and the Pacific is the gateway to that part of the world. We predict that the trade that will enter Chile will grow and require a significant investment in port infrastructure, which will be focused on San Antonio’s outer port. This investment will require a port railway corridor between San Antonio and Santiago that will allow containers to be transported inland. We will push both projects during these four years.

- What other important railway projects does the ministry have in the pipeline?

- The portfolio of projects under development for the next four years includes a series of initiatives that makes us very optimistic about the impact they will have on people and their quality of life. This is our desire day by day, to improve people’s quality of life. Among them is the new service running from Santiago’s Estación Central to Melipilla, the Quinta Normal-Batuco train and the extension of the service from Valparaíso to Quillota and La Calera. We forecast that these three projects will generate 87 million new journeys. In the longer term, we have the Puerto Montt-Puerto Varas-Osorno and the Temuco-Gorbea sections, which are in the study phase, the extension of Concepción’s Biotrén to Lota and Coronel, and various others.

- In the capital, there are various Metro projects underway. Which of them are most advanced and what are their deadlines?

- We were recently in Quilicura visiting the construction site for the future Lo Cruzat station on Santiago Metro’s Line 3. At the time it was 85% of the way along, and the entire extension was close to 80% complete. We are talking about almost four new kilometers of track and three stations that will benefit some 267,000 people. Then there is the extension of Line 2 to San Bernardo, which will add more than five kilometers to the network and four new stations; its inauguration is scheduled for late 2023. Line 7 that will go from Renca to Vitacura is due to open in late 2027.

- Does a subway or tram that connects the center of Santiago with the airport seem feasible?

- We already have Metro lines that run quite close to the airport. Line 3 to Quilicura, Line 7 will reach Renca, which is quite close to the airport’s western access. I think that from these stations we could imagine quality public transport services that would allow us to connect with the airport. In the specific case of the airport, there is currently a public interest initiative via concession under study that is moving forward. It would connect the Pajaritos Metro station with the airport, in addition to serving other parts of Pudahuel.