Argentina’s Tren a las Nubes departs for the future

Argentina’s Tren a las Nubes departs for the future

March 12, 2018
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A team of experts from Geoconsult and Georesearch from Austria has presented at the end of January 2018 an extensive study including risk analysis for the railway infrastructure in the Argentine-Chilean Andes in particular for the Argentine section the Tren a las Nubes. With the risk analysis the worldwide acknowledged specialists provide a well-founded basis for future investments in Argentina’s rail-infrastructure and an important contribution to the economic development and improvement of living conditions in the North-western region of Argentina.

The special challenge consisted in assessing an area of approximately 10,000 km² at high altitudes subject to extreme climatic conditions in a short period of time. A two stage process has been developed. In a first stage based on remote sensing data (satellite pictures) and local expert workshops “hot spots” where identified and associated initial risk analysis performed. In a second stage these locations have been verified in situ and further explored by the use of drones. Based on data from the existing infrastructure, identified natural hazards as well as logistical requirements models for time tables have been developed allowing an estimate of the annual total transport capacity.

Austrian engineers are recognized worldwide as experts for the improvement and optimisation of railways in all sorts of difficult terrain not only limited to Alpine regions. Therefore this extensive study including risk analysis for the Argentine section the Tren a las Nubes has been supported financially by the Austrian Economic Service. The specialists from Geoconsult and Georesearch from Wals/Salzburg in Austria have elaborated a concise risk analysis for the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) which has been developed in very short time using innovative methods. Until now the assessment of risks and associated dangers of a linear infrastructure consisted in mapping the terrain on the ground walking kilometre for kilometre along its entire length in order to develop models for risk analysis. The assessment of the approximately 570 km long Argentine section from Salta to Socompa on the Chilean border on the railway line to Antofagasta on the Pacific Ocean in the Northern Region of Chile would have taken at least six months of fieldwork. By the application of modern methods such as the use of drones the amount of fieldwork has been reduced to less than a month concurrent with an increased quality and distinctly lower costs for data collection.

Tren a las Nubes

The railway line from Salta (Argentina) to Antofagasta (Chile) has been taken into operation in 1949 after a construction period of 27 years. The railway line comprises 29 bridges, 21 tunnels, 13 viaducts, 2 switch back bends, 2 switch backs and 21 stations. It crosses several salt flats rises to an elevation of over 4400 m and is in parts subject to extreme climatic conditions. The world famous tourist train “Tren a las Nubes” runs along a stretch of the line including the “Viaducto Polvorilla” the highest viaduct in South America.

Challenge of Nature

The extensive and exposed mountain ridges of the Andes represent major challenges for planning, construction, maintenance and operation of traffic infrastructure. Until now roads are the main transport routes between Argentina and Chile, which are however often in bad shape and can only be used part of the year due to the climatic conditions.

The study including risk analysis for the Argentine section the Tren a las Nubes shows the potential along this transport corridor, which is the only railway line between Argentina and Chile still in operation. This is of major importance especially considering it against the background of existing natural resources.

Innovative methods of analysis

Integral interdisciplinary methods of the study including risk analysis for the Argentine section the Tren a las Nubes have been used in order to analyse natural hazards along the entire line based on satellite data and simultaneously assessing potential availabilities of service based on the technical condition of the railway line. Establishing step by step options for improvement and tailor made concepts for logistics and cargo handling it was possible to derive yearly transport capacities conclusively.

Because of the extreme topographic location the extensive analysis of natural hazards and risks is an important basis for decision making for the railway operator in order to perform adequate maintenance measures in the future. A particular challenge for the Austrian specialists has been the extension of the area to be investigated of over 10,000 km², the poor quality of available data
and the very short period of time of less than 6 month to carry out the work.

Enormous potential for railway transport

The economic and geographic external conditions of the region have been assessed with the conclusion that an enormous potential of goods favourable for rail transport faces a very small actual share of railway transport mostly due to structural reasons. Logistics are highly ineffective because of missing logistic hubs non coordinated cycles of loading, a poor transport infrastructure missing multimodal connections and inadequate warehousing. Consequences are uncertainties in the reliability of transport additional costs and limitations of production capacities, reasons which influence the economic development  of a region unfavourably.

The experts of Geoconsult and Georesearch with their partners STLSolutions for Transport & Logistics and Planum (both from Graz, Austria) recommend a step by step improvement of the existing railway line as well as the arrangement of multimodal hubs for goods in order to stabilize the region’s economy.

The investigation of the entire railway line has shown that the railway infrastructure which initially has been designed for heavy traffic is safe for operation. For an increase of current capacities a number of immediate- and construction measures have been recommended.

Risk reduction for the railway

In order to assess the natural hazards and risks a two stage analytical method has been followed by the experts. On the basis of satellite data and a first field trip with interviews of experts in the field 94 risk areas have been identified categorized by type of risk, intensity, frequency and consequence and the resulting risks analysed. The areas have been overflown in detail by drones collecting new field data. The risk analysis has been updated with the new detailed data. Approximately 25% of all risks have been assessed as high. Suitable technical and organisational measures have been proposed for risk mitigation. The feasibility study has been presented end of January 2018 in the Austrian foreign trade centre in Buenos Aires to a delegation of members of the Argentine ministries for mining and infrastructure as well as the Argentine railways.

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