El Salvador
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Project Spotlight: El Salvador’s Pacific railway

Bnamericas Published: Thursday, August 22, 2019
Project Spotlight: El Salvador’s Pacific railway

The Pacific railway, or coastal train, is a signature project of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, who took office on June 1. 

Bukele unveiled his plans for the freight and passenger railway at the presentation of his Cuscatlán plan in January, while still on the campaign trail.

At the time, Bukele talked about the need for reactivating rail transport in the country. He said El Salvador used to have 521km of railways, and accused the former administrations, led by the Arena and FMLN parties, of abandoning the railway sector.

DETAILS

The new railway would link Cutuco-La Unión port in eastern La Unión department and Ahuachapan, in western Ahuachapan department. Other links would go to Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero international airport in the center-south and Acajutla, a seaport city in western Sonsonate department.

Passenger travel times between Ahuachapan and La Unión would drop to 90 minutes and cargo arriving in any of the two ports could be dispersed within a few hours, according to Bukele.
 
The president envisions taking advantage of El Salvador’s location and turn the railway into a regional initiative with El Salvador as a hub.

Bukele said the railway would create “thousands” of jobs both during construction and operation. He added that a train connection to either Guatemala’s Acajutla port or the Fonseca Gulf in Honduras, would offer an alternative route for imports from Asia via the Pacific. 

“Once the products arrive in our ports, they would be unloaded and transported to the Caribbean [crossing El Salvador and either Honduras or Guatemala] via train. They could get to Miami without having to pass through the Panama Canal,” Bukele said. “We would become the equivalent of the silk route, the 21st century version,” he added.

PROGRESS

Soon after taking office, Bukele submitted a formal request to the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (Cabei) for financing. The bank’s executive president, Dante Mossi, suggested via Twitter that he has already agreed to the request.

Mossi also implied that the railway could be electricity powered, revealing that Honduran conglomerate Grupo Atlántida has also submitted a proposal to build a rail line. The bank would want to support both lines in tandem and finance a binational rail.

In July, Cabei said it would hire a rail transport specialist to set the parameters of the feasibility study and define the features needed to make the train a regional project.

In parallel, Salvadoran government entities like ports authority CEPA have started work on the project. The authority’s director, Federico Anliker, has said the railway will be “environmentally friendly” and bring many benefits to the population.

Luis Rodríguez, presidential commissioner of strategic projects, said in a tweet last week that the rail is being developed “from scratch.” He later told a local broadcaster that the first phase, involving financial feasibility studies, would start on August 24 with the support of Cabei and South Korean state-run railway operator Korail. The Korean firm will serve as technical advisor.

Rodríguez announced complementary infrastructure works across the country to facilitate the rail, which would also spur economic development in areas that will receive train stations.

POTENTIAL

Although information like estimated investment has yet to be unveiled, the train could become a reality as other countries in Central America have recognized that regional railways could boost economic development.

The train also figures in the plan for the comprehensive development of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, which the Mexican government commissioned to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America & the Caribbean (ECLAC). Mexico remains committed to this plan and hopes that the US, some European countries, and multilateral organizations will chip in.

The Central American parlament (Parlacen) has also pledged to promote a regional railway system, in which a rail link between La Unión port and Honduras’ Cortés port could be the first step. A high-level meeting to discuss the idea is expected to take place in Guatemala in October.

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