Bullet train: High-speed rail link delayed on the drawing board

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The Brazilian government envisages three additional high-speed rail lines as part of the latest set of ambitious infrastructure plans outlined at the end of March by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The announcement of feasibility studies for almost 2,000km of new high-speed track was greeted with some scepticism, however, since Brazil’s first planned foray into the “bullet train” era has yet to leave the drawing board.

The long-mooted ambition of building a trem bala or bullet train between Brazil’s two biggest cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro was incorporated into President Lula da Silva’s first accelerated growth programme (PAC) in 2008, a year after the investment package was launched.

It was hoped the 518km high-speed link, Latin America’s first, would be ready on time to be a showcase project when Brazil hosts the World Cup football finals in mid-2014.

In the event, it is an ambition that now will not be fulfilled. Although the government did not specifically pledge to meet that deadline, Brazil’s successful bid in 2007 to host the tournament, noted: “A significant development is the construction of the Rio-São Paulo high-speed train that will connect both cities and reduce the journey time to less than two hours.”

Dilma Rousseff, speaking before she stepped down as Mr Lula da Silva’s chief of staff to run as his would-be successor in elections in October, said the plan was now to have the project up and running in time for Rio de Janeiro’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2016.

She acknowledged that a World Cup deadline was unlikely to be met.

The original plan for work to start on the R$34.6bn (US$20bn) project is now two years behind schedule and the government has pushed back the tendering process to the start of this month.

That timetable depends on the Tribunal de Contas de União, the federal auditing body, signing off on the cost aspects of the project.

Further delays could be incurred if would-be bidders were granted requests to extend the statutory 60 days in which to present their plans. The project will be financed by TAV Brasil, a company established for the purpose, with the government and other entities participating.

The development bank BNDES, the main state-run funding agency, would provide 60 per cent of the finance.

Delays have been blamed in part on differences among government and local authorities involved in the enterprise, as foreign companies with experience in the sector lined up to compete for the tender to build a line that will operate on a 40-year concession.

Environmental issues may also slow final approval.

As the government’s own transport experts say the project would take around five years, the schedule for having it running by the time of the Olympics is already tight.

François Lacôte, technical director of France’s Alstom, a potential bidder, was quoted by Radio France International last October as saying the government and the successful contractor would have to hurry to meet the Olympics deadline.

That was before a further delay put back the bidding process from February to May.

Once the project is under way, transport experts envisage potential cost overruns on a line that crosses some rugged countryside between Rio, at sea level, and its final stop at Campinas, an inland city of São Paulo state with an altitude of 660 metres.

The journey would include at least 130km of tunnels and bridges.

Nine stations are planned, lengthening what could potentially be a two-hour journey between the two big cities. These would include the two main international airports, Rio’s Galeão and Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos, and Campinas’s Viracopos.

A number of international companies have expressed interest in forming consortia to bid for the project.

From Europe, apart from Alstom, they include Germany’s Siemens and Italy’s Ansaldobreda.

From Japan, a bullet train pioneer, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, Toshiba and Hitachi are also interested. Elsewhere in Asia, there is South Korea’s Hyundai. Domestic interest has been shown by Brazil’s Bertin group, which might team with Hyundai and Samsung.

Qiu Xiaoq, the Chinese ambassador, also said recently that Beijing was interested in participating in the project as part of growing ties with Brazil that put it in third place among the country’s foreign investors in February.

Interviewed by O Globo newspaper during a visit in April by Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, to attend a summit of the Brics – Brazil, Russia, India and China – Mr Qiu said: “China has very great capacity in the infrastructure sector and is interested in participating in major projects in the country. An example is the bullet train.”

The country’s China Railway Materials company had already expressed interest in the Rio-São Paulo project.

Ms Rousseff said in March that potential Asian bidders had been the most aggressive so far in the contest to secure the contract.

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