With an area of over 2 million sqm, Colombia has a distinct topography that is both challenging and attractive at the same time. Few of the almost 50 million citizens reside in the south and east of the country, where rainforest and tropical grasslands predominate. However, the mountainous Andean portion of the country in the west is home to many, a fact that renders the integration of a consolidated national transportation infrastructure complex. In addition, the extensive network of rivers that traverse the country presents a number of other obstacles, but is also key to transportation and logistics in the country. Both cargo and passengers are ferried regularly on the Magdalena and a number of other prominent waterways. Owing to this diverse and generally uneven terrain, however, Colombia’s existing transportation system has developed in an ad hoc and singular fashion.
This is all set to change, however, as the National Infrastructure Agency (ANI) continues with its revolutionary program of concessions targeting roads, rail, maritime, and air transport deficiencies. A full $50 billion worth of projects has been put on the table to update the country’s transport systems, and many of these are already underway.
Colombia is renowned for its widespread use of air transportation, with proportionally one of the highest rates of air travel in the world. With a total of 836 airports, over 700 of which are unpaved, air travel is a key element of the national transport infrastructure. The country boasts the world’s second oldest commercial airline in government-owned Aerovías del Continente Americano S.A., better known as Avianca, the modern incarnation of which comprises what was Sociedad Aeronaútica de Medellín (SAM) and Helicol. The airline leads the sector with close to 60% of the market share, but was followed by LAN Colombia which held on to over 20% of the market. VivaColombia, a low-cost rival, controls over 10%, and is followed by the regional carrier Satena with just 3.5%. Copa Colombia, the Panamanian giant’s operator in-country, essentially shut down its activities by more than 70% over the course of 2014, but still manages to hold on to more of the market than EasyFly, with just 1.9%. At a national level, passenger numbers have grown to over 25 million per annum, and government targets for 2018 stand at well over 30 million. The market will expand in parallel with projections of a doubling of the Latin American air transport sector by 2030.
Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport is home to Avianca and a number of other carriers, and has emerged in recent years as an air traffic hub not only for the country, but for the continent at large. The airport recorded a total of 277,604 flights taking off and landing at El Dorado over the four quarters of 2014. In the 1Q2014, 2,079,430 domestic passengers passed through the airport’s halls, while a total of 2,694,533 were recorded in the final quarter. International passenger figures hovered at over 1 million for each quarter. El Dorado is the third busiest airport in Latin America. In addition, it holds the title for the continent’s busiest cargo terminal, which is unsurprising given that airlines carry four times more cargo than roads at a national level. Expansion of the facility has been planned across four phases, and will provide the airport with an additional 638,000sqm. The Ministry of Transport has also allotted $561 million for a concession for Barranquilla airport, projects at Cali’s airport, and the creation of an airport at Ipiales near the border with Ecuador, as part of its “Infrastructure for Prosperity” plan. Feasibility studies are being carried out to assess the possibility of constructing a second airport for the capital too.
The already established network of domestic and international airports provides Colombia with an unmatched opportunity for taking a leading role in regional air travel. Of the over 4 million tourists that set foot on Colombian soil over the year, a full three quarters arrived by plane. Other key airports include those of Medellín, Cali, Cartagena, Barranquilla, and San Andreas, with over a dozen international ports of entry for foreign air passengers. The Special Administrative Unit of Civil Aeronautics (Aerocivil) manages the national development of its aeronautic capacity and controls traffic in Colombian airspace. Aerocivil attended an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) meeting in Indonesia in 3Q2014, where it advanced bilateral links with a number of countries including Austria Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, as part of an ongoing expansion of connections with the wider world.
An important part of the government’s capital investment program has been dedicated to the augmentation of the country’s railway network. The country’s railroads were deregulated in the late 1980s after over three decades of nationalized control. The system has grown from a 2010 base of around 846km of operational tracks to over 1,300km in 2014, representing an increase of 58%. Works are continuing with a view to expanding the overall length of operational railways to over 2,300km over the next three years, according to the World Bank. The PPP projects tendered in 2013 will ultimately rehabilitate over 1,200km of the public network, primarily the Central Rail System which runs along the Magdalena river and the line that crosses the Cundiboyacense plateau in the eastern Andes. New lines will connect these to networks, and will also create new links to Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Dibulia on the Caribbean coast.
THE RIVER WILD
In the past, Colombia’s rivers played a crucial role in opening up the interior of the country, with the Magdalena, the continent’s fourth longest, handling millions of tons of cargo and hundreds of thousands of passengers as late as the mid-1950s. However, in 1961, the nadir of La Violencia, a period of civil strife and violence across the country, had made rural Colombia largely unsafe. The use of the river, and others such as the Atrato, Meta, and Sinú, declined over time. The Magdalena still carries petroleum bulk cargo, but will soon be returned to its former glory thanks to the government’s recent investment in transportation infrastructure, and the long-overdue initiation of the dredging of the river to make it navigable for passenger and cargo ferries. As part of the concession, the Corporación Autónoma Regional del Río Grande de la Magdalena (Cormagdalena) and various other interested parties will collaborate to ensure a sustainable and effective transformation of the waterway. When complete, the cost of transporting goods from the interior, compared with trucking, will be almost halved, and many inland regions will again be opened up and linked with the prominent Caribbean port of Barranquilla.
A number of other important deep-water Caribbean ports, such as Cartagena and Santa Marta, serve international shipping, with the considerable cargo volumes they handle due to be bolstered by the upcoming expansion of the Panama Canal. The nation’s merchant marine is also served by these ports, and comprises around a dozen vessels that bring commodities such as coffee to international shores. The country’s biggest port is Buenaventura, which is also the port of significance on the Pacific coast. It handles over half of the country’s cargo, and this volume is set to grow as the Pacific Alliance, with Chile, Peru, and Mexico, expands maritime trade with eastern Asia. Again, as part of the state’s broader investment in infrastructure, the ports of Cartagena and Buenaventura have been dredged to depths of 19m and 16m respectively.
But by far the area most in need of attention, and consequently receiving the bulk of the government’s investment, is roads. With the vast majority of the nations roads unpaved, the reasons for such high transportation costs in Colombia are clear. Of the $50 billion set aside for the sector’s development, half has been assigned to the national road system. The new program of 40 toll road concessions will help to maintain thousands of kilometers roadways that will improve transport costs for cargo and slash travel times across the country. These largely double-lane highways will connect areas of high production with ports, larger cities, and borders, completely transforming the country. A number of four-lane highways will also form part of this network, with a goal of around 3,400km to be operational by 2018. These momentous changes in the sector will dramatically reduce the costs associated with transportation, and will allow Colombia to shake off its reputation as being a difficult country for travel.
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