ColombiaOne.comHistoryThe History of Railroads in Colombia: A Journey Through Time

The History of Railroads in Colombia: A Journey Through Time


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Train from Tourist railroads “Turistren” at Usaquén station in Bogota, Colombia. Credit: Nils Öberg/CC BY-SA 3.0

The history of railroads in Colombia is a fascinating story that dates back to the 19th century when the country began to explore the idea of connecting its regions through a railway network. Over the years, railroads have played a crucial role in Colombia’s economic development and the export of key products such as coffee. However, they have also faced numerous challenges and changes.

The beginnings of railroads in Colombia date back to 1835 when the Congress of the New Granada granted concessions for the construction of railways in the cantons of Panama and Portobelo, with the goal of creating a railway route across the isthmus. This vision was realized with the construction of the Panama Railroad between 1849 and 1854, financed by American private capital. This 77-kilometer railroad facilitated the transportation of goods between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, though its impact on Colombia’s development was limited.

The Golden Age

Starting in 1865, Colombia began the construction of a series of railways within the country, connecting cities such as Barranquilla, Cucuta, Medellin, Cali, Santa Marta, La Dorada, the Bogota Savannah, and Girardot. These railways aimed to connect urban centers with river systems and ports, facilitating the trade of raw materials and products. This expansion took place between 1878 and 1935, with both public and private financing.

However, the construction and expansion of these railway lines faced a series of challenges, including failed contracts, environmental issues, corruption, and technical difficulties. Colombia’s mountainous topography also presented significant obstacles for tunnel construction and the laying of railway lines.

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Construction of the railway between Puente de Boyaca and Samaca in Colombia, Ramblai Tunnel Bona, km 156. Credit: Linder, J. A. C/Public domain

The Role of Coffee

The export of coffee played a crucial role in the development of railroads in Colombia. Railway lines were built in coffee-producing regions to transport this valuable product to the country’s main ports or rivers. Colombia’s railway network grew rapidly, from 236 kilometers in 1885 to 2,700 kilometers in 1930. The ownership of these lines was in the hands of the regions.

Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Colombia

In 1954, railway transportation was nationalized with the creation of Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Colombia (FNC). However, the company inherited numerous problems, including pension liabilities, an oversized workforce, and financial difficulties. Despite its importance in cargo transportation, Ferrocarriles Nacionales faced economic challenges from 1975 onwards due to government investment in roads, and cars becoming the preferred mode of transportation.

Restructuring and Privatization

In an effort to revitalize the railway network, Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Colombia was liquidated in 1988, and the Empresa Colombiana de Vias Ferreas (Ferrovias) was created. Private or mixed railway transportation companies were allowed to operate. However, despite investments in rehabilitating the network, the results did not meet expectations.

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Transporting coal from the Cerrejon mine. Credit: Carlos A. Revelo/CC BY-SA 3.0

Reviving Railroads

Today, Colombia seeks to reactivate its railway corridors. The existing railway network has a length of 3,553 kilometers, nearly half of which are inactive. While railways remain essential for the transportation of coal and other products, their competitiveness is hindered by narrow gauge tracks and a lack of modernization.

The Future of Railroads in Colombia

Colombia faces the challenge of modernizing and expanding its railway network to make the most of this sustainable and efficient mode of transportation. As private investors are sought and rehabilitation projects are undertaken, the country is determined to revitalize its railways and build a future where they play a central role in its economic and logistical development.

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