Rail transport in Bolivia

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Railways in Bolivia (interactive map)
--- Routes with passenger traffic
--- Routes in usable state
********** Unusable or dismantled routes Railways in Bolivia.png
Railways in Bolivia (interactive map)
━━━ Routes with passenger traffic
━━━ Routes in usable state
·········· Unusable or dismantled routes
Passenger trains in Bolivia (interactive map) Passenger trains in Bolivia.png
Passenger trains in Bolivia (interactive map)

The Bolivian rail network has had a peculiar development throughout its history; owing to losses of land, prestige and credit rating due to the failure of the War of the Pacific, railway development came late to Bolivia. The demand for mineral wealth and communication to the inland city of La Paz, encouraged foreign investors, mainly British, to construct railways. However, into this mix came the experience of railway building in adjacent Peru, whereby overbuilding of 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge line across the high Andes meant that Peru went bankrupt.



Vintage photo of Kitson- Meyer by Beyer Peacock for the Antofagasta - Bolivia Railroad Company Kitson Meyer Beyer Peacock FCAB.jpg
Vintage photo of Kitson– Meyer by Beyer Peacock for the Antofagasta - Bolivia Railroad Company

Lines were built to furnish the nitrate deposits at Arica, and later at Antofagasta. The rapidly expanding tin and silver mining in Bolivia meant that railway building projects were given a big impetus from the 1920s. Many of the lines remained unfinished until the 1950s. Bolivia had a mixture of lines and gauges, 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) (standard) and 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) (meter gauge) were the norm; as were British-built engines. The railway lines radiated out from the mines to the coast, and did not reflect the population centres and their need to move. Consequently, it was in the mid-century that lines were built across the high plain to Argentina and into the jungle of eastern Bolivia. The disconnected nature of travel due to the Andes, Lake Titicaca, gauge change, frontiers, and lasting resentment with the neighbours over territory loss, meant that railways in Bolivia were incomplete. Most railways in Argentina are 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm) gauge and thus problematic with neighbouring Bolivia. A line was made connecting the two across the Gran Chaco.


All railways in Bolivia are now 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) Metre gauge. The Antofagasta to Uyuni line was originally 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) gauge.


FCAB Line from Antofagasta

Current Ferrocarril de Antofagasta a Bolivia dates back to 1873 FCAB1413.jpg
Current Ferrocarril de Antofagasta a Bolivia dates back to 1873

The Ferrocarril de Antofagasta a Bolivia started at the Chilean port of Antofagasta. It proceeded up the front range of the Andes to Ollagüe on the Bolivian border, then across the Bolivian pampas to Uyuni and Oruro. At Oruro the gauge changed to metre gauge for the remainder of the route to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. A number of branches were added to reach various mining fields. The Collahuasi branch reached 4815 metres (15,795 ft) above sea level, regarded at the time of construction as the highest railway in the world. The total length of 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) gauge lines, including branches and subsidiaries, was 1,537 km (955 mi).

The history of the railway dates back to 1872 with the grant of a concession by the government of Bolivia to Melbourne Clarke & Co, the territory around Antofagasta being part of Bolivia at this date. The railway was organised as the Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company. Construction started in 1873, with the first section opening late in that year, motive power provided by mules. Steam locomotives were introduced in 1876, and by 1879 the railway had extended about 150 km into the interior. War broke out in 1879 between Chile on one side, and Peru and Bolivia on the other. One of the causes of the war was an attempt by the Bolivian government to levy back taxes on the railway. The "War of the Pacific" ended in 1883, and Chile gained the region around Antofagasta as well as part of Peru.

Control of the railway passed to the Company Huanchilaca de Bolivia in 1887, who subsequently floated the railway on the London stock exchange in 1888 as the FCAB. The Huanchilaca company retained the right to operate the railway for a further 15 years. The line reached Oruro in Bolivia, the end of the 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) section, in 1892, and branches continued to be added over subsequent years. British business interests resumed control of the entire system in 1903. Traffic reached a point where the port of Antofagasta was unable to cope. A new port was opened to the north at Mejillones in 1906. The entire region is a desert, with almost no rainfall. The company constructed a system of pipes and reservoirs to bring water for the railway from the high Andes, eventually becoming responsible for supplying Antofagasta with water as well.

Bolivian government interests supported the construction of a railway between Oruro and the Bolivian capital, La Paz, and this line was opened in stages between 1908 and 1913 This line was constructed to metre gauge, and was leased to the FCAB. The FCAB now had two operating divisions, one using 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) gauge, the other metre gauge. The Chilean 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) gauge track was regauged to one meter in 1926.

Bolivia built a line to the shores of Lake Titicaca, where travellers could take a steamer, the Inca, across to the rails of Peru. A ferry connects the 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) gauge railway of Peru at Puno with the 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) gauge railway of Bolivia at Guaqui. See also Peru train ferry.

Lines in the south, east

In Bolivia the use of railbuses for passenger transport has always existed and it fits very well because of the rough topography of the land, are fast, reliable and generally comfortable. Here a vintage Ferrostaal railcar rebuilt and redesigned entirely by the Master Workshops of Guaracachi, located in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. Coche Motor Ferrostaal (FCOSA) 01.jpg
In Bolivia the use of railbuses for passenger transport has always existed and it fits very well because of the rough topography of the land, are fast, reliable and generally comfortable. Here a vintage Ferrostaal railcar rebuilt and redesigned entirely by the Master Workshops of Guaracachi, located in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.

The first lines in the country were built over the Andes, and then in a north–south line down the altiplano from La Paz to Villazon on the Argentine border. Another line ran from Yacuiba in the SE, again from Argentina, and ran in a northern direction paralleling the first line. Based on a contract with Argentina of 1925, Bolivia achieved an extension to Villazon, connecting with the meter-gauge Central Norte to Buenos Aires. That FC Atocha-Villazon got in 1929 2-8-2s from Borsig and in 1942 2-10-2s from Baldwin.

A line from São Paulo, Brazil, enters Bolivia at Puerto Suarez and connects to this line at Santa Cruz. In the 1950s this last major rail system was completed. A line was intended to run from Santa Cruz to Trinidad (about 500 km) in the north center of the country, but never reached there, it ended north of Yapacani (150 km), from where since 2014 an industrial spur is under construction to the ammonia/urea factory near Bulo Bulo (60 km).

Spur lines were run to mining districts and the regional capital of Cochabamba.

Mamore and Madeira Railway

Another railway was a local line in the Amazonian jungle. The Madeira-Mamoré Railroad runs in a 365 kilometres (227 mi) loop around the unnavigable section to Guajará-Mirim on the Mamoré River. [1]

Although the idea of river navigation was complicated, in 1869, the North American engineer George Earl Church obtained from the Bolivian government a concession to create and explore a navigation enterprise that linked the Mamoré and Madeira Rivers. However, shortly afterwards, he realized the real difficulty of this undertaking, and the plans were definitively changed to the construction of a railroad. Negotiations advanced and, by 1870, Church received permission from the Brazilian government to build a railroad along the rubber trees of the Madeira River.

However, the increase in uncontrolled extraction of rubber was on the road to provoking an international conflict. The Brazilian workers advanced further and further into the forests in the territory of Bolivia in search of new rubber trees to extract the precious latex, creating conflicts and skirmishes on the frontier towards the end of the 19th century, which caused a revolt led by José Plácido de Castro. The recently proclaimed Republic of Acre drew considerable profit from the wealth of the rubber trade, but the "Acre question" (as the border conflicts caused by rubber extraction became known) preoccupied it. It was then that a providential and intelligent intervention by the diplomat Barão do Rio Branco and the ambassador Joaquim Francisco de Assis Brasil, in part financed by the "rubber barons", culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Petrópolis, signed November 17, 1903 during the government of president Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves. This treaty halted the conflict with Bolivia, guaranteeing effective control of the forests of Acre by Brazil.

The treaty, drafted by the Brazilian minister Barão do Rio Branco, gave Brazil the territory of Acre (191,000 km²), in exchange for over 3,000 km² of Brazilian territory between the Abunâ and Madeira rivers, a monetary payment of two million British pounds, paid in two installments, and a pledge of a rail-link between the Bolivian city of Riberalta and the Brazilian city of Porto Velho, which would bypass the rapids on the Madeira. The rail line was called the Madeira-Mamoré Railway. It was supposed to go as far as Riberalta, on the Rio Beni, above that river's rapids, but had to stop short at Guajará-Mirim. This was actually the third such attempt. In the 1870s, during the rubber boom, the American George Church was defeated twice by the heat, the difficulty of the terrain and appalling loss of life from fever. The contract for the Madeira-Mamoré railway required by the treaty was won by another American, Percival Farquhar. Construction began in August 1907 and was completed on July 15, 1912. The project cost US$33 million. At least 3,600 men died building the 367 km of track Guajaramirin-Station (popular estimates say that each one hundred sleepers cost one human life). The Madeira-Mamoré railway had about a year of full operation before the combination of the collapse of rubber prices, the opening of a railway from Bolivia to the Pacific via Chile and of the Panama Canal rendered it uneconomic. It was kept going until 1972.

Steel lines to the Silver at Potosi

Rio Mulatos-Potosí line is a train line in Bolivia, containing Cóndor station, the world's second highest railway station (4,786 m).

Abt Racks in the Andes

Another line is the Arica line, built to move tin ore and, because of the grades across the Andes, it used the Abt rack railway system for several kilometers. This increased expense and mechanical difficulty on the engines and caused problems.

Ascending to the Altiplano

Problems continued at La Paz as it sits in a deep mountain valley. Steam engines found it difficult to make the grade and thus the first 6 miles (9.7 km) to El Alto were electrified early on to give engines enough power.

Maturity and decline

A revolution in 1953 led by the miners changed government to the left. One thing the new regime did was nationalize the railways. From this the Empressa Ferrocarril Nacional de Bolivia (ENFE) emerged. However, twenty years later, the advent of the Banzer regime in the 1970s starved the railways of cash, failing them just as they were coming into maturity. In the 1970s development aid came to Bolivia, due to Cold War geopolitics from America, and so highways and the military were built up and the railways were neglected. Senac, the Bolivian road agency, was established in 1964 when there were only 3,000 kilometers of roads, and it supervised road construction and maintenance; now there are 42000 km. In the 1980s with the rise in interest rates, debtor nations like Bolivia entered the Latin American debt crisis and began to retrench financing for public works and operations, like railways.

By the late 1980s, Bolivia possessed an extensive but aging rail system that operated over 3,700 kilometers of rail and carried over 535 million tons of freight and 2.4 million passengers a year. The National Railroad Enterprise (Empresa Nacional de Ferrocarriles—Enfe) operated the dilapidated system, which had been subject to World Bank rehabilitation schemes since 1970. Government policies emphasized the continued upgrading of the railroad and plans to join the Atlantic and Pacific coasts by rail. In 1988 the Argentine Railroad Company (Ferrocarriles Argentinos) began work on the Expreso del Sud rail line, which would connect Buenos Aires with La Paz and eventually Matarani, Peru, to form the Liberators of America Corridor (Corredor Libertadores de América), the first Atlantic-Pacific railroad in South America. The Bolivian government also contemplated another transoceanic railroad linking Santa Cruz to Cochabamba, thus integrating its Andean and lowland railroads. Presently, passenger trains are very slow in Bolivia and have lost favour to highway buses, called flotas. Mining concentrates still travel by long freight trains. Some of the lines have been sold to American interests.

The 3,685-kilometer (2,290 mi) single track railroad, most of it narrow gauge, has 2 unconnected systems. The Western Network, built much earlier, connects La Paz with Cochabamba and the Chilean ports of Arica and Antofagasta. It also connects with Argentina. In bygone days a railroad journey from La Paz to Buenos Aires was popular and comfortable. The Eastern Network connects the city of Santa Cruz to São Paulo, Brazil. Another line goes from Santa Cruz to Argentina. Many attempts to connect the 2 systems with a link from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz have never succeeded. The same is true of the so-called "inter-oceanic corridor" that would go from the Brazilian Atlantic coast to the Chilean Pacific coast, passing through Bolivia. Currently most Bolivian railroads are in disrepair. In 1964 there were 103 locomotives, but only 34 in 1995. The Bolivian railway system was a state corporation known as ENFE. In 1991, a Japanese study estimated that upgrading the railway system would require US$46 billion over 30 years. Hopes to privatize and capitalize the system were only partially accomplished when in 1995 the Chilean consortium, Cruz Blanca, acquired 50 percent of ENFE. Bolivia sold a majority share in ENFE to the Chilean company Cruz Blanca in 1996, which discontinued most passenger routes — including lines to La Paz — in favor of freight service. Cruz Blanca later sold the western portion of the railway to the Chilean company Luksic Group, and in 2000 sold the eastern portion to the U.S. company Genesee & Wyoming Inc. The ENFE sale was part of a sweeping privatization initiative in the mid-1990s, when at the urging of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund Bolivia sold its government interests in the oil and gas, water, power, railroad and telecommunications sectors, as well as the national airline and pension plan.

By 1999, Bolivia again had 55 operating locomotives with around 2,000 railway cars. The passenger load was 750,000 in 1992 and is still below 1 million per year. Freight also has declined sharply.

Future plans

The government of Evo Morales has proposed a rail line uniting La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz, connecting onwards to Brazil and the Pacific coast. [2]

The department of Cochabamba and the national government are contracting design studies in 2011 for regional trains to run on two routes: Cochabamba-Caluyo-Tarata-Cliza-Punata-Arani and Sipe Sipe-Vinto-Cochabamba-Sacaba-Chiñata. [3] A 180-day study on Sipe Sipe-Chiñata line is being carried out between August 2011 and February 2012. [4] This project, known as Mi Tren, is under construction and due for completion in 2020.


In 2007 thieves had stolen 100 meters of Bolivian track overnight, and the morning freight had insufficient distance to stop. Photo of the site shows locomotives 1021 and 951 remained upright, but extensive damage ensued.

See also

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Arica–La Paz railway

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History of rail transport in Bolivia

The history of rail transport in Bolivia began in the 1870s after almost three decades of failed efforts to build railroads to integrate the country, mining was the driving force for the construction of railways. The need to transport saltpeter to the coast triggered the first railway lines in Bolivia. It was the silver mining, however, that drove the construction of a railway from the Pacific coast to the high plateau during the nineteenth century. Later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, tin mining gave a new impetus to railway building, forming what is now known as the Andean or Western network. The eastern network, on the other hand, developed between the years 1940 and 1960 and is financed in exchange for oil through agreements with Argentina and Brazil. Bolivia being a landlocked country, the railways played a fundamental role and the history of its railroads is the history of the country's efforts to reach first ports on the Pacific coast and then the Atlantic.



  1. Brazil's Devil's Railway gets new lease of life BBC
  2. "Buscan apoyo chino para tren eléctrico". La Razón. 2011-01-30. Retrieved 2011-03-11.
  3. Nava B., Jhenny (2011-03-11). "Gobernador anuncia estudio para reactivar el ferrocarril". Opinión. Cochabamba. Retrieved 2011-03-11.
  4. Alcócer Caero, Gisela (2011-08-24). "Un consorcio elabora el plan para reactivar tren del valle". Los Tiempos. Cochabamba. Retrieved 2011-08-24.


  • Walker, Christopher; Binns, Donald (2005). Railways of Bolivia: Locomotives, Railcars and Rolling Stock. North Yorkshire: Trackside Publications. ISBN   1900095289.

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