Argentine Rail Transport Problems
The Waggon Bottleneck

It is widely recognised that one of Argentina's most acute economic problems to-day is constituted by the insufficiency and poor condition of the bulk of the country's available transport equipment, notably of course, railway rolling stock. In the following further article of a series in which certain aspects of the Argentine transport problem are examined, Mr. W. E. Anderson, M.A. deals with the seriousness of the situation, in so far as concerns railway freight waggons, it being reckoned that some 15,000 new waggons, involving a possible outlay of some 135 million dollars, are urgently needed if the problem of cost inflation in the transport sector of the economy is to be effectively tackled.

The primary function of the Argentine rail system is, of course, the carriage of goods. Passenger traffic is, as in other countries with a low population density, of secondary importance relative to the larger national economic issues.

Argentina's production having been from early days mainly agricultural and pastoral, the railway network spread out from the principal ports into the fertile hinterland. The movement of traffic therefore tends to be one-way, converging on the ports and their storage and processing centres, with a comparatively heavy return traffic of empty wagons. A further important fact is that the average value per ton of freight carried is lower than in most other countries, the major bulk tonnage being grain and fuels, both of low specific value.

Let us consider the total quantities to be transported per year, taking as a basis normal prewar production which it may reasonably be hoped once more to attain, as follows:

All kinds of grain 16 million tons
" fuels (excl. firewood and charcoal) 8 " "
Cattle and wool (excl. short hauls) 2 " "
26 " "

Taking an average haul as 400 Kms., we arrive at a round figure of some 10,000 million ton-Kms. for the transport of the above-mentioned products, which represents about 60 per cent. of the total ton-Kms. of all railways in 1952, some 16,000 million. The year 1952 is taken as a basis since this was the last year, mainly on account of the very low grain harvest, in which the greater part of the bulk transport was done by rail. In subsequent years an increasing proportion of this transport has been effected by other means--principally by road haulage--and therefore the statistical data available for this latter period do not give a truly representative picture. From the foregoing it will be appreciated that the economic and efficient use of railway transport equipment is of primary importance for the country's economy as a whole if its produce is to reach world markets at competitive prices, and the domestic standard of living be maintained.

Although the development of road transport has made important progress in Argentina of recent years, there are, nevertheless, serious obstacles to its further appreciable expansion at the present time and, so far as the moving of the bulk of the country's primary produce is concerned, the problem is still essentially one of rail transport and the inadequacy of the present facilities.

This traffic is, for the most, long-haul traffic--400 Kms. has been suggested as the average distance. Under normal conditions--i.e., without taking into account certain developments of the existing railway technique in Argentina, such as introduction of higher powered locomotives, increase of track lengths at marshalling yards and sidings, etc.--the type of bulk goods traffic considered would be transported on the average by 2,000-ton goods trains or, alternatively 15-ton trailer lorries. For purposes of comparison we may take it that a 1000 H.P. locomotive will be required, with a train crew of four men, as against a 100 H.P. lorry manned by two men. Therefore to haul 2,000 tons over 400 Kms. by either means would require:

Rail: 1,000 H.P. and 4 men/journeys
Road: 134,000 H.P. and 268 men/journeys

Naturally the real total freight cost in both cases is not limited to traction power and operatives; however, a detailed estimate on the subject shows that all other cost items as, for instance, capital investment, maintenance costs, etc., are relatively in the same proportion, so that it may be said that road transportation per ton from the point of view of the national economy for the above-mentioned type of bulk goods is considerably more expensive than by rail.

There are, of course, a number of other special factors favourable to each case that do not, however, alter the many economic facts regarding bulk transport. Some of these might be tabulated as follows:

Rail Road
Bulk grain facilities (i.e. portable silos at stations in the interior). Services not affected by weather. Greater responsibility in event of delay, damage or loss. Door-to-door transportation, with less handling involved. Less likelihood of deterioration or pilferage. More freedom from State controls, and more competitive tariffs. Lower capital investment and overheads.(1)

On the particular subject of rail transport, while steps are now being taken to improve the locomotive position, particularly as regards "dieselisation"--dealt with in a previous article*--the real bottleneck of the railway goods situation in Argentina is the current shortage of waggons. In this respect the following figures will serve to illustrate the situation. The total number of railway freight waggons in the country is approximately 80,000 (including some 7,500 cattle waggons). Taking the average load capacity of these as 20 tons each, this amounts to 1,600,000 tons total load capacity.

According to official statistics, the total freight performance of the Argentine railways in 1952 was 16,000 million ton-Kms. The average distance per waggon and year amounts, therefore, to only about 10,000 Kms. per year, that is, 30 Kms. per day.

Naturally, this latter figure is somewhat higher in practice, because of the empty and half-empty runs which are partly unavoidable (return journeys). However, the figure is still so extremely low that it is obvious that some other important factors also influence the result.

One is mal-administration in the allocation and loading of the waggons, causing excessive delay in turn-round. By far the most important reason, however, is the very bad state of maintenance of the rolling stock itself. At least 75 per cent. of the waggons have been over 25 years in service; a maximum of only 10 per cent. have been less than 15 years in service, while the number of post-war waggons is not more than 3,000, of which 2,000 are not operational because of a technical mistake that was made in ordering them (these are tank waggons purchased from war surplus designed for India with design standards unsuitable for Argentine conditions).

A further most unsatisfactory factor is that conditions in the repair shops are extremely bad: practically all essential materials necessary for repairs are lacking, both as regards quality and quantity. For instance, one can see waggons with completely corroded main underframe beams on which welders are working for weeks using enormous quantities of welding rods and excessive number of working hours, to build up the corroded beams, instead of simply changing them in a few hours, this because the necessary beam profiles are not available. This causes, as a natural consequence, an extremely poor turn-round of waggons in the repair shops. Indeed, waggons are occupying repair space literally for ten times as long as should be the case and, in the meantime, other waggons, urgently needed, are awaiting repair attention.

The final result of all this is an extremely poor availability of freight waggons, quite apart from the fact that the cost of waggon maintenance is astronomical. In fact, at least 80 per cent. of the freight waggons have passed their economically useful period of service and it is estimated that it would represent a big overall improvement in functional efficiency if these 60,000 old waggons were replaced by even 15,000 new waggons. That such an improvement in availability of waggons is an absolute necessity, will be seen from the following calculation:

A normal pre-war harvest, relative to that of 1951-52, would mean an increase in the volume of agricultural produce to be transported of about 10 million tons. Calculating this at an average transport distance of 400 Kms., it represents an additional transport performance of 4,000 million ton-Kms. and this should be complied with during a period of about six months, that is to say a 50 per cent. increase in specific load over 1951-52.

Assuming more or less ideal conditions, that is, new waggons and efficient administration, we may calculate a turn-around for harvest traffic of 400 Kms. in four days (one day loading, one day useful run of 400 Kms., one day unloading and one day-return journey of 400 Kms.). Assuming again 20-ton load capacity waggons, that is on the average 2.000 ton-Kms. per waggon per day, it can be estimated that to cover the additional 4,000 million ton-Kms. of a normal pre-war harvest in, say, 180 days, not less than 11,000 efficiently used and freely available 20-ton waggons would be required.

The question that naturally suggests itself is what is now happening under conditions in which the necessary waggons are not available?

The answer is simple: an enormous increase of transport cost by using all and every kind of uneconomical transportation vehicle, a substantial and uneconomical extension of the transportation period, incalculable losses due to deterioration of produce whilst waiting for waggons, etc. Naturally, all this does not show up directly as the fault of the railways. Since transport inefficiency exists all along the line from the farm to actual export and shipping, the losses are distributed over all stages of the process: the harvest cannot be exported because agreements are not completed with purchasers; elevator capacity is insufficient with the result that the ports cannot receive the grain; prolonged delays are involved in the grain reaching the railway stations on account of lack of transport facilities from the field; and, amongst all these unfavourable factors, the shortage of railway freight waggons plays its far from negligible part in accentuating the devaluation of the harvest.

In conclusion it may be of interest to consider the heavy capital outlay that would be needed to cover the purchase of 15,000 new freight waggons which, as stated above, would be required to solve this acute rail transport bottleneck. Taking an average cost of U$S 9,000 per freight waggon this would amount to some U$S 135 million, which under present circumstances would appear to be quite beyond the overseas purchasing power of the State railway organisation in these, the lean years of our economic experience.

* "The Review", September 30, 1955, p. 30.

(The Review of the River Plate, 31 October, 1955, pages 38-39).

* * *

The following figures --- while supplementing estimates made above --- may serve to put things into perspective and exonerate Argentine railways from tiresome charges of bad management.
EMPLOYMENT OF FREIGHT CARS -- Argentine and United States
Freight cars in stock Argentine US Argentine in
% of US
1957 1958/9 a 1957 1959 1957 1959
No. No. No. No.
84,735 84,495 1,869,781 1,849,834 4.5 4.6
Freight cars in service 77,551 72,842 1,789,063 1,707,983 4.3 4.3
% out of service 9.3 16.0 4.5 8.3 205.3 192.6
Car miles run (thousands) Kms. Kms. Miles Miles
Loaded 946,926 906,188 19,075,886 17,175,582 3.1 3.3
Empty 382,082 365,704 11,604,495 10,786,244 2.0 2.1
Empty in % of total 28.7 28.8 37.8 38.6 76.0 74.5
Car-miles per car in service Kms. Kms. Miles Miles
Loaded 12,210 12,440 10,663 10,056 71.2 76.9
Empty 4,927 5,021 6,486 6,315 47.2 49.4
Total 17,137 17,461 17,149 16,371 62.1 66.3
Tons originating (thousands) 1
Total tonnage 31,343 30,612 1,296,573 1,302,131 2.4 2.4
Agricultural products 8,375 8,861 137,618 145,531 6.1 6.1
Do. in % of total 26.7 28.9 10.6 11.2 251.7 259.0
Live Stock & Products 3,110 2,912 11,074 9,994 28.1 29.1
Do. in % of total 9.9 9.5 0.9 0.8 1161.7 1239.2
Minerals 5,671 6,012 769,675 632,870 0.7 0.9
Do. in % of total 18.1 19.6 59.4 48.6 30.5 40.4
Ton-miles (millions) Ton-km. Ton-km. Ton-miles Ton-miles
Total ton-miles 15,496 16,405 637,009 592,293 1.5 1.7
Average length of haul Kms. Kms. Miles Miles
494 536 491 455 62.6 73.3
Freight train frequency Kms. Kms. Miles Miles
Train miles (thousands) 47,825 45,194 447,181 414,134 6.7 6.8
Miles of line 43,999 43,931 221,360 219,723 12.4 12.4
Train miles per mile of line 1,087 1,029 2,020 1,885 33.5 33.9
Freight train speed
Train hours 1,767,475 1,633,146 23,740,103 21,252,198 7.4 7.7
Running speed km.p.h km.p.h m.p.h m.p.h
27.1 27.7 18.8 19.5 89.3 88.3
Commercial speed 2 17.1 18.0 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a.
Number of trips per car per year
Loaded 24.7 23.2 21.7 22.1 113.8 105.0
Days spent running on the road 3
Loaded 29.7 28.7 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a.
Empty 12.0 11.6 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a.
Total 41.7 40.3 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a.
a. -- Fiscal year ending October 31.
1. -- Argentine: Revenue and company's tonnage originating -- US: Revenue tonnage originating plus company's tonnage carried.
2. -- Commercial speed allows for time spent at intermediate stations.
3. -- Based on commercial speed.
Sources:
Empresa de Ferrocarriles del Estado Argentino, Estadística de los ferrocarriles en explotación, ejercicio 1957/58, Buenos Aires, 1963.
Association of American Railroads, Statistics of Railroads of Class I, Statistical Summary No. 52, August 1968.
They show:

(1) A comparatively large number of Argentine wagons out of service;
(2) A better utilization of Argentine freight cars by better avoidance of empty runs;
(3) A poorer utilization of Argentine freight cars in terms of kilometrage per wagon and per year;
(4) A much greater proportion of farm products and fewer minerals carried in the Argentine;
(5) A shorter average length of haul in the Argentine; and
(6) A less frequent train service in the Argentine;
(7) With somewhat slower trains; but
(8) Better utilization of freight cars as measured by the number of trips per year, under load.

The poor third result may be explained, in good part, by the next five. The larger proportion of farm products is associated with more time allowed for loading and unloading, necessarily by the infrequent service to rural areas, and especially because of delays at ports where wagons were used as mobile storage bins. That extra time for loading and unloading can explain much of the poorer Argentine car-mileage in spite of better allocation of cars to revenue-earning trips resulting in a greater number of trips per year.

Regarding the number of cars out of service, it is observed that of the freight cars in stock in the US in 1957, 82,427 or 4.4 per cent were new, put in service in that year. At that rate, the Argentine should have acquired 3,690 new cars in 1955 alone. The actual number acquired during the five years from 1951 and 1955 was 3,161.

S. Damus.


1. Lower capital investment and overheads presumably by exclusion of the costs carried by Vialidad Nacional and other road-building authorities, and for the collection of fuel taxes, vehicle licensing and highway police. (S.D.).


Home Back