Chinese rail, roads and buses arrive in Colombia

Transport projects agreed in 2019 include metro and tram lines, electric bus fleets and a highway
<p>In 2019,&nbsp;Medell&iacute;n&nbsp;added the first 17 electric buses&nbsp;manufactured by the Chinese company BYD to its&nbsp;public transport system. (Image: Metro de Medell&iacute;n/Facebook)</p>

In 2019, Medellín added the first 17 electric buses manufactured by the Chinese company BYD to its public transport system. (Image: Metro de Medellín/Facebook)

Last year, Chinese companies finally made headway into Colombia, the Latin American country that has arguably been most sceptical about investment from the region’s second-largest trading partner. There were plenty of headlines in December about the Zijin Mining Group’s purchase of gold-mining company Continental Gold. But in truth, Colombia had already opened the door to Chinese capital and its companies through the transport sector.

Four business deals stand out: the contract to build a long-awaited metro line in the capital Bogotá; the bid for a suburban tram line serving the Bogotá metropolitan area; the entry of electric bus fleets into Medellín and Cali; and the contract for a new highway in the south of the country.

These mark a notable turnaround in the relationship between the two countries, despite the fact that Colombia remains one of the few nations in the region not to have joined China’s flagship infrastructure scheme the Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese ambassador in Bogotá, Xu Wei, acknowledged in October that “so far, due to the lack of knowledge and trust, we do not have a very good economic and commercial relationship”.

An elevated metro for Bogotá

In October last year, Bogotá chose two Chinese companies as winners of the tender for the construction of the first line of its metro, which will begin this year.

The signing of the contract on 27 November seems to have put an end to a century-long saga. Bogotá has seen successive proposals for the metro fall apart; people began to speak of it more as a myth than a plan. While similar-sized cities like Lima in Peru built their metros, Colombia’s capital with its seven million inhabitants, remained one of the world’s largest metropolises without one.​

​Two Chinese companies will begin construction of the first line of Bogotá’s subway this year (Image: Bogotá Metro)​

The company is made up of APCA Transmimetro, a consortium 85% owned by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), which is a subsidiary of the state-run giant China Construction Communications Company (CCCC). The remaining 15% is held by Xi’an Metro Company, a company from Shaanxi province that operates mainly in China and led the construction and running of the Xi’an subway.

In the end, competing with a single rival and having submitted the lowest bid of 13.8 billion pesos (US$4.5 billion), the Chinese consortium won the Bogotá metro contract. The victory came despite a lack of experience building metros and a number of scandals surrounding some of its projects in countries such as Costa Rica, Panama, Sri Lanka and China itself.

Its mission will be to build the first line of this elevated metro, comprising 23.96km of viaduct and 16 stations, crossing the Colombian capital from south to north. The Bogotá Mayor’s Office estimates that it will be able to transport 72,000 passengers per hour, helping to reduce pressure on the Transmilenio bus rapid transit system. The characteristic red buses, which now account for 50% of Bogotá’s transport, can no longer meet demand.​

A tram connecting Bogotá and its commuter towns

The metro is not the only part of Bogotá’s transport system awaiting attention. Another key project is a commuter tram-train line that will connect the city with four of its most populous neighbouring municipalities.

The project, known as the Regiotram de Occidente, will start operating in 2023. An electric-powered tram-train, it will travel the 41km separating the centre of Bogotá from Facatativá, stopping at 17 stations as it traverses the suburbs of Madrid, Funza and Mosquera.

Artist’s depiction of Bogotá’s RegioTram (Image: Government of Cundinamarca)

Some 465,000 live in the commuter towns, according to the 2018 census. Thousands of them travel to work each day in Bogotá. Colombia’s first inter-municipal train line could transport up to 120,000 passengers a day, reducing the current two-hour travel time to just 50 minutes.

Several companies were interested in the 3.4 billion pesos project (US$1 billion), which was awarded on December 23. In the end, the only one to submit an offer was China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), a subsidiary of the state-run China Railway Construction Company (CRCC). CCECC ranks 59th on the Fortune 500 and has undertaken no previous projects in Colombia, although it is building three road projects in Ecuador.

The first green buses, in Medellín​ and Cali

This year, two Colombian cities joined other Latin American pioneers including Santiago de Chile in moving from fossil-fuel powered public buses to a fleet of electric-powered ones.

Cali and Medellín are two of the leading cities in Latin America in the purchase of electric buses (Image: Office of the Mayor of Cali)

In November, Medellín added the first 17 electric buses manufactured by the Chinese company BYD to its Metroplús public transport system. The purchase of 64 buses made Colombia’s second city the owner of the second-largest electric fleet in the region, with the local government financing all of them. The deal was won following a tendering process in which two other companies offered buses from Chinese manufacturers Yutong and Zhongtong.

In Cali, a first group of 26 electric vehicles manufactured by the Chinese company Sunwin Bus Corporation hit the streets in September. In all, Colombia’s third-largest city set itself the goal of introducing 125 electric buses into its Western Mass Integrated Transport (MIO) system last year.

Medellín and Cali are the first cities to advance Colombia’s goal under the Paris Agreement of replacing 75% of public buses in seven cities with zero-emission vehicles by 2040. Bogotá has in effect been overtaken. While Medellín and Cali bought ordinary electric buses from China, the capital has not yet found alternatives for the articulated and bi-articulated buses it uses in the TransMilenio system.

Electric technology is particularly attractive for Colombia given the greenness of its energy mix, with 70% coming from hydropower.

A new motorway in the south

In November, President Iván Duque announced that another Chinese company had been chosen to complete a problematic highway in the south of the country.

The 456-km road between the cities of Neiva and Mocoa forms part of the ambitious “fourth generation” road plan launched by former president Juan Manuel Santos. This route is key as it would integrate the Putumayo region on the border with Ecuador, which has long had difficulties accessing markets and continues to be an epicentre of coca cultivation.

The construction company for this roadway will be CCA Colombia Corp., a subsidiary of China Construction America. That company, in turn, is part of the state-run giant China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC), ranked 21st on the Fortune 500.

Although it was supposed to be ready by the end of 2019, road construction came to a standstill. It is barely 5% complete owing to Aliadas, the consortium awarded the contract in 2015, having declared bankruptcy. This followed the implication of its main partner and builder, Carlos Solarte, in the corruption scandal that hit the Brazilian multinational Odebrecht.

Almost a month after the announcement, there is still no documentation at the National Infrastructure Agency confirming that the Chinese construction company will take control of the project, nor any certainty that work will resume soon, local news website La Silla Vacía reported.

All these announcements seem to show that, as Duque said on his state visit to Beijing and Shanghai in August, Colombia wants to develop a relationship with China that goes beyond its million-dollar oil sales.

This is an edited version of an article originally published on our sister site Diálogo Chino.