Friday, January 4, 2013

From Tumbes to Tacna

The distance between Tumbes – the northernmost city in Peru, and Tacna – the southernmost city in Peru via the Pan American highway is 1596 miles. At any given moment on every mile of that highway there will be cars, trucks and buses…lots of buses. Every major city along the route has one or more bus terminals; each of them a scene of frantic activity and especially at night. I’m not sure if Peruvians travel at night because that’s when the buses leave, or if the busses leave at night because that’s when Peruvians want to travel.

At Chiclayo’s Ormeño terminal buses leave for Lima and other destinations throughout the day, but the real activity begins at around 6:00pm when buses begin departing about every 20 minutes. There are four other terminals in Chiclayo operating at this same pace, and Chiclayo is just one of a number of cities contributing to the Pan American bus caravan. The number of buses on the road at any one time is staggering. And they have accidents. Not nearly as many nor as spectacular as those buses winding their way through the Andes at night, but it is not unusual to see graphic television images of bus collisions on the Pan American. Besides the accidents, it seems logical to assume that buses are also contributing to pollution.  Beyond safety and pollution there is the time factor. A typical bus trip from Chiclayo to Lima – a distance of 477 miles takes 12 hours – an average of 40 miles per hour, and this on a bus that is supposedly direct. Other buses take as much as 22 hours. To traverse the 1596 miles between Tumbes and Tacna would take a minimum of 40 hours not including lay-over time in Lima to change buses. There should be a better option.

As seen on the map, most major cities in Peru are located on the coast along the Pan American highway where the vast majority or Peru’s population lives. Much of this route, especially between Piura in the north and Lima is flat, featureless desert. Might this not be perfect terrain for high-speed trains such as China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain Taiwan and the United Kingdom already have in place or are constructing? The advantages are many…highway congestion and pollution are reduced, passenger safety and comfort are increased, and modern high-speed trains are much more energy efficient than buses.

There would be significant travel time savings. Most high-speed trains in operation at present have a top speed of about 180 miles per hour, with an average speed of 100 miles per hour. Chiclayo to Lima would take 4.7 hours versus 12. Tumbes to Tacna would be 15.9 hours versus a minimum of 40. An unanswered question is…would Peruvians be willing to pay more (assuming trains would cost more) to reduce travel time? In my experience the average Peruvian does not value time. A typical Peruvian bus passenger is going to or returning from visiting family, or has made small scale local purchases for resale in Lima or some other large city. They have no pressing need to arrive at their destination any earlier. Those people for whom time is an issue…business people, politicians and professionals usually fly. So there may not be passenger demand from a time perspective if the difference in ticket price is too great.

The cost of building these train systems is not cheap, averaging about 15 million per mile. At that rate the cost for the entire Tumbes to Tacna route would be 38.3 billion, but the system obviously wouldn’t be built over night. A good start might be to begin at Lima and work north. Terrain difficulty would be minimized and by encompassing Lima, Trujillo and Chiclayo, three of Peru’s five most populous cities would be served.

Peru’s economy continues to grow. Perhaps spending on national infrastructure that would provide benefit now, and may be a necessity in the future would be a good investment.

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