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UPM-linked railway line angers Uruguay residents

The track is being built by the Uruguayan government to serve a pulp mill being planned by Finnish forestry company UPM.

Alejandro Apkarian ja Elisabet Amarilla
Alejandro Apkarian (left) and Elisabet Amarilla plan to move because of a new train track which will serve a UPM mill. Image: Johanna Pohjola / Yle

Pizza chef Alejandro Apkarian was busy making dough at home when part of his roof fell in.

The cause was demolition work - a neighbouring house was being levelled to make way for a new train track in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo. The track is being built by the Uruguayan government to serve a pulp mill being planned by Finnish forestry company UPM.

One of the walls under demolition fell onto Apkarian's house, injuring a visiting friend and his 12-year-old son. The demolition company repaired the roof, but Apkarian is still waiting for compensation for furniture that was destroyed in the accident.

"You just feel powerless. We had told them that our house was shaking, but they just kept going. No one should suffer this kind of thing at the hands of the state or a big multinational," Apkarian says.

A controversial railway

The construction project aims to rehabilitate an old, little-used 273-km-long section of track . There are also some additions being made, which means that Apkarian's family of six face losing their home in the future.

UPM's plan is to transport wood pulp by rail from a mill being built in central Uruguay to the port in Montevideo. The railway will also carry materials used in pulp production like lye and sulphuric acid to the mill. The facility is due to be completed next year.

The railway construction project has prompted debate and criticism in Uruguay, as it will cost the state a little under 2 billion euros.

Story continues after the photo.

The "Away, UPM" graffiti appeared in a residential area after the partial collapse of Apkarian's home. Image: Johanna Pohjola / Yle

But for many Uruguayans the rail project brings with it both a sense of progress and of nostalgia. The country had a working rail network from the late 1800s until the 1960s. A poll commissioned by UPM last October found that 75 percent of respondents were in favour of renewing the track, with only 22 percent opposed.

Concerns remain among those living along the railway's route, however. They question whether the vibrations of the construction work and the trains themselves could damage their homes, and whether an accident could release dangerous chemicals.

Some fear that the railway track could split communities in half. Nowhere else would a new freight line be driven through a built-up area, they claim. Others are angry that the renewal of the track has led to the destruction of some historic stations and bridges.

Thousands of Uruguayans petitioned to move the route away from inhabited areas, but Transport Minister Luis Alberto Heber said that, with a few exceptions, doing so would make the project too slow and expensive.

"No to the UPM train"

People along the track's route call the project "the UPM train". A small citizens' group called "No al tren de UPM" (No to the UPM train) has emerged to oppose it.

Fears about the project prompted Montevidean Anita Hernández to join. A tunnel is being built nine metres below her house.

Story continues after photo.

Anita Hernández
Anita Hernández lives right next to the track. "The project is designed with UPM in mind and not with residents in mind," she says. Image: Johanna Pohjola / Yle

"I'm worried about how the foundations will hold up when they start digging. There is nothing to convince me that the construction company would take responsibility for any problems such as cracking. No one seems to take responsibility overall. It makes me nervous," Hernández says.

The vibrations caused by the 80 km/h pulp trains are also a worry. According to Hernández, the few trains to date have run at half that speed.

In general, residents living along the railway line argue that the Uruguayan government has not been clear about what the effort would involve.

The UPM project was approved by the government of the previous left-wing President Tabaré Vázquez. Since last March, Uruguay has been ruled by center-right President Luis Lacalle Pou.

"No one takes responsibility for moving it forward, or for the question of whether the project has been planned and implemented sensibly. We have asked for more information, but the government is only giving us vague answers," says Álvaro Urrizaga, who lives in 25 de Mayo, north of Montevideo.

Minister: The train is not just for UPM

Uruguay's Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Heber says his ministry has organised information sessions along the track's route, although the worsening coronavirus situation has put these on hold.

Heber believes residents' fears stem from a lack of information. He is keen to stress that Uruguayans will benefit from the railway line, and says it was previously only profitable to run long-distance trains on the track.

He adds that passenger trains will also be utilising the renewed route.

Story continues after the photo.

Uruguayn liikenneministeri Luis Heber
Uruguayan Transport Minister Luis Alberto Heber. Image: Johanna Pohjola / Yle

"The train is not just for UPM. At other times other companies will be able to transport goods from the central and southern parts of the country to the port of Montevideo, which will become the most important in the region. The track is also valuable for shorter journeys," Heber tells Yle.

UPM estimates that its planned 14 daily trains will take up half of the line's freight capacity. The company will pay a track access fee to the Uruguayan state.

"It's thanks to UPM that the track exists, without them building, it wouldn't make sense. It is one of the most important construction projects in Uruguay’s history," Heber says.

Construction running late

The railway line was originally slated for completion in February 2022. The government is now talking about a September deadline.

The transport minister admits that a number of problems have contributed to the delay. More than 1,000 buildings have had to be cleared from the route, compared to the 250 identified in the preliminary study. Unforeseen underground pipes and bodies of water have also complicated construction.

"The project is expensive. It will be more expensive than we thought," Heber admits.

The preliminary study was carried out by the Finnish railway infrstructure company VR Track, now a subsidiary of Norway's NRC Group. Debates are ongoing in Uruguay's media as to who is responsible for the mistakes made so far. President Lacalle Pou says it's not his administration's fault.

Minister Heber does not want to point the finger. He says he will do his best to get the track completed on schedule.

Story continues after the graphic.

Map of Uruguay.
Image: Riikka Tähtinen / Yle
According to the terms of UPM's investment in Uruguay, delays in the track's construction could mean the state paying compensation to the company.

The minister trusts that effective channels of communication will help in possible problem situations.

"The government has excellent relations with UPM. We meet every 15 days. If new delays arise, I have no doubt we could talk about it," he says.

After the interview with Yle was conducted, the minister told the Uruguayan newspaper El País that he is expecting a delay to the project's completion.

As a result, the pulp may initially be transported by road, which would mean widening the roads between the mill and Montevideo. UPM said that in the event of a delay, the company has a plan in place to move materials by lorry. UPM would not comment further.

Families waiting to move

Alejandro Apkarian is one of hundreds of people still waiting for the government's compulsory purchase of his home to go through. His family has lived in the neighbourhood since the 1930s, when his grandfather came to Uruguay from Armenia.

"My family is happy here. We're moving because that's what UPM and the government want. They're going to see this project through at any cost. We can live with having to start over again, but we deserve better than this," Apkarian says, referring to the collapse of his roof.

The house opposite has already been bought and has stood empty for months. Apkarian says drug users gather there overnight and that the whole area has become restless.

The state will pay around 100,000 euros for Apkarian's house. He'll get a third of that, with the rest going to his two brothers who co-own the property. His plan is to use his ability as a carpenter to build a new home, as the family's share of the money may not be enough to buy a new one.

"What worries me more are my neighbours who are staying put. That train's going to cause an accident sooner or later," he says.

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