Approximately 75 percent of the railroads in Latin America are concentrated in Argentina, southern and eastern Brazil, and Mexico. The rest is made up of rail systems in Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Elsewhere in the region, railroads tend to be isolated and short. These short lines generally serve a single specific purpose, such as to connect an inland mine or plantation with a seaport or to bypass an unnavigable section of a river.
Most railroads in Latin America were originally government-owned. Many of them were privatized in the 1990s, mainly in response to inadequate investment, poor service, deferred maintenance, and excessive labor costs during government operation. In 1991, Argentina began a process of turning the government operations over to private companies under 30-year concessions. In return for the right to operate the systems for profit, the companies are required to meet minimum conditions for service levels and investment timetables. Brazil followed Argentina lead in 1996.
The National Railways of Mexico (FNM) embarked on a privatization plan in 1995. The FNM was divided into three regional systems, as well as a terminal company serving the greater Mexico City area and a series of short lines. The government sold 50-year concessions for the three regional systems. The investment partners include Mexican and U.S. companies. The Mexican lines garner only about 1 percent of the intercity passenger market, but freight traffic has grown steadily since 1991. By the late 1990s freight trains carried approximately 14 percent of intercity freight.
Cuba has many railroads for its size, including regular passenger and freight lines as well as industrial railways and seasonal lines used for sugarcane production. The government is slowly upgrading the Havana-Santiago de Cuba route for faster train speeds, but the project has been stalled by the economic difficulties the country faces.
Many railroads in South America have features of special interest. The Central Railway of Peru, for example, crosses the Andes at an elevation of more than 4,700 m (15,000 ft) the highest altitude reached by any standard-gauge railroad in the world.