A fleet of 60 Volvo road-building machines is being used to construct a 140km (87 mile) highway across the Andes Mountains, from Bucaramanga, Colombia’s eighth largest city, to Cucuta on the border – providing the country with a much-needed high-speed link with Venezuela.
Tasked with this mammoth undertaking is innovative Colombian highway contractor MHC, a company with a long track record of overcoming huge civil engineering challenges – often in extremely hazardous conditions.
These dangers are not restricted to working in the mountainous terrain that is typical of Colombia’s topography, but also in areas where the country’s guerilla groups are active. But neither peril has held the company back. Now into its fourth generation of family members, MHC has become one of the preeminent highway contractors in Colombia, with over 900 employees and $600 million of contracts – and Volvo has been with them along the way.
MHC’s president Mario Huertas Cotes has been a supporter of Volvo Construction Equipment since he first purchased six second-hand Volvo 861 haulers in 1982. Even though they should now be museum pieces, these same machines from the 1970s are still working and have logged more than 60,000 hours. “We never get rid of equipment in Colombia,” Mr. Huertas laughs. “The trick is knowing where best to deploy machines as they age.”
Not only does the company have a well-considered attitude to equipment; it is also adept at handling the sensitive issue of working in remote and potentially dangerous parts of the country, where notorious guerilla groups operate. “Building in a conflict zone is not so difficult,” says Mr. Huertas defiantly. “You don’t beat these people with bullets, but by providing better social conditions. The areas of Colombia where we operate are often poor, and we provide much-needed jobs and incomes, as well as buying local resources. We are regarded by the guerillas as helping the people and are left alone.”
With the security situation in Colombia now much improved, the $400-million Andes highway project is just one of the many new construction contracts up for grabs – although it is certainly one of the most ambitious. The existing road between Bacaramanga and Cucuta is narrow, single-tracked, steep and extremely slow-going, with average speeds of only 20km (12 miles) per hour. But when completed, speeds will rise to as much as 80km (50 miles) per hour.
As if building 140km of highway weren’t challenging enough, altitudes range from 900m above sea level up to 3,600m (12,000ft). The steepness of the road will need to be reduced to a maximum incline of 7.5% (currently it is up to 18%) and the road leveled out. This will shorten the present route by 20km (12 miles) – and reduce travel times from Bucaramanga to Cucuta from today’s six hours to a speedy 2.5 hours.
MHC has taken full responsibility for the design and construction management of the highway, including all bridges and tunnels – a job made harder by the need to keep the existing road open throughout the build. Several of the bridges are long span – four are over 120m (394ft), while one is 640m (2,100ft) with columns 80m (262ft) high, making it one of the tallest in the country. The remaining eight bridges range from 40 to 100m (131 to 328ft) in length – there are also over 1,000m (3,280ft) of tunnels being constructed. At its peak MHC will have up to 1,700 people working at the site (there are currently 400).
To give a perspective of the task, over 350,000m3 (12,360,133ft³) of earth has to be moved per kilometer (per 0.62 miles) of road, making this an enormous earthmoving project. Added to that, stabilizing the steep slopes of the road is also crucial, especially so in Colombia’s rainy climate where landslides are commonplace. These same slopes put heavy demands on the transmissions of construction equipment, and the high altitude requires adjustment in the treatment of the biodiesel (the use of biodiesel is a must for government projects). Fortunately, all MHC’s newer Volvos are protected by customer support agreements that require local Volvo dealer Chaneme to provide preventative maintenance, consumables and repairs, all conducted on site.
Mr. Huertas has managed his family company through some of the most difficult times in Colombia’s modern history. Now with a full order book and his 28-year-old son, Esteban, working as managing director for the Bucaramanga-Cucuta project, the company is moving into its eighth decade and fourth generation with great optimism. This, combined with sustained economic recovery after years of strife and recession, creates a bright future for South America’s second most populous country.
Picture 1: Working on the land slide
Picture 2: Volvo – on top of the world
Picture 3: Climbing up the tracks