I'm creating a developed country in South America with its development similar to that of Canada or Australia (little behind the US). See the map below - the white line surrounds fertile and populated areas.

enter image description here

Its capital had always been in what is now Buenos Aires (which is also actually the capital of Argentina) thanks to its extremely strategic location.

But with the advent of railways in 1830s-1850s I wonder whether to build a new seaport and (maybe a new capital) city in Punta Indio - an uninhabitated and swampy site located 130 km (80 mi) from Buenos Aires toward the ocean.

The reason is that the ships wouldn't need to go so much inland anymore. But instead, the goods and the passengers would transfer from ships to trains in Punta Indio because trains were much faster than ships. Also, it would be much closer to Montevideo, another country's very important seaport.

Another good reason is that Punta Indio has much milder climate than hot Buenos Aires thanks to proximity of cold ocean currents. And that affects human workforce efficiency considerably as well.

But how about the ship vs train transportation cost and the overall efficiency of this plan?


  • $\begingroup$ In 1921, in England, the cost of transportation of freight by rail was about 1.6 to 2.5 d per ton–mile; at the same time, the cost of transportation by sea was 0.05 to 0.07 d per ton–mile over long distances, about 30 times cheaper. Even today, transportation by rail is never less than 2 times more expensive than by sea. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 15 '18 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ Further - it is still economical to send bulk goods up the Rhine as far as Basel by barge. $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner Jul 15 '18 at 22:32

The time savings are not so very great. Punto Indio is about 100km down the coast. A ship of the 19th century can easy go at 20km/hr or more, even allowing for travelling slowly on the approach to port. So it would take less than 5 hours. The train would take a couple of hours, so you have a net saving of maybe three hours. The boat is carrying goods from Europe, North America or East Asia, and has been on the sea for a month or more. Is the three-hour saving worth it?

Another problem is the lack of a natural harbour at Punta Indio, one could be build, but there is no river to adapt into a set of docks.

While ferry trip from Punta Indica would be shorter. Even now it is quicker to take a ferry over the bay.

New Capitals are built for political reasons, whether you look at Washington DC, Brasilia or Canberra, the motivation was not "better sea links" but a mixture of national pride, a compromise between existing cities and sometimes a desire was to move the capital inland to protect it from naval attack. The only example of a city that was moved to the coast is Lima, and there were other reasons behind that move.

So design a political justification for moving the capital, and you have a more convincing backstory.

  • $\begingroup$ (Actually the ferry trip would be shorter, unless someone builds a big bridge somewhere a long way South of Fray Bentos, beyond 19th century tech $\endgroup$ – James K Jul 15 '18 at 18:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Don't forget the additional time of moving freight on/off the train.This was long before containerization (one of the most overlooked technological innovations which revolutionized logistics). The additional loading/offloading cargo onto the train would likely overwhelm whatever extra time you saved by using the faster train. Stevedores can only carry an armload of cargo on/off a train so fast. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Jul 16 '18 at 18:37

Water transport has always been the cheapest, per tonne, method of moving goods, the only reasons roads, railways, and/or air transport are preferred are point-to-point transfer and transport speed advantages, roads and railways are generally faster and when combined can get goods to the door instead of to the port, air transport is faster again. Water transport is still cheaper than overland transport for goods in the modern world just slower than other options so for all but the most time sensitive deliveries it's the cheapest method of transport.

I have tried to find some numbers to stick with this for you, at least something to give you an idea of the magnitude but my Google Fu isn't up to it tonight.


In addition to the other answers, one reason to favour shipping over rail is the simple factor of bulk. Loading and unloading ships has always been one of the greatest bottlenecks in the transportation industry, and it was far worse in the era you are thinking of since innovations like standard pallets and ISO shipping containers have not been invented yet. Loading and unloading ships was a manpower intensive process of bringing individual boxes, barrels and other items into or out of the hold, down the gangplank and into the warehouses for further processing or shipping to inland locations. Bulk cargo like coal, ore, sugar etc. required a lot of handling as well.

Bulk breaking is always something to be avoided as long as possible, so keeping everything on a ship and sailing straight to Buenos Aires saves far more time and money in the long run than sending it by rail from another port.

If anything, Buenos Aires is the wrong place for the Capital by this reasoning, looking at the map you see the confluence of two rivers flowing into the bay, shipping could proceed inland via ship or barge (and dredging the river in the manner of the Mississippi river would be a major project worth doing)

enter image description here

modern Google Maps image

Allow me to introduce the economic and political capital of the region, the city of Carmelo.

  • $\begingroup$ The Uruguayans might have something to say about you setting up your captial there! $\endgroup$ – James K Jul 16 '18 at 18:46

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