For years, city planners have looked to the train tracks that cut through the middle of San José with wistful eyes. Despite being buried in overgrown weeds, empty Cacique bottles and, in some cases, asphalt, the tracks could be the start to solving the traffic problems that plague the city, planners have said.Finally, high oil prices have done what crawling traffic could not: inspired leaders to respond to this wishful thinking and restart a passenger train from Pavas, west of San José, to the Universidad Latina in San Pedro, east of San José.Next month, the train will begin making three trips in the morning and two in the afternoon on weekdays, as well as three trips a day on weekends.HARDLY a modern, high-speed train racing through the city, the San José train is instead a resurrection of the diesel-fueled locomotive that was put to rest nearly a decade ago. It will carry approximately 400 passengers per trip and will likely take about an hour to run its 15-kilometer route, although exact times are still being determined.While not the newest or the fastest, the train drew the admiration of hundreds of Costa Ricans last week as it chugged along on a trial run. As they stepped out of their homes and looked up from their paths to watch the spectacle, called to attention by the familiar whistle, they waved, smiled and, sometimes, applauded.“Costa Rica developed in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century thanks to the train. The feeling of pride reflected in the citizens right now is (a) remembrance of our parents and grandparents,” said Minister of Public Works and Transport Randall Quirós. “This is a very positive signal that the country is retaking our values.”The train’s route starts in Pavas and passes through the neighborhoods of La Sabana, Plaza Víquez, Barrio Luján, Los Yoses, Barrio Escalante and San Pedro. THE rebirth of this route is a pilot program, only the beginning of what could follow, according to Miguel Carabaguíaz, executive president of the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (INCOFER). The route could be extended west to the city of Alajuela and east to the city of Cartago.“We want to provide a column of mass transit for people; the buses can feed us, and we bring the passengers to the center,” said engineer Jorge López, head of INCOFER’s Pacific sector.City planners have emphasized the necessity of such a column in order to reduce traffic in the greater metropolitan area (TT, Aug. 12).Later, routes could be added to Tibás and Heredia, north of San José.“I hope that by the end of the year we can announce an extension of the route or a new route,” said Carabaguíaz, who has been directing INCOFER for just over a month.“We will grow until we have completed the responsibility we have been given.”FOR now, workers are in the process of placing warning signs at train intersections and repainting streets to prohibit driving on the tracks in preparation for the passenger train, which will begin on weekends the first week of September and during the week later that month.These efforts, as well as the train’s horn and transit police who will follow the train’s route, at least during its first runs, will warn drivers of the train’s approach.“People need to understand that the train has the right of way, and in the case of an emergency, cannot stop as quickly as cars do,” Carabaguíaz said.“It just takes seconds for the train to pass, not hours,” he added.CARABAGUÍAZ said drivers will get used to the tracks and denied that they will cause traffic congestion in areas where the tracks lie along currently used roads. For example, on Avenida 2, heading east, the train’s presence will reduce vehicles to one lane instead of two.Considering that the goal of the train is to reduce the country’s use of fossil fuels, but the train runs on a type of diesel, officials also hope to eventually make the train electric, as it once was.“We have all the materials and cables from before to make it electric,” López said. “At this moment it is (just) an idea, so we are doing an evaluation of the costs, but we are very close.”While the initial investment would be high, electrifying the train tracks for both the passenger train and a planned expansion of cargo trains would be worth it in the end, minister Quirós said.“We want to open the trains for three reasons: to save gas and reduce contamination by returning the tracks to being electric as they were before, because Costa Rica has clean sources of electricity; to make roads last longer by switching heavy cargo to rail; and to reduce the number of accidents on the highway by taking large trucks carrying cargo off the road,” the minister said.QUIRÓS denies that the idea for the passenger train came up suddenly and without planning, but said it had to be implemented “on the relatively short term, owing to the historically high price of oil.” Since March, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) has discussed increasing the use of cargo trains.This project consists of two elements: substantially increasing the amount of cargo that travels by rail from San José to the Pacific port of Caldera, and reinstating the cargo rail system from the Caribbean-slope town of Guápiles, through the Caribbean port of Moín, to the Panama border town of Sixaola. Grains are currently transported on the Pacific route.Quirós said he hopes to begin implementing the cargo train in November. He will be in Spain in December to receive a donation of train cars, which will be brought to Costa Rica by local firms, he said. Preliminary estimates place the cost of reviving the cargo train system at $6-8 million, Carabaguíaz said.OFFICIALS are still evaluating the cost of the passenger train. Work so far has been financed by resources from MOPT and INCOFER, which is funded by the limited cargo traffic to the Pacific.“Until now we have spent a lot of desire, a lot of force, and a lot of enthusiasm, with the same people and materials that we have. Obviously we have much more to do. The government will certainly have to support us with some recourses,” Carabaguíaz said.The price of the train has yet to be determined and will be set by the Public Services Regulatory Authority (ARESEP). Carabaguíaz envisions a monthly train pass allowing holders to use the train as much as they wish.Railroads Link Country to Past“I can’t answer why (use of) the train was ended. This was an historic error that was committed not by one administration, but by the country, permitting the closure of the railroad,”Public Works and Transport Minister Randall Quirós told The Tico Times. In 1995, when then-President José María Figueres decided to close the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (INCOFER) except for rail maintenance and limited grain transport, it was widely hailed as a landmark decision to end what had become an ailing, bureaucratic institution that was draining funds from government coffers (TT, Aug. 20, 1999).The bureaucracy had reached its largest size in the 1980s, with 3,000 workers. This number dwindled to 1,250 by 1994. Today, INCOFER has 42 employees who maintain the country’s 400 kilometers of train tracks.In 1999, INCOFER officials strived to attain a profit-driven renaissance of the rails by attracting the private sector to administer, improve and maintain the railroad. Despite the effort, grain continues to be one of the only materials transported on INCOFER-run rails. The Caribbean railroad was built in the late 19th century under the leadership of U.S. entrepreneur Minor Keith. It was fundamental in advancing the country’s banana production.The Costa Rican government built the Pacific railroad, which was originally electric, but later changed to diesel power.The mid-20th century saw the railroad’s glory days, when, in the absence of highways to the Atlantic, and limited road access to the Pacific, cargo and passengers traveled by rail. Rail use declined as the highway system grew.The earthquake of 1991 destroyed 80 kilometers of track on the Caribbean slope, severing the Pacific-Atlantic rail connection to this day.Later earthquakes have continued to damage tracks, as have robbers, tree roots and private homes encroaching on the area around the tracks.
Today in Costa Rica