So far, the voyage of the new train between Heredia and San José has been a rough ride.
Bad weather forced the cars to arrive six months late from Spain. And last month, a lawsuit prevented the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (INCOFER) from conducting test runs.
During its first two weeks of operation, the train hit a car, derailed twice and was blocked for four hours by protesters in Santa Rosa de Santo Domingo, one of the train’s stops near Heredia, north of San José.
But despite the slapstick-like series of setbacks that have tailed the project like an ominous rain cloud, most riders have more positive observations than complaints for the metropolitan area’s latest public transit offering.
“It’s incredible, dude,” said Jorge Jiménez, 27, who now rides the train from Heredia to San José and then walks 10 minutes to his job at the Banco Nacional. “I never thought it would happen, honestly, but here it is and boom! It’s awesome.”
After its first week of service, some riders were skeptical that the train would be able to meet demand. As it stands, two cars with a capacity of approximately 250 people each leave San José and Heredia at 30-minute intervals during rush hour.
On Wednesday, Aug. 12, during the train’s first week of operations, lines stretched around corners outside stations and riders were pressed against each other inside crowded cars.
And some rail users complained that travel times were much longer than the 20 to 30 minutes that INCOFER had promised. Emmanuel Bermúdez, a 30-year veteran of the Heredia-San José commute, said at the time that the trains are “insufficient for the demand,” and that INCOFER should “add more trains to make this work” (TT Aug. 14).
But now, after almost three weeks in service, the curiosity has died down and the current number of commuters riding the train is close to what INCOFER had originally anticipated.
As of Tuesday, Aug. 25, the train had made 350 trips and was carrying an average of 4,500 to 5,000 people per day – which is the number of passengers that INCOFER anticipated when they bought the trains last year. Ticket lines usually are about a dozen people at a time.
The 6:30 a.m. trip on Wednesday from downtown Heredia to the Estación del Atlántico, the train’s final destination in San José, lasted 28 minutes.
“It was an adjustment period,” said Miguel Carabaguíaz, president of INCOFER. “The first week, everyone wanted to ride the train. People brought their children, their grandparents and their entire families to go for a joyride. The train isn’t made for joyrides. It’s a method of transportation for people to go to work and return to their homes.”
Trains leave Monday through Friday every 30 minutes from 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. (Heredia to San José) and 5:30 a.m. until 8:30 a.m. (San José to Heredia). In the afternoons, trains run from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. (Heredia to San José) and 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. (San José to Heredia). Tickets cost ?350 ($.60) each.
Carabaguíaz said INCOFER is analyzing the possibility of extending the trip to San Pedro, an eastern suburb of San José and site of the University of Costa Rica, as well as possibly adding service at lunch-time.
Operations must continue for a few more weeks, he said, to determine if expanding the service would be profitable.
On Tuesday, The Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) presented a bill that would reform existing law to allow senior citizens to ride the train for free, something Carabaguíaz said the institute is already considering. Senior citizens can ride buses free of charge with proper identification.
As for the derailments – which caused no injuries or damage – Carabaguíaz thinks that they’re just part of the learning curve.
“What? Trains don’t derail in the United States?” he asked. “Look, it’s like a child who is growing up and you have to help him a little along the way. It’s all a process, and I think so far it’s working really well.”