Costa Rica’s New Urban Train

view from the San José – San Antonio de Belén train

After decades of disuse, the old train tracks in and around San José have been pressed back into service, much to the delight of train aficionados and working stiffs alike.

As of March 2013, three commuter lines–known collectively as the tren urbano (the urban train)–are running strong and pretty much on time.

The trains are geared to students and working people; most run between 5:30- 9 a.m. and then from 4-8 p.m. But riding the urban rails is also an excellent way for visitors to get around and to take a break from the Central Valley’s clogged highways.

Fares are low—rarely more than a dollar—and the routes take you through territory few tourists will see.

Here are the train schedules.

Growing Pain on the New Lines
In 2005, the route from Pavas to San Pedro (two outlying districts of San José) opened to much fanfare. Far from high-speed rail, however, the line resurrected an old diesel-fueled locomotive that takes close to an hour to run its 15-kilometer route through the neighborhoods of La Sabana, Plaza Víquez, Barrio Luján, Los Yoses, and Barrio Escalante. Still, students and workers immediately adopted this new mode of transport, leaving cars at home or vacating their seats on crowded city buses.

In 2009 the San José – Heredia line started up again. In its first two weeks of operation, the train hit a car, derailed twice, took a lot longer than its touted 28 minutes, and was even blocked for hours by protesters in Santa Rosa de Santo Domingo. But the train soon worked out the kinks, whittling its travel time back down to about half an hour. It now transports an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 people per day.

Buying a ticket at the Atlantic Train Station, for the San José - Heredia line. The price--420 colones--is less than a dollar.

In 2011 the San José – San Antonio de Belén train began running again. The ride from the Estación del Pacifico in downtown San José to the eastern suburb of Belén takes about 35 minutes. In rush hour traffic, traveling that distance in a car would take from 60 to 90 minutes.

The San José – Cartago route is supposed to become operational in the next few months. The 23-km route will have four stops: 2 in the eastern San José neighborhood of Curridabat, one in Tres Ríos (west of Cartago) and one in downtown Cartago.

Other routes, like one from San José to Alajuela, the city closest to the international airport, are still in the works. Officials hope that many of the new routes will be powered by electricity rather than diesel.

Give trains the right of way
On the subject of collisions, Miguel Carabaguíaz, executive president of the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (INCOFER), noted, “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.” There are very few signals or gates that keep cars and trucks off the tracks when the trains are passing, and engineers have taken to blasting their horn continually when they reach heavily populated areas.

Tracks in downtown San José are once again in use.

Houses built along the tracks, for years silent, are suddenly having to cope with the noisy passing of up to 15 trains a day. On the outskirts of urban areas, shantytowns grew up around (and sometimes directly on top of) the tracks, and for many people, the rails were a readymade path through the city or the country. Locals have had to relearn the caution necessary when living alongside a conduit for hurtling, belching masses of glass and steel.

History of the Costa Rican rails
Trains were at one time crucial to the economic development of the country, transporting coffee and bananas, once Costa Rica’s top exports. But freight trains were eventually displaced by trucks running on improved roads, urban train tracks were abandoned or paved over in favor of cars, and both freight and passenger trains were further compromised by a serious earthquake in 1991 that inflicted severe damage on the country’s tracks and railway bridges.

In 1995, the rail system was dealt another crushing blow when then-President José María Figueres closed the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (INCOFER) except for basic rail maintenance and limited grain transport. The decision was a popular one at the time, as INCOFER was seen as a bloated bureaucracy that siphoned funds from a cash-strapped government. During the 1980s, INCOFER’s personnel swelled to an all-time high of 3,000 workers. By 1994, the number of employees had dropped to 1,250. In 2005, when the urban trains began to be re-introduced, INCOFER had just 42 employees to maintain the country’s 400 kilometers of train tracks.

Much of the country’s rail system is still severely damaged and neglected, but restoring the urban rails have long been a priority for city planners looking to alleviate ever-increasing traffic in the Central Valley.


text and photos © Erin Van Rheenen