San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Railroad Authorities Set Sights on Tracks

With its sights on the 10 kilometers between San José and Heredia, north of the capital, the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (INCOFER) is riding a burst of enthusiasm to reclaim its tracks from people, buildings and asphalt.

Starting this month, a team of engineers and lawyers will walk the San José-Heredia stretch with cameras and tape measures, looking for construction that encroaches on the approximately 15-meter-wide railroad land, said Mario Granados, INCOFER’s legal director.

In the greater San José area, INCOFER is waging about 10 legal battles against usurpers of railroad property, Granados recently told The Tico Times.

“This number should increase greatly toward the end of the year,” he added. Century-old Costa Rican railroad property runs east to west between ports of the Caribbean, in Limón, and the Pacific, in Puntarenas. INCOFER abandoned service to many sections more than 10 years ago, but cruise ship tourists now ride the train on sections of either end. Some bananas still go by train in the east, as do soybeans in the west; weekend tourists ride the “Tico Train” on a section west of San José. Since October of last year, slow and wobbly commuter trains traverse San José itself eight times each weekday.

Next for reactivation is the San José- Heredia line, according to INCOFER’s President Miguel Carabaguíaz, who said the long-promised line should be running by March of next year. To make this happen, certain buildings have to get out of the way.

In most cases INCOFER will tell occupants of railroad-side constructions they have 10 days to pack up or prove their right to the land, Granados said. Failing this, the railroad company will take legal measures.

Besides the destruction of the offending construction, these could lead to jail sentences of up to two years, though Granados said the state hasn’t yet applied such a sentence to usurpers of railroad land.

Poor people seeking refuge aren’t the only ones to invade railroad property, though throughout Costa Rica, many an improvised house stands immediately alongside the state-owned track. Other sections are under pavement, under commercial buildings or flanked illegally by agricultural plots, Carabaguíaz told The Tico Times.

In January, Carabaguíaz sent a letter to all municipalities whose lands the railroad bisects, asking for help in uprooting an “undetermined number” of structures that have “progressively and massively invaded domains of the Costa Rican Railroad Institute.”

While INCOFER hasn’t come across a specific case where a municipality granted someone a permit to build on railroad land, Granados said, Carabaguíaz’s letter lightly veiled a warning that such activity had better not be happening. When municipal governments see buildings going up along the train tracks, they should shut them down, both Carabaguíaz and Granados said. They also noted that many towns have taken the liberty to pave over inactive tracks running through streets, though this is less common in the past year or so, they said.

The “most-invaded” rail lines include areas near Guápiles and Guácimo, on the Atlantic slope; the last stretch toward Puntarenas, on central Pacific coast; Alajuela, west of San José; and Cartago, southeast of San José, Granados said.

In Cartago, Juan Carlos Guzmán, director of the municipal department in charge of building permits, said the problem of railroad squatting belongs to the railroad department, not to particular municipalities.

“Every state institution… should watch over its own goods,” he said. Acknowledging that shantytowns east of Cartago have invaded and blocked the railroad track, Guzmán said none of these constructions has municipal permission to be there.

On the northwest sid e of Cartago, a handfulof metal-paneled houses sits below the extensive Diques de Fecosa squatter village, alongside an improvised gravel road next to partially buried railroad tracks. The first such dwelling belongs to 77-year-old Sebulo Picado, who said he bought the metal-paneled house 14 years ago, back when trains still ran through Cartago on their way from San José to Limón. Picado, whose house is without legal title, enjoys electric service, unlike several of his neighbors. Though his dwelling falls within the width of INCOFER’s land (7.62 meters from the center of the track in most cases), Picado said there’s plenty of space for a train to get by.

Certain institutions (e.g., state-run electric, water and telephone companies) implicitly collaborate with Costa Rican shantytowns, including trackside settlements, though the communities are illegal, Guzmán said. Nevertheless, in his opinion, the Municipality of Cartago shouldn’t forcefully evict squatters unless someone provides an option for their resettlement.

Sitting in a quiet office above the giant, empty Pacific Train Station on the south side of San José, Granados said extensive legal disputes and forceful evictions are few, compared to the number of cases peaceably resolved after INCOFER has asked trespassers to pull back their stakes. Because of the institution’s limited staff and relatively small scale of operation, INCOFER will pass out notifications one phase at a time, according to priority of pending expansion, Granados said.

Since December 2005, the railroad company has announced plans to reactivate the San José-Heredia line, which would operate only during the commuter rush hour and transport an estimated 1,500-2,100 passengers daily (TT, Dec. 23, 2005).

The route was to be financed by a European Union donation of approximately $788,000. A year later, however, Carabaguíaz’s office said INCOFER still awaits funds for the project.

INCOFER’s 2006 budget, financed by the state, banana taxes and passenger fares, was approximately ¢2 billion, or $3.8 million, Carabaguíaz told The Tico Times.


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