San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Train Seeks Right Track

Meant to relieve the traffic-choked commute for those traveling between San José and the provincial capital of Heredia, just north of San José, the new train leaving the Atlantic station across from the capital city’s National Park for Heredia’s Central Market has been received with great enthusiasm.

For some, it’s been too much enthusiasm.

As hundreds of people lined up to board the cars imported from Spain during rush hour earlier this week, many commuters groaned that they faced the very same problems they had hoped the train would solve, including long delays, crowded seating areas and a longer-than-anticipated travel time.

“The trains they have are insufficient for the demand,” said Emmanuel Bermúdez, who has spent the past 30 years commuting from his home in Heredia to work at Calderón-Guardia Hospital. He said this commute can take between 45 minutes and an hour and a half, depending on traffic.

“This is an excellent alternative (to buses),” he said, waiting on the 4:30 p.m. train to take him home. “The highways are saturated with traffic and there is a real need for this. But they should add more trains to make this work.”

Overwhelmed with passengers during the first few days of operation, the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (INCOFER) has been smoothing over the bumps in the days following Saturday’s inaugural run. Officials adjusted the schedule to allow for long lines and stationed plenty of employees at either end of the route to answer questions.

Railroad officials were further tested on Tuesday, when a 1992 Hyundai Elantra was caught on the tracks and hit by the front car of the train as it was heading into Heredia. The car was totalled and occupants were taken to a hospital in Heredia with minor injuries, according to newspaper reports.

“We have had some problems in the start-up,” said Miguel Carabaguíaz, president of INCOFER. “We’ve had long lines and full cars, but the situation will normalize itself soon.”

Pointing to the rain gushing down in sheets on Tuesday, he added, “It should be better today.”

A government initiative to restore train service between San José and Heredia began in 2008 with a projected cost of ¢2 billion (about $36 million, per the 2008 exchange rate.)

The last time a train ran this route was in 1995, but damaged tracks and outdated equipment forced the government to suspend service.

In 2005, a government initiative was introduced to revive all metropolitan rail lines, including the abandoned lines to Alajuela and Cartago. Following a restoration of limited service with existing trains between the western suburb of Pavas and the eastern suburb of San Pedro, INCOFER began to implement a plan to revive the Heredia-San José line with more modern equipment (TT, March 20).

Eight used rail cars, with engines incorporated, were purchased from Spain and arrived in Costa Rica early this year. Though all are diesel-powered, there is talk about making a conversion to electric trains in the coming years.

At 10:20 Saturday morning, not quite on time, the train began its inaugural run with President Oscar Arias aboard.

Once in his home town of Heredia, Arias addressed an enthusiastic crowd, saying “The inauguration of this train to Heredia was something unthinkable four years ago … Yet, here we are, making a reality of a request from Heredia … It has been a colossal effort, beset by all sorts of obstacles.”

Carabaguíaz camped out along the rail lines during the first three days, trying to ensure successful runs.

“I am a little concerned,” he admitted during an interview with The Tico Times on Tuesday. As he paused to send off trains and help a mother with a baby find a seat, he said, “It’s just starting out and people have waited a long time for this. … But, in general, it’s gone well so far.”

For Arellys Gómez and Alvaro Gutiérrez, employees of the National Library, the train offers a convenient alternative to trying to push their way through the limited number of arteries that wind their way north.

“It’s an opportunity for Heredians,” said Gómez, just before the second afternoon train took off.

Carabaguíaz said new hand holds for passengers forced to stand will be installed this weekend and more trains (especially during lunch hour) will be added in the coming months.

“We are still in the initial phase,” said Carabaguíaz, who said he expects 100,000 passengers per month.

The train runs every half hour from 5:30 a.m. (from San José) and 6 a.m. (from Heredia) to 8:30 a.m. Afternoon trains run from 3:30 p.m. (leaving San José) and from 4 p.m. (leaving Heredia) until 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, making four stops. Those are at “Interamericana Miraflores”, Santa Rosa de Santo Domingo, Cuatro Reinas de Tibás and the Estación del Atlántico in San José.

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