Government officials are working to reactivate a long-dormant rail line to San Antonio de Belén, northwest of San José, hoping to have it running by the end of the calendar year.
The train would serve the dual purpose of transporting employees to the many transnational companies located in Belén, while offering Belén residents who commute to San José an alternative to traffic-clogged roads.
During rush hour, the drive between the capital city and Belén can take an hour and a half. According to Belén Mayor Horacio Alvarado, the train would shave the commute to 35 minutes.
“Belén has 24,000 residents, and 24,000 other people commute here to work,” he said. “This generates a lot of traffic when many people enter and leave in their own vehicles. The train will give us another option.”
Miguel Carabaguíaz, executive director of the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (Incofer), estimates that reopening the existing line, which runs from the western San José district of Pavas to the center of Belén, would cost the central government as much as $800,000. The Belén municipality, with the help of area businesses, expects to make an additional investment in improvements to the Belén train station.
“The train has formed a great part of Belén’s history,” Alvarado said. “The return of the train is a great gift to the people of Belén.”
The project is part of a larger plan to reopen Costa Rica’s metropolitan rail lines, which were closed two decades ago due to high operating costs.
Incofer plans to create a ring of railroads around San José, beginning in downtown Alajuela, heading to Heredia, and past Tibás before arriving in the Atlantic train station near the Hospital Calderón Guardia in San José. The train would then pass through the city to Pavas, connecting with Belén, Guácima and Ciruelas.
The entire project is projected to cost $250 million, including the cost of acquiring more modern trains and equipment. Incofer’s aim is to complete the project during this administration.
Carabaguíaz is also studying the possibility of restoring train service to Costa Rica’s port towns of Limón and Puntarenas.
“Why are we working to resurrect the train? We think this is an important alternative,” Carabaguíaz said. “We believe we can help transport people between cities more quickly and comfortably.”
Transportation officials are rushing to complete the line to San Antonio de Belén in order to ease traffic on the Inter-American Highway during scheduled repairs.
Transit officials plan to repair the bridge over the Río Virilla in January, which will require the closure of one of its two lanes. During the repairs, they expect the trip between Belén and San José on the highway to extend to an hour and 15 minutes, each way.
“It will create enormous congestion, especially during rush hour,” said Carabaguíaz. “Government authorities were looking for alternatives to transport people from Belén and Alajuela to San José. And they considered the train to be a possibility.”
Asked whether he thought that a December deadline was realistic for putting the train into motion, Carabaguíaz responded, “We have to be ready by January because that’s when they begin work on the bridge.”
Alvarado, Belén’s mayor, is working with multinationals based in Belén such as Intel, Panasonic and Hewlett Packard to determine an appropriate schedule. He believes that the train will likely run during peak hours, following the schedule of Costa Rica’s other lines. And, according to Alvarado, there will be only a few stops.
“There’s another benefit,” he said. “If we all decide to use the train as transportation, we will cause less contamination in our town and in the greater metropolitan area. In Belén, we’ve experienced the effects of contamination as wind patterns carry much of San José’s smog here.”