San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Everything we know (and don't know) about Costa Rica's future rapid transit system

In 2013, then-Environment Minister René Castro called transportation the “Achilles’ heel” of Costa Rica’s carbon-neutrality ambitions. In the last two years little has changed. Vehicles are still responsible for more than half the country’s carbon emissions, and every government attempt to curb this pollution has failed.

While there are still a few programs designed to encourage people to switch to more efficient vehicles, the current government’s plan to reduce vehicle emissions hinges on the creation of a rapid transit system to serve the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM, for its initials in Spanish). With the COP21 climate talks in Paris now underway, rumors of this hypothetical project are getting thrown around quite a bit. Here is everything we know about plans for an energy-efficient GAM transportation system. 

A government map of the proposed electric rail system.

(Courtesy of

What we know

1. Electric train to run from Cartago to Orotina

The long-term goal for Costa Rica’s rapid transit system is to have an electric train that runs from the city of Cartago, east of San José, to Orotina, 25 km from the Pacific Coast. Orotina is the site of a planned future mega-airport that developers hope will complement Alajuela’s Juan Santamaría International Airport, outside San José, by 2025. From Cartago the train would pass through San José, where passengers would also be able to connect to Orotina or catch trains to Heredia, Santa Ana, Alajuela or San Ramón.

2. 2018 is the deadline for the first two phases

President Luis Guillermo Solís hopes to have the new rail system from San José to Paraíso, Cartago, completed by May 2018 when he leaves office. The first phase, to be completed by May of next year, would update the current rail lines between San José and Alajuela in order to accommodate the new electric train.

3. Past governments have tried and failed to begin an electric train project

In 2011, Broad Front Party lawmaker – and later presidential candidate – José Maria Villalta introduced the first draft of a bill that would give additional funding to the Costa Rican Railroad Institute, or INCOFER, and promote the creation of a rapid transit system. President Solís has put the bill’s current draft on the legislative agenda. Lawmakers will now have until April to discuss the bill and vote on it. According to officials at INCOFER, the bill’s passage is a crucial step to ensuring that the train is built, but lawmakers already rejected a similar bill in October, and the new INCOFER bill has strong opposition in the Legislative Assembly. Last Thursday, lawmakers questioned INCOFER President Guillermo Santana about recent spending decisions. Since October 2014, Santana has taken seven international trips to visit public transit systems and explore funding options. The trips racked up more than $20,000 in travel expenses. Santana also allocated $300,000 to hire a transportation consultant from the United States.

4. Project will cost approximately $1.4 billion

The first three phases of construction will cost an estimated $1.4 billion. If lawmakers do not bump up INCOFER’s budget, the government will need to find other funding options.

(Courtesy of

 What we don’t know

 1. Any details about the train at all

The government wants to build a train. It wants that train to run on electricity. So far that is all the public (and likely the government itself) knows about the project. The government is awaiting conclusions from technical studies before deciding on a final plan.

A mock up of possible rapid bus routes through San José.

(Courtesy of Movete por tu ciudad)

2. If a train is the best option

INCOFER is the only government entity in Costa Rica that has both the power to control public transportation and build infrastructure. Though the country’s Transport Ministry (MOPT) also has these abilities, they are separated into different councils with separate budgets. This bureaucratic organization makes it impossible for the government to consider any type of public transit system other than a train without reorganizing itself.

Though the administration has already declared its support for a train, public transport experts say it may not be the best option.

“The idea for a train is not based on demand or a technical study,” said Teo Mezger, founder of the transportation activism group Movete por tu ciudad. “You don’t have to be very smart to know that a train is only efficient when it goes long distances.”
Instead of a train, Mezger’s group has proposed a less-expensive rapid bus line that would run on separate lanes from the rest of traffic.

3. Where the funding will come from

Even if lawmakers expand INCOFER’s budget, a transportation overhaul will still require outside funding. According to officials at the Environment Ministry the government is considering foreign aid or the Green Climate Fund for possible funding options.
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Ken Morris

Trains can be part of a viable transportation mix, so I can’t flatly oppose them, but I fear that putting much faith (or investing much money) in trains is to live in denial of what needs to be done, namely greatly increase urban densities.

The key difficulty with trains is that they can only follow fixed routes, so unless people happen to live near the tracks and want to go places also near the tracks, mobility on each end limits the attractiveness of trains. Trains accordingly work best when settlements are already along narrow corridors, such as in coastal areas, as well as when business, commercial, and civic centers are clustered together in geographic nodes. To add trains to an urban sprawl with multiple centers and imagine that they will discourage driving to the point where air pollution is mitigated is wishful thinking. As long as travel patterns cross-cross diffuse sprawl, trains won’t make much of an impact.

This difficulty with trains can be overcome to some extent in one of two ways. One way is to create lots of train routes that do criss-cross the sprawl, but my understanding is that these can only be economically feasible with population densities in the range of 15,000 – 20,000 per square mile. This is a density far higher than the GMA, so an effective train system won’t work here.

The other way for trains to succeed is to mix them with bicycles on each end (and allow bicycles on the trains). This way, the trains can still run limited main routes while the riders can have reasonable mobility on each end. However, to achieve this requires building an extensive bicycling infrastructure on each end. Unless plans for this are included with plans for trains, which frankly isn’t likely, trains won’t do much good.

Another difficulty with trains (and a difficulty with motor vehicle roads) is that in the name of combating air pollution they can increase it by encouraging more urban sprawl. Create a fast and convenient train route from Cartago to San José, and bingo you’ve just encouraged people who work in San José to move to Cartago (where Cartago’s real estate industry will be happy). However, as more people move to Cartago, more businesses will follow, and the next thing you know people from Heredia will be commuting to work or just see a movie in Cartago, while some people in Cartago will be going the reverse direction to Heredia. Meanwhile, although some of these people will ride the train, others will drive, and even those who ride the train will often drive cars for their local transportation. The result will actually be more driving, more pollution, more traffic jams, just all of it spread out farther and farther.

One of my disappointments since first moving to Costa Rica has been watching Ticos delude themselves into believing that they can have both sprawl and effecient, evironmentally friendly transporation, when in reality nobody can have both. You have to choose which one you want, but Ticos won’t. They persist in creating incentives for businesses to locate in the suburbs, continue to build suburban residential enclaves with nearby malls, only to imagine that trains will fix the problems.

But trains won’t fix the problems. The only fix is to rethink urban design in the first place, and a huge part of that rethinking requires understanding that either far greater population densities or much more serious attention to bicycling is required.

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Charles House

2 1/2 hours today to travel from Grecia to San Jose. Miles long lines of cars burning fuel and going nowhere. Marchamo should be used to construct brigdes where 4 lanes are channeled down to two and creates the huge back up every day.

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Encouraging more electric and/or hybrid cars would help as well. I believe there is an initiative to reduce or eliminate import duties on a few … did anything happen to that proposal?

Solar panels are now dirt cheap. Why are they so expensive in Costa Rica?

Buildout of a good highway connecting Limon to San Carlos, Nicaragua, will reduce the numbers of trucks travelling up the mountain on Ruta 32 and through the GAM. Nicaragua already has the infrastructure in place, and built a beautiful new bridge crossing the Rio San Juan. As usual, it is Costa Rica that is the holdup.

Reducing congestion is another way to reduce gasoline/diesel use. Completion of the Circumvacion would be a step in that direction – only 40+ years after it was designed! But it needs to be 3 lanes in each direction, not 4 as planned!

Is anything going to be done about the new rail system sharing the roads with vehicles? I shake my head at Ave 10 in San Jose, and the route through Heredia!

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