Trains and transit in Costa Rica

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Matthew H Fish

Lead Service Attendant
May 28, 2019
As I alluded to in my Willamette Valley thread, I was planning on moving.
And I have moved, to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. I am going to be studying Spanish here for 10 weeks (or more), and of course, I will also be riding the trains, as much as I can! Much as I did with the Willamette Valley thread, I will probably post short videos here for weekly trips.
I will probably be making more videos than I will post here---this will be for train or transit related videos.
So here is the first video I made, this morning, showing the train station for the commuter rail line close to my apartment. Like I said in the video, this is the introduction to the introduction, since I don't even know how to buy tickes yet.

More to come! A lot more to come!
Today I took a walk around town, and successfully took a train! But first, I am going to post a video of me not riding a train (but where I still show transit and talk about infrastructure in general).

My AirBnB is only about a kilometer from downtown, but today is the first day where I made it downtown. My plan was to talk downtown, spend some time there, and then take the Tren Interurbano the 4 minute ride back to the Universidad de Costa Rica station, which is the closest station. But when I got downtown, I realized I still had hours to the rain, and just walked back home. I actually say something incorrect in this video, which is that the train service starts at 4 PM, when in reality it is 3 PM. If I had planned my trip better, I would have found a cafe and had lunch while waiting for it to start.
I do show the central train station of Costa Rica, the "Atlantic Station". It is a grand building! But with limited service!
My central thesis so far with Costa Rica, and I talk about it and show it in this video, is that there is a contradiction between the level of development and technology in general in Costa Rica, and the urban planning and transit of the city, which feels like a car-centered suburb of 100,000 people was increased to a city of over a million people and then placed in a rainforest in the mountains. As I spent more time here, I might understand why that is.
Success! I take a train!

I only take it one stop, but now I can say I have ridden trains in six countries (The US, Taiwan, Canada, Chile, Mexico and Costa Rica), and I can add it to my sig line!
It has been a long day, and in fact a long week, so this video is short and I don't have a lot to say about it, right now. I am of course looking forward to taking some longer trips on the train.
I guess my biggest point, much as I talked about in the above post, is that there is certainly something...jury rigged in all of this. It seems safe and modern, but it also seems like the planning for this train was done on the fly. It would be interesting to know more about the history of it.

I haven't taken a bus here yet, but I have noticed a few things. Maybe one thing is very obvious from the picture: that is a very plain white bus!
The buses here lack any type of livery, or catchy name. They also don't have route numbers, and there are no schedules or route maps that I can find online. A lot of the time, it is fairly obvious, because their destination is listed, and they are going down a major radial street. The schedules also seem to be regular enough that people don't need to know the specific time. The bus stops/shelters are also pretty utilitarian.
It could be that trying to make bus riding "fun" and colorful is a thing in the US because buses are naturally seen as a last option. Here, where they are the only way that some people can commute, there is no reason to dress up the service.
But I still wonder if the lack of such frills is one reason why transit is underdeveloped here. Especially because certain things, like route numbers, schedules and flat panel displays, are pretty technically easy to put together.
Lived in San Jose in 1985 and do not remember riding any trains at that time. The downtown was beautiful with parks and flowers. Nice restaurants. Stayed with a family while our Rotary Group Exchange visited schools, museums and met interesting people. The highlight of a fantastic month long tour of Central America. Hope you enjoy your time there.
I have been busy with school, but today I took another trip! There are a few things in this video, and several of them are transit related:

First, I finally took a city bus for the first time. The rides are cheap, but there are no transfers. There is also no type of contactless card or anything...yet. Given the general level of technology in Costa Rica, I imagine that might be coming soon. Also, the bus driver gave me actual change, from a tray. 15 colones, which I believe is a little less than three cents. The buses also move at about the speed of traffic, which isn't very fast. And as far as I know, there are no routes or schedules.
Secondly, I am still confused by the train platforms! I have no idea how we are supposed to ride, because there are no ticket machines or fare gates or anything!
The train platforms also seem odd to my sensibilities because they are so close to other things! I show one place where they run between the street and the sidewalk, and another place where they just stop in a neighborhood park. I think part of it is different cultural standards, different economics, but part of it is also that the train is light and moves slowly.
I am looking forward to riding these trains more!
I have ridden the trains in Costa Rica before they were refurbished and extended. All that I remember from back then is that things were quite ramshackle. Anyhow it was fun to ride around on Imperial/Cape Gauge (3'6"), which I don't get to do too often. Back in the days Meter Gauge was my thing when there were thousands of km of it in India, but almost all of it is gone now. replaced by Broad Gauge.

Costa Rica and Panama almost fell into the clutches of Chinese funding for a Belt and Road thing from Panama City to San Jose, but ultimately neither country wished to take huge loans at variable market rates so that fell through.
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I have ridden the trains in Costa Rica before they were refurbished and extended. All that I remember from back then is that things were quite ramshackle. Anyhow it was fun to ride around on Imperial/Cape Gauge, which I don't get to do too often. Back in the days Meter Gauge was my thing when there were thousands of km of it in India, but almost all of it is gone now. replaced by Broad Gauge.
I thought those railroad tracks looked narrower, but wondered if it was an optical illusion based on how close they were to the street and sidewalk...but them being smaller makes a lot more sense.
I think I will have more information when I get to ride the train more, as well as ride more city buses and touring buses.
One thing I will say, and this accords about what you say about Costa Rica not taking foreign investment, is that Costa Rica probably doesn't need a "monorail" type gimmick where they build some ultrahighspeed billion dollar rail project. Especially since the bus systems lack things like contactless cards, and even online bus schedules! To me, there are a lot of low cost ways to improve transit, especially with information technology. I think the city does need better urban planning, but its a lot cheaper and easier to put QR codes in bus stations and GPS units on buses than it is redesign an entire city.
I also wonder how much of why San Jose looks like it does is because it had a lot more influence from the United States than, say, Santiago. Lots of tourist and investors from places like Texas and California expected this place to look like an American it did.
But, like I said, I will probably have a lot more information as I actually get a chance to ride the rails.
From the October 1944 Official Guide...

San Jose was served by Northern Rwy. of Costa Rica and by Pacific Rwy. Both were squeezed into page 1189 along with other Central American railways and Mexican short lines. The Northern was managed by W. N. Green, the Pacific by Prospero Guardia.

Northern passenger service listed was a daily train between Limon and Alajuela via Siquirres with a long layover in San Jose in each direction. There was an additional Sunday only turn between Limon and La Junta. Perhaps for an after-mass marketplace in Limon? Trains ran on Mexican Time.

Northern branch passenger service was not listed, but there were branches La Junta to Toro Amarillo (22 mi), Limon to Penhurst (21 mi), Siquirres to Dorotea (12 mi), Siquirres to Africa (13 mi), Siquirres to Golden Grove (11.4 mi), and Turrialba to Pejivalle (9.5 mi).

Pacific Rwy. did not list passenger service. Their main line ran from San Jose to Puntarenas. They had branches Ciruelas to Alajuela (note Alajuela on the Northern) and Barranca to Esparta.

I suspect that those branches carried mixed trains.
From the June 1916 Official Guide...

The Pacific Railway main line reached Santo Domingo from San Jose. The Barranca to Esparto branch was in place. Puntarenas was shown as a branch, but the Guide map shows that as under construction.

The United Fruit Co. ran the Northern Rwy. of Costa Rica, The General Manager and General Superintendent both had Anglo names. They had a nice service on the main line:
Trains 1 and 2 covered the main line from Limon to Alajuela with the long layover in San Jose. They carried a Buffet-Parlor Car.​
Trains 3 and 4 made a DlyXSun turn from Cartagena to Alajuela and return.​
Trains 5 and 6 made a DlyXSun turn from Cartagena to San Jose and return.​
Trains 7 and 8 made a Sun only turn from Cartagena to Alajuela and return.​
Trains 9 and 10 made a Saturday out and Sunday back turn from San Jose to Peralta.​
Trains 11 and 12 made the interesting Sunday turn from La Junta to Limon and return.​
Trains 51 and 52 relieved the load on Trains 1 and 2 DLyXSun between San Jose and Limon. Train 2 actually lapped Train 52 at Siquirres.​
On the Atlantic Division, a tri-weekly service operated between Siquirres and Guaplies on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. There was an additional turn on Sunday that required a separate set of equipment for the 45-mile round trip!

Neither the 1916 nor the 1944 Guides show if the two companies shared the San Jose or Alajuela stations. Was the Northern's station in San Jose a run-through layout? That would be good for transit service. I'm looking forward to learning more.
So today, I went to Atlantic Station, the central station, and successfully rode the train! And paid for it! I paid a bit too much, since I only rode for one station, but now I know what a ticket looks like.

Also, I was told that photographing and recording could only be done out the windows, not inside the train. So you will have to guess at what the train looks like on the inside!
It was a slow ride, but also comfortable enough for the 5 minutes I was on the train. Hopefully I will get to ride it for a longer time, soon.

A plan to ride a train was once again curtailed by the weather and the infrequent schedules.
This is east of where I live, in the affluent community of Curridabat. The stop I visit is one of four stops stops in a row that is on a university campus: Universidad de Costa Rica, Universidad Latina, Colegio Federado de Ingenieros y de Arquitectos, and finally, Universidad Autónoma de Central America. This area has a lot of universities. And just like in the US, universities are an obvious place for commuters.
The area also seems to have some higher-density development.
But one thing is, as I said in the video: the train travel doesn't seem to be integrated into the neighborhood. I am used to train stations and transit centers being public places, with some sense of invitation. Compare that with how the entrance to the train station was a tiny sign, not even visible from the sidewalk.
I continue to be curious about the history and planning behind this train system.

Another Tuesday, but this time I actually ride the train!
And for the first time, I actually pay for a ticket on the train, from an attendant.
Because I was following the rules, and because the train was crowded, I didn't get any footage actually on the train---just waiting, and getting off. And also taking a walk around the neighborhood. As also shown in the previous video, there isn't much integration between the train and other forms of transport---for example, there aren't transit centers at the train stops where riders can take buses, for example.
As I say in this video, my experience with the train system here is coming piecemeal, but hopefully over time, these videos will make more sense.
Today, I went to Tres Rios, which is only about 5 miles or so east of town, but is a separate place. I did make a video of it, but since very little of it involved trains (I saw a train is all!), I won't post it here. But I will show this picture of a train station.
I don't know if it is because the trains are narrow gauge, or just because of the land use at the time the railroad was built, but a lot of these train stations are in very narrow locations that make them look like they are in a Thomas Kinkade painting or something. The Tres Rios station, called Estacion Barcelona, is a good example of this. It justs pulls up under the awning in a shopping center. It looks nice, but I wonder if this infrastructure can handle expanded train service, which hopefully will come sometime in the future.
Secondly, I am still confused by the train platforms! I have no idea how we are supposed to ride, because there are no ticket machines or fare gates or anything!
The train platforms also seem odd to my sensibilities because they are so close to other things! I show one place where they run between the street and the sidewalk, and another place where they just stop in a neighborhood park. I think part of it is different cultural standards, different economics, but part of it is also that the train is light and moves slowly.
I am looking forward to riding these trains more!
That seems tame compared to this one...:D,vid:T5ORQGtXCm0,st:0

I visit another train station platform at a time when the trains aren't actually running. This one in a district of the city that includes many small, working class local businesses---but also some type of Amazon facility. This is about a mile north of central San Jose, and this is the train line that goes to Heredia and Alajuela, where the airport is located.
Also, as you can see in the video, the platform itself is very nice, and even includes some swing sets!
I do take a while to set the scene before coming to some conclusions---so I hope viewers will see the point of all the footage of clogged roads and trucks blowing smoke!
Basically, in the US, the biggest impediments to mass transit, either light rail, metro or commuter rail (and the Costa Rica Tren Interurbano is not really any of those) is
a) Demographic patterns and consumer preferences---basically, most US cities are spread out, suburbanized, and have low densities that make train lines unattractive to a lot of possible passengers.
b) The capital costs of construction, and the initial cost of hiring, training and insuring, etc. workers, is a large initial investment.
So what is strange for me here is that both of these factors don't seem to be present. As this video shows, the density of San Jose, while not a Paris or New York, is still great enough that there is potential demand for trains. The video shows that. And the infrastructure is already there. They have the trains and tracks and platforms and stations...and yet they only run them, currently, at peak times.
In the US, the marginal cost of mass transit is usually not considered. The capital costs are the problem. As far as I can tell here, they don't run trains more often because of marginal costs. At least, that is what I have figured out so far.

After six weeks here and many frustrated attempts, I finally ride the Tren Interurbano from San Jose to its (main) terminus in Estacion Cartago. (There are some trains that run past Estacion Cartago, but most end/begin there).
This also made me realize something obvious about the line, which is included right in its name: this is a Tren INTERurbano. It goes between cities. True, it does stop at various places in San Jose, but on this trip, I realized those were pick up stops (for the evening run, at least). Because of the trains hours and cost, anyone who is just travelling around San Jose is going to have an easier time taking a bus. But Cartago, although it is only a dozen miles from San Jose in a straight line, is actually a separate city. And in fact, as I mention in this video---you have to cross the continental divide to get there!
I've actually noticed several other local rail systems that seem to have a problem finding a focus. Is BART a metro system or a commuter rail system? Is the MAX a streetcar or a light rail? And I think in Costa Rica, it is accentuated because the rail lines were built mostly for the purpose of cargo when the country had a vastly different demographic pattern, and they are trying to get them to work in 2023 as a commuter rail system.
I just realized I never posted this, from last week:

(Maybe because it is another train station that I visited outside of operating hours)
This is Estacion Pacifico. Well, the video starts with a view of Jose Maria Canales Park, which someone later mentioned was basically a park because it was a waiting area when the station was a long distance route, between San Jose and the Pacific. It is a nice station, and while I don't know its history, it looks like a more modern design---that looks like Art Deco. (Just checked, it dates to 1941)
This video might also show, a little, a point that I've made before---how disjointed the development is. This is a nice station, and a nice park, but notice that there is no transit infrastructure around it. There are no local buses that go to the station. That is a common thing in San Jose---there is some impressive infrastructure, both for aesthetics and function, but it is plopped down at random across the city.
I say in this video that there are a few miles between this station and Atlantic Station---but in a straight line, it is only a single mile! It might be two miles by rail, since the rail loops around. But also, there are only four trips a day between this station and Atlantic Station---two in the morning, two in the evening. So someone who wants to continue on from here to the other two lines would have to schedule it very precisely.
And this picture was from today---I am planning on taking a long distance bus route soon, so I went looking for a bus station. As a visual aid, I managed to capture a moment when a bus was pulling in.
But other than that, notice that its not very clear that that is a bus station! No signage and the entrance to the terminal is through that little concrete portal. There is also no specific local bus stop near the station. And Estacion Pacifico, the train station in the last post, is about a half kilometer away. There is almost no coordination between means of transit in this city.
As far as I can tell, the reason for that is that despite having probably over 2 million people, a lot of the planning for the city dates back to an earlier time. Basically, this is a small city that got large, and most of the people are just used to where things are, and people just know the bus terminal is "across from the pharmacy and down from the dental clinic". It seems to work for the locals, but it is really confusing for someone whose only been here a few months!