Tramway in front of City Hall in Plaza de Armas, Old San Juan (circa 1902)
In the late 19th century while the island was under Spanish rule, regional rail systems were begun in Puerto Rico. The railroad continued to be in use under US rule for most of the first half of the 20th century and played a key role in the transportation of people and goods throughout the island. The railroad systems of the period also played a vital role in the sugarcane industry.
From 1901 to 1946 San Juan had a street Tramway network known as “Trolly” de San Juan operated by the Porto Rico Railway, Light and Power Company with more than 20 miles (32 km) of tracks and ran between San Juan and Santurce. During its heyday, it was the most modern electric streetcar system in Puerto Rico, rivaling New York and Toronto and transported nearly 10 million passengers a year. Today there are plans to bring back the tram to the heart of San Juan to complement the Tren Urbano.
During the 1950s, an industrial boom, due in part to development programs such as Operation Bootstrap, led to the downfall of agriculture as the principal industry on the island. During this decade automobiles became more widely available. Newer, and more efficient roads and highways along with the closure of sugarcane mills displaced the need for rail transportation. It was not long that it was realized that an alternative means of mass transportation was needed in addition to the public bus system to alleviate the severe traffic situation that was being created, especially in the San Juan metropolitan area.
Return of rail transit
In 1967, proposals were made for the construction of a rapid rail transit system to serve the city of San Juan. It was not until 1989 that Puerto Rico’s Department of Transportation and Public Works (Departamento de Transportación y Obras Públicas or DTOP in Spanish) officially proposed the construction of a new rail system. The train system was dubbed the “Tren Urbano”, Spanish for “Urban Train” or “City Train”. In 1993, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) selected the Tren Urbano as one of the Turnkey Demonstration Projects under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. During 1996 and 1997, seven design-build contracts were awarded for different segments of the Tren Urbano Phase 1 system.
A number of companies shared the tasks for building the Tren Urbano including Siemens AG which was granted a concession to design and build the line and its rolling stock, and to operate it for the first five years. The company won a contract which was a “first” for North America in the scope of the work which it involved, and which was awarded in July 1996.
The construction project was plagued by delays, contractual disputes between the government and companies involved in the undertaking, as well as investigations into possible mismanagement of funds. The project cost was US $2.28 billion.
The rail system was officially inaugurated on December 19, 2004. After this date, free service was offered on weekends until April, 2005 when weekdays were added to the free service. Popularity grew quickly and by the end of the free period 40,000 people were using the train on a daily basis. By late 2005, however, ridership had fallen to 24,000, less than one-third of the 80,000 projection (and well below the projection of 110,000 for 2010).
Paid fare service started on June 6, 2005. In 2006, average weekday boardings stood at 28,179 and in 2007, ridership decreased to 27,567. Ironically, the Tren Urbano goes mostly through suburban areas. Nonetheless, by the third quarter of 2008 average weekday ridership had increased to 36,500. Though it was announced that effective the month of March or April 2010, the fares would be reduced 50%. Fare was reduced from $1.50 to current $0.75.
Issues and Concerns
There is no service to Old San Juan, Santurace, the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport (and many other parts of Guaynabo, Bayamón, and San Juan), and the Tren Urbano doesn’t serve important suburbs like Cataño, Toa Baja, Toa Alta, Carolina, Trujillo Alto, Canóvanas and others, which helps to explain low ridership. Some question the viability of this system for additional reasons, such as the lack of an island-wide public-transportation system. The inner-city, public bus transportation system—the Metropolitan Bus Authority (AMA) — that operates in the Greater San Juan Metro Area is considered unreliable by most people, and it does not have a regular schedule. Integration with public mass transit systems, such as the AMA and the Acuaexpreso. The use of bicycles as an urban mode of transport is growing in Puerto Rico, despite the lack of proper, widespread bicycling infrastructure that P.R. Law 22, Ch. XI calls for, and that is the DTOP’s responsibility to build. The Tren Urbano allows bicyclists to bring their bicycles into the train with them as part of its ‘bici-tren’ program, but critics point out that the program is not widely advertised to the public and requires a photo permit that expires one year after issuance.
Customer service centers are located only at the Sagrado Corazón and Deportivo stations. These are also the only two centers/stations that issue the bici-tren permit.
Tren Urbano’s fleet consists of 74 Siemens, stainless steel-bodied cars, each 75 feet (23 m) long. Each vehicle carries 72 seated and 108 standing passengers. Trains have a maximum speed of 62 miles per hour (100 km/h), and average 20.6 miles per hour (33.2 km/h) including stops. All cars operate as married pairs and up to three pairs will run together at any time. Tren Urbano currently operates 15 trains during rush hours, while the remaining cars stand at the yards or serve as backup should a train experience problems.
Power is provided by AC traction motors, chosen over DC as they contain fewer moving parts and require less maintenance. The trains share many characteristics with the stock built by Siemens for Boston MBTA’s Blue Line route.
Air-conditioning systems, have been specially designed to cope with the hot, muggy conditions which are the norm in San Juan.
Tren Urbano’s updated farecard design
A single trip costs $0.75 ($0.75 if you transfer from an AMA Bus) including a 2 hour bus transfer period. If you exit the station and wish to get back on the train the full fare must be re-paid; there is no train to train transfer period. Students and Seniors (60–74 years old) pay 35 cents per trip. Senior citizens older than 75 and children under 6 ride for free. Several unlimited passes are also available.
A stored-value multi-use farecard may be used for travel on buses as well as on trains. The value on the card is automatically deducted each time it is used. It is a system similar to the Metrocard system used in New York City.
All Tren Urbano stations are protected by specialized security units, such as private police companies and the Tren Urbano Police of the Puerto Rico Police Department. 72 law enforcement officers compose the police force of the Tren Urbano Police. In August 2009, the Secretary of Transportation and Public Works of Puerto Rico indicated that he will make a Strike Force Unit specialized in terrorist attempts and suspicious activity.
Carolina Tunnel (1 of 2) at the Río Piedras subway station.
The Tren Urbano potentiality with its six–car train set and a minimum headway of 90 seconds, would give a maximum capacity of 40,000 passengers per hour per direction, and compared to the actual peak hour 8 minute headway of 3,000 passengers per hour per direction (actual daily ridership is roughly 40,000 commuters), the train is working at 13.33 per cent capacity, which is well under the 110,000 rail passengers it planned by 2010.
In addition, with a fleet of 74 rail vehicles in the local yard to cover at least, “double” the 10.7 miles (17.2 km) system length, and with all the basic facilities and capital equipment needed for the functioning in place, it is indispensable that the train be extended as it was originally intended to include higher-density areas of the central district for it to be operationally successful and sustainable.
The Puerto Rico’s Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTPW) plans include:
- Phase 1A of the project includes the extension of the original line westward from the current terminal at Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart) through a medium to high density corridor in two stations: San Mateo to a new terminal at Minillas at the heart of Santurce, a distance of 1,500 meters, with a possible transfer from Minillas to a future tram line from the historic district of Old San Juan to the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Phase 1A was approved by the United States Enviromental Protection Agency.
- By the end of fiscal 2008, the legislature identified federal funds for the expansion of the train in its second phase. It was expected that during fiscal year 2009 the legislature would begin to issue bonds for this purpose.
- Upon opening of the Tren Urbano, there were further proposals to extend the rail system to other municipalities such as Carolina. A two-way tunnel, 136 ft (42 meters) in length, south of the Río Piedras Station is already built for a future expansion along heavily transited 65th Infantry Avenue.
- On 2012, the government informed they had no plans to expand the Tren Urbano in the future, and that they were moving to other alternatives to help alleviate traffic.
Medium capacity transit system
- In addition, the DTPW plans to build TU Conexión, a medium capacity transit system that will go into service along Roosevelt Avenue by 2002, linking the De Diego, Domenech, and Hato Rey Centro stations of Tren Urbano with the Plaza Las Américas shopping mall.
There are several projects to improve public transport connectivity:
- Also being considered (2008) is a tramway from Sagrado Corazón station to colonial Old San Juan in Puerta de Tierra where many of Puerto Rico’s state government buildings are located. It will run partially on an existing right-of-way on Fernández Juncos Ave. Construction was originally projected to start in 2009, but the Fortuño administration is exploring other financing options, such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The first line of the tramway will be built by the Municipality of San Juan (MSJ) and will be known as the Sistema de Asistencia, Transportación y Organización Urbana (System of Assistance, Transportation and Urban Organization) (SATOUR).
- The proposal to build a second tram line to Carolina, possibly with a station at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.
- The extension of a line to Caguas by the existing Urban Train from the Centro Médico o Cupey stations,
- or a second plan for the development of a line to Caguas with a new “light rail” network system with future extensions throughout the island.