Monday, 20 October 2014

SAN JUAN Tren Urbano

Coming from Miami, Puerto Rico was my last stop on this 1-month tour through the U.S., in preparpation for my forthcoming book 'Subways & Light Rail in the U.S.A. - Vol 3:Midwest & South', due to be released in December 2014. Hot Puerto Rico was, of course, also a nice final stopover before going back to autumn temperatures in Berlin.

San Juan has a single urban rail line, referred to as 'Tren Urbano' rather than the more universal 'Metro', although it is actually a real metro. Let's start with its two major flaws – too long headways between trains and what is without doubt its most significant problem, it ends short of the city centre and therefore operates far below its potential. Otherwise my impression was quite positive.

The current line runs from Sagrado Corazón to Bayamón, but Sagrado Corazón is by no means a natural end of a metro line at all. The initial project included two underground stations further northwest, which are urgently needed to give the entire line a real reason to be. A further extension towards Old San Juan is, of course, very recommended too. Sagrado Corazón lies in a badly developed area, probably not a very nice place to wait for a bus at nighttime, especially as the bus system is the worst I have ever seen in any developed country (after all, this is part of the U.S. and people insist that the U.S. is a developed country....). Unless you already know which bus goes where, there is no real way to find out. Bus stops have a bus stop sign, but that's it, no line numbers, no timetables, no maps, so you completely rely on locals' information, and like my hotel receptionist, some of them have no idea either. Most buses are, however, new and air-conditioned, and riding them is cheap. They are operated by the British company First, and their mother company should be ashamed of the service provided over here. But it is probably not their fault, but a problem of who is actually responsible for proper passenger information? ATI (the government transit department nicely standing for 'Alternativa de Transporte Integrado' – but alternativa of what??), or is it AMA, the bus company, or First, the contracted operator? Anyway, you cannot buy day passes on buses, just at metro stations, so once you find out which bus may take you to the metro, you have to pay 75 cents for the bus, at the metro station you get a day pass for $5.00 which is also valid on buses... But watch out, the day pass doesn't let you get back into a station for a period of approx. 20 minutes, so popping out to take a picture and getting back in again to jump on the next train is impossible, so this can be very time-consuming. Although even with normal strip cards, you sometimes have to try twice as the machine doesn't read them correctly. Ticket vending machines are quite easy to handle, you can buy single fares for $1.50 or put any value on the card and the fare will be deducted on entry. Tickets also have to be swiped when leaving the station. So, all in all, the integrated fare system has only been implemented half-heartedly. I find it extremely bad that not even the big bus station in the Old Town has ticket machines or ticket windows. That there are no maps available, is no surprise. Inside the trains there are some system maps, but they are so small, it is impossible to read them. While other pathetic bus systems in the U.S. have at least some online services, AMA has no information at all, not even a classic list of bus routes, and no trip planner, of course. So this is certainly not first-world standard.

Let's get back to the Tren Urbano – except for the bad headways (a train every 15 minutes) and the city-side end in the middle of nowhere, it is actually quite good. The stations are all big structures, most of them elevated, two underground and some at grade, all very spacious and equipped with all sorts of lifts, escalators and stairs. Most stations are completely covered, in some part of the platform is uncovered, which is not so much a problem now as only 4- instead of 6-car trains are in service and they normally stop at the covered section. Unfortunately all stations appear rather grey, not even the purple line colour adds a little touch as it is too dark. At most stations, there is some work of art somewhere, but at platform level this is only well-visible at Jardines. Some have sculptures outside the station, or murals a decorated ceilings in the entrance areas:

Generally, all stations have pleasant entrances, mostly below the viaduct, and for the stations in a cutting like Martínez Nadal, Centro Médico or Jardines, with a free-standing surface building. 

In the case of Río Piedras, the two entrances are integrated into buildings which apparently replaced buildings previously demolished to allow for the construction of the access shafts to the system's only station built by mining techniques:

The other underground station, at Universidad, however, was built by cut-and-cover, it features one 'headhouse' and one simple entrance. Only a few stations, like Martínez Nadal or Bayamón, have shops like Subway, whereas most shop facilities for example at Sagrado Corazón remain empty and unused (adding to the deserted atmosphere at the terminus). What is missing in most stations are a larger number of benches, and as many young people take the metro, you see lots of people sitting on the floor. I guess with a 15-minute headway more benches should be provided. All stations are staffed with a security person sitting next to the entrance at most times. Only busier stations have two exits, but an emergency exit which looks almost like a full-size exit is visible in some. At Jardines, a proper eastern exit is planned, but has not been finished as the development on that side of the line has not progressed as planned. Unlike most American rapid rail stations, those of the Tren Urbano are quite well integrated into their respective neighbourhoods, and distances between them are more European-style than American, with less than 1 km between them in most cases.

Again, the issue of the next-train indicators is badly solved. At one or two locations in the middle of the platform there is a running indicator saying 'The next train to Bayamón arrives in 4 minute(s)' 'El próximo tren hacia Bayamón llegará en 4 minuto(s)', which means you don't get the information when you look at the indicator, but only when the indicator happens to display it. This is one of the few announcements made in English, too. Accoustic announcements on the train are made in Spanish only. Written info is certainly given in both languages.

San Juan's metro uses a proper logo, visible on trains and also on a pole outside the stations. It is made of various colours and suggests that the 'TU' also stands for the possessive pronoun in Spanish, meaning 'your'. And what is always very welcome, the logo with an arrow is also located at many road intersections or freeway exits, so finding a station is not so difficult. So why can't the people who designed this be recruited to develop a good bus information system too?

The trains are in good condition after 10 years of service, maintenance seems to be adequate, the wheels run smoothly and the track is also properly maintained. The trains don't run too fast, though, and get a bit louder in curves, but nothing too bad. Normally 4-car trains are in service during the week, although platforms are laid out for 6 cars, and on weekends, only 2-car trains are used. The cars are wide enough and feel spacious, the seats are o.k. You can choose between forward, backward or longitudinal seating, so all options are available. I don't know about peak hours, but off-peak there is always a seat left, although the system is quite well patronised for what it is. Although most trains show a TU logo, the original colour stripes on the sides have disappeared and the trains appear an plain stainless steel, emphasizing the overall colourless appearance of the system.

So the overall impression is good, but with a sense of pity that it has not been properly finished and extended to make it a really successful story, but the foundations are laid. Let's hope for the sake of San Juan's people that they will soon get some competent politicians who are strong enough to bring a good project to a good end. As said before, the Santurce two-station extension to Minillas is a must, then the previously suggested leg to the airport and the branch to Carolina, for which tunnel stubs were built just south of Río Piedras station, should follow as well. And another 2 stations towards Old San Juan, the historic city centre, should be added, too. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to ride the AcuaExpress, a ferry service between Hato Rey metro station and Old San Juan, because it was out of service after some accident at the Hato Rey pier.

But the whole system can only be successful if finally someone organises a good complementary bus system too, many stations were laid out for this. But if commuters cannot be sure that a bus will be there at a fixed time to take them to their work or back home, they will not really be willing to switch from their beloved cars to public transport, i.e. there won't be an 'Alternativa de Transporte Integrado'.

Last stop on this tour! Return to first stop: Chicago


Tren Urbano (Official Website)

Tren Urbano at UrbanRail.Net


  1. Excellent report on the TU. To answer a couple of points:

    The "Alternativa" part of ATI refers to an alternative to driving; as you doubtlessly saw during your visit to the island, we have a major issue with road congestion.

    The bus route chart issue is bad, in general terms, though in all fairness, the bus routes were changed recently and the old posters at each station were taken down.

    Some time back there used to be poster maps at each station indicating what was within a short walking radius of the station. Inexplicably, they were taken down and have not been seen since.

    At the beginning of its existence, ATI published a monthly mini-magazine that was available free of charge at each station; it included the TU map, all bus routes and articles (and ads) relating to things about the TU system and nearby points and businesses of interest. This too disappeared some years back.

    You mention that: "At most stations, there is some work of art somewhere..." This is not entirely correct: EVERY station has a work of art in it... though some are hard to spot as independent "art", such as in the case of the "eggshell lamps" in San Francisco Station (which look like... lamps), the "Steel Brushes" hanging from the ceiling of Rio Piedras Station (which can easily be mistaken as part of the A/C system) or the Photographic Murals of Roosevelt Station (showing blown-up photographs of the golden era of steam trains of the American Railroad Company of Puerto Rico (A.R.R.) on the island).

    Another issue is that most stations were build with lots of retail space, but very few are occupied; the largest is a College at Bayamon Station. This is not entirely due to a lack of interest: when the TU opened, they did not have the bureaucratic infrastructure in place to rent space at its stations. Once this was in place, there were permit hurdles that had to be overcome. Once these were done, the cost of renting was... ridiculous (I should know; the company I was working for at the time had me look into it)... By the time the rent was brought down, the island's economy tanked and made it difficult to build new businesses.

    Sadly, the TU is a first-rate system under terrible management at every level. Still, the potential is there; all that is needed is the proper vison and the will to implement it.

  2. Resulting from this U.S. trip, I have now published the third book in my U.S. series, namely "Subways & Light Rail in the U.S.A. - Vol. 3: Midwest & South", for more info see

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