“It’s a huge deal,” says Gomez. “The fact it will increase capacity by more than 10 times what we have right now on the current train is definitely going to attract a lot more riders. Higher capacity, more frequency, more stops in between and a longer reach – all those things make it a very likeable system.”
The government is also hoping large infrastructure projects such as the electric train will help the country recover from the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic by providing jobs. Costa Rica had seen only 10 deaths from the virus at the time of writing, but lockdown has hit its economy hard, particularly in the tourism sector.
The electric train line has so far secured a $550m (£445m) loan for the train, although this still needs to be approved by its Congress where the current government has a minority. The remaining $1bn (£808m) funding needed to build the train will be invested by whichever private company is chosen to run it. The first stretch of the train is scheduled to be running by 2025, but Gomez estimates it could be up to a decade before the line is completed. In the meantime, Costa Rica has recently bought eight new trains to run on the original track. “That’s a good intermediate step. It’s at least going to challenge us to feed that train because it’ll have more capacity,” he says.
Other factors are changing the landscape of public transport in San José, too. Younger generations are increasingly using taxi apps such as Uber and DiDi. This gives people the flexibility to chop and change which transport they use and avoid drink-driving, says Gomez, although it also likely takes away riders from public transport.
The government, meanwhile, is strongly promoting electric cars, which doubled in number on Costa Rican roads last year. Still, the total is just over 1,000 and is unlikely to solve the congestion problem.
If you happen upon one of Costa Rica’s gleaming tourism brochures, you are more likely to see a beach on the front page than a picture of San José. But with nearly half of Costa Rica’s population living in the capital and its surrounding urban agglomeration, it’s here the changes will need to begin if the country is to become truly zero carbon.
Jocelyn Timperley is a freelance climate change reporter. You can find her on Twitter @jloistf.
The emissions from travel it took to report this story were 0kg CO2: the writer interviewed sources remotely. Find out more about how we calculated this figure here.
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