Rail transport in Costa Rica

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Train arriving into the Sabana-Contraloria station in San Jose.
Universidad de Costa Rica Station, San Pedro, Montes de Oca.
Map of Costa Rica showing rail lines as of 1987.
Interior of an Incofer Apolo 2400 type DMU.

Rail transport in Costa Rica is primarily under the stewardship of Incofer (Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles), an autonomous institution of the state. Incofer owns the national railway infrastructure and operates virtually all freight and passenger services, which consist primarily of commuter trains through the highly populated Central Valley. The whole Incofer network is 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow gauge, although there are several small tourist railways of other gauges.[citation needed]

Unfortunately, much of the railway system requires major repairs.[1] An August 2016 OECD report provided this summary about the infrastructure, including the railways: "The road network is extensive but of poor quality, railways are in disrepair and only slowly being reactivated after having been shut down in the 1990s ... Internal transportation overly relies on private road vehicles as the public transport system, especially railways, is inadequate."[2]


In 1871, construction was started on a railroad from Alajuela to Puerto Limón, via San José, on the Caribbean coast; the project was initiated by the government of General Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez and was surveyed in 1868 by the British civil engineer Edmund Wragge. The railroad from Alajuela to San José was completed by the beginning of 1873 and later continued until Cartago. Materials and equipment were brought into Alajuela from Puntarenas by oxen-powered carts. Due to a shortage of finances and natural obstacles (especially around Río Sucio), the construction of the remaining sections was delayed, and the entire line did not become operational until December 7, 1890.

Steam locomotive F.C. al P. no 1 Maria Cecilia in San Jose

A contract for the building of the Pacific Railroad was signed in 1897, but again, the enterprise faced natural, financial and political difficulties. The Pacific Railroad was officially launched on July 23, 1910, when the first Pennsylvania-built steam locomotive, María Cecilia, named after the granddaughter of former President Rafael Iglesias, departed from Puntarenas to San José with passengers and cargo.[3]

The transcontinental railway from Limon to Puntarenas became operational in 1910 and was central for the connection of the various fertile regions of the country, as well as linking Nicaraguan and Panamanian railways.[4] The route followed the Atlantic coast until the small port of Matina, before it passed inland to Reventazón River. From there, it bifurcated to cross the northern mountains, with one branch going north of Irazú and the other traversing the Ochomogo Pass. At San José, these lines reunited and the railway continued onto Alajuela, the small Pacific port of Tivives and Puntarenas. The railroad was jointly owned by the state and the Costa Rica railway company, with the latter behind the 1904 arrangement to build several branch lines through the banana districts of the Atlantic littoral.

In 1926, a decision was made to electrify the lines, and the first electric train ran from San José to Puntarenas on April 8, 1930.

The Costa Rican railroad network was damaged during an earthquake in 1991[5] and its operation was suspended in 1995. Since 2000, Incofer has been working to recommence and popularize rail transport again.

Jamaican Railroad Workers

Henry Meiggs Keith, an American hired by the Costa Rican government, was in charge of railroad construction to the Atlantic Ocean. Keith insisted on utilizing "black" (later known as Afro-American) workers for clearing the forest and building the railroad tracks, and in 1872 the first group of Jamaicans entered the country. These Jamaicans and their descendants would become the main inhabitants of the region, thereby establishing a culture that was unique within Costa Rica. Two large Jamaican migrations occurred; firstly, during the railroad construction era, and then in the next century, for the banana plantations owned by the United Standard Fruit Company.

Italian Railroad Workers

Italians working in a Costa Rica's railway. A few of them remained to live in Costa Rica and their descendants resettled in the San Vito area

Groups of Italian workers were hired to work in the construction of the Costa Rica's railways in the first years of the 20th century. Some of them remained to live in Costa Rica and a few of their descendants moved to the San Vito area in the mid 1950s. These agricultural colonists had to confront many problems, especially due to the isolation of this region. Nevertheless, from 1964 on, the production of coffee caused the outlook to change for the better: 500 Italian colonists and many Costa Ricans (someone descendants from the Italian rail workers) from different parts of the country were attracted by the economic possibilities that the area offered.

Current status

Although it once connected the Caribbean ports of Limon and Moin with the Pacific port of Caldera, traversing the Central Valley area and Costa Rica's largest cities along the route, the system fell into disrepair towards the end of the 20th century following a financial crisis that saw the President of Costa Rica, José María Figueres, order the cessation of Incofer's commercial activity, resulting in the redundancies of most of its workforce except for a select few who were charged with preserving railway assets.[6]

However, operations were never fully suspended, and there was always at least the occasional freight and maintenance traffic along certain parts of the network. Some other parts, on the other hand, were essentially abandoned until 2005 when urban passenger services were reintroduced along a corridor between the suburbs of Pavas, to the west of San José, and San Pedro, to the east. Since then, services have been greatly increased following investment in second-hand DMUs imported from Spain and the rehabilitation of dozens of kilometres of previously inoperative track. As of May 2014, the bulk of railway operations occur in the Central Valley area and consist of passenger services between the San José suburbs of Pavas, Curridabat and Belen, and between San José and the cities of Heredia and Cartago. Work is now[when?] under way to rehabilitate further sections beyond these main termini, such as between Heredia and Alajuela, and from Cartago to Paraiso, in order to extend the existing services.[7]

Trains (particularly freight trains, as well as a privately operated tour train) ran between San José and the port of Caldera until 2011, when a short section of the line was compromised following the construction of Route 27. This prompted a dispute between Incofer and the highway developer, Autopistas del Sol. This dispute has not yet[when?] been resolved and Incofer officials have been quoted as saying that while they are technically able to run trains over the damaged section, it is dangerous to do so. Unfortunately, the resulting lack of regular traffic on this line has facilitated the theft of rails.[8]

Visitors to Costa Rica may perceive the railway as being somewhat limited compared to other forms of transport, due to the current lack of anything except a basic commuter service.[9]

Suburban rail

As of 2013, Incofer operates suburban commuter trains

Freight trains run near the port of Caldera in Puntarenas, as well as within the Limon Province.

Currently the service operates from two main terminals which are the old Atlantic and Pacific stations located in San José Downtown, around 3 kilometres (2 mi) from each other. Incofer has bought many Apolo 2400 series railcars from the former narrow gauge operator in Spain, FEVE. Those cars are used in the commuter train service with complementary operations of so-called "conventional trains" (old General Electric diesel locomotives pulling old passenger cars built in Costa Rica).[citation needed]

Passenger transport reactivation timeline

Map of the current status of the commuter train service of Costa Rica.

In 2006, the following trains ran in Costa Rica:

  • Tico Train Tour San José - Caldera (91 km (57 mi)), weekend tourist trains, privately managed using infrastructure of Incofer
  • Commuter trains San José - San Pedro, Universidad Latina (4 km (2.5 mi), Incofer)
  • Commuter trains San José - Pavas (6 km (3.7 mi) along the same line as Tico Train Tour, Incofer)

As of August 2008

  • The commuter trains are no longer running.
  • The Tico Train Tour is not running to Caldera due to track issues but plans to be operational in November.
  • The Tico Train Tour runs an abridged trip to Atenas on irregular weekends.

As of October 2008

  • A commuter train is going to operate from Heredia to San José, and the rail line is being cleaned and prepared. It was a trial run and it derailed during a trip with government officials. The locomotives have been slowly approaching Heredia center city in the last weeks of the month.
  • It is expected that this service will start its operation in December.

As of December 2008

As of March 2009

  • Commuter trains Pavas - San José - San Pedro Universidad Latina have been running during morning and evening peak hours, some services are operating with a long train of locomotive and coaches, others are operating with an Apolo railcar, refurbished by Incofer.
  • The Tico Train Tour is running every Saturday and Sunday as usually, transporting more than 350 people per trip

As of August 2009

  • The commuter train between Heredia and San José is now operating at peak hours in both the morning and night shifts, many accidents and non related public protests have made it difficult for a fluid service.
  • Both the Spanish railcars and the other locomotives are used in the Heredia - San José service.
  • Commuter trains Pavas - San José - San Pedro Universidad Latina have been running during morning and evening peak hours, some services are operating with a long train of locomotive and coaches, others are operating with an Apolo railcar
  • Many other communities have expressed interest in enabling the train passenger service, like Cartago, Ciruelas and Alajuela.
  • The Tico Train Tour is running every Saturday and Sunday as usually, transporting more than 350 people per trip
  • There are plans to run a suburban service between Puerto Limón and Moin on the Atlantic coast

As of April 2011

  • The commuter train is running every 30 minutes between Heredia and San José (Estación del Atlántico) at peak hours in the morning (6am to 9am) and evening (3:30pm-8pm). Journey time: 30 minutes, Price: 380 colones.
  • Commuter trains Pavas - San José - San Pedro, was extended to reach Curridabat. Services are hourly in the morning and evening. Price: 200 colones.
  • The train between San José (Estación del Pacífico) and Belen was officially inaugurated on April 1. The journey takes half an hour.
  • Special Services to National Stadium: Due to the opening of the national stadium, special services have been operating at weekends between Curridabat, Heredia and the National Stadium in La Sabana.

As of May 2013

  • The commuter train is running about every 30 minutes between Cartago and San José (Estación del Atlántico) at peak hours in the morning (5am to 8:40am) and evening (3:30pm–7:30pm) from Monday to Friday. Journey time: 43 minutes to one hour, Price: 550 colones.
  • New stations were built in Curridabat, Tres Rios and the Cartago station was reopened with two platforms.
  • Tourist trips (Cartago-San José-Cartago) take place on Saturdays and Sundays.

Electric passenger line

New plans to electrify the passenger lines are in place, beginning with a "Stage Zero" which means to start with new more efficient diesel powered rolling stock. These eight new units were ordered to the company CRRC Qingdao Sifang from China, they will have more space and the seats are arranged along the walls of the units, a first in the country. [10]

With the new units it will be possible to extend and provide the service to Paraíso, Cartago and San Rafael, Alajuela.[11]

Passenger transport routes

Heredia - San José

Heredia–San José Railway
Atlantic Station (Av. 3, Paseo de Los Damas)
San José
Calle 17
San José
Avenida 7
San José
Torres River
Route 108
Route 32
Cinco Esquinas
Rivera Stream
Calle Pantano
Route 101
Colima Station
Avenida 4
Virilla River
Santa Rosa Station
Santo Domingo, Heredia
Gertrudis Stream
Miraflores Station
Route 3
Pirro River
Pirro Exit
Street 1
Central Street
Heredia Station (Av. 10, Ca. Central-2)

The Heredia, Costa Rica to San José, Costa Rica service runs only on weekdays in the morning (06:30-08:30) and in the evening (15:30-20:00) with trains leaving every half hour.

This service is operated at street level, which makes it difficult to achieve an optimum speed due to frequent encounters with busy streets, at average the speed is at about 20 kilometres per hour (12 mph). The service has three stops at stations without staff, in Miraflores (Heredia), Santa Rosa (Santo Domingo) and Colima (Tibás). Still, it's a lot faster than the bus which can take more than an hour at these times.

Pavas - Curridabat

Pavas - Curridabat Railway Service
Freses, Curridabat
Along Avenida 3,
San Pedro
Universidad de Costa Rica Station,
San Pedro, Montes de Oca
San Pedro
Calle 23
San José
Atlántico Station,
Av. 3, San José
Along Avenida Central, Calle 25
San José
Avenida 2,
San José
Calle 15,
San José
Along Calle 13
San José
Along Avenida 20,
San José
Pacífico Station,
Av. 20, San José
Calle 8
San José
Calle 42,
Mata Redonda, San José
La Contraloría Station,
Mata Redonda, San José
Route 27
Pavas Station,
Pavas, San José

This line runs from Pavas (a slum to the west of San José) through the south of the city to Estación Pacífico and then on to Estación Atlántico and from there east to the UCR, U Latina and Curridabat. Service is hourly in the early morning and evening (weekdays only).

San José - Belen

Trains leave from Estación del Pacífico and take 30 minutes to reach Belen (which is a little city just south of San José international airport).

Pacific Railroad Station.

San José - Cartago

Cartago Station

This new route opened in May 2013, the journey time is expected to be 43 minutes between San José (Estación Atlántico) and Cartago with 5 stops (UCR in San Pedro, Universidad Latina, Curridabat, UACA in Cipreces and Tres Rios). Price will be 550 colones.

San José - Alajuela

In January 2017 the train operation began between the provinces of San José and Alajuela by the way of Heredia. The total reconstruction of the track was carried out with welded rails. After Heredia Centro, the train stops at the station behind Walmart, San Joaquín de Flores, Río Segundo de Alajuela and Alajuela station near San Rafael Hospital. An ut 2400 apollo train is used. Monday thru Friday. Saturday run in the morning.

Noise and accidents

A critical issue is that there are no barriers or lights at level crossings, only a warning sign at every one of the many grade crossings. Train airhorns are used to warn pedestrians and cars at every grade crossing of an incoming train. This is in order to prevent accidents, which have been registered, but due to the train's low speeds, they result in non-fatal accidents. There have been, as well, registered complaints about the train's loud horns (same air horns used in freight trains in other countries), but they have been overruled due to the necessity to warn traffic and pedestrians. Also many Costa Ricans feel identified with the train horns since they have been used ever since the railroad started operations.[citation needed]

It is also noted, that the train horn is a necessity. Recent studies show, that when the train horn is not in operation, accidents tend to double, even at railroad crossings with proper drop needles, lights and warning signs.[12]

Workmen fixing track in San José. Note acetylene torch has been lit

Other problems include single-track running, out-of-shape sleepers, joints with gaps, lack of flange oilers in tight turns, track bed out of shape, sunken in several places, bent rail tracks, and worn rail track heads. Also, there is a lack of information at stations about timetables and prices.[citation needed]

Freight transport

  • Freight trains San José - Caldera (Incofer)
  • Freight trains from Puerto Limón to Fortuna and towards Guápiles, mainly for banana transportation, as from 2007 on steel and construction materials have been added to the freight transported


The proposed FERISTSA Railway would connect Mexico with Panama, passing through Costa Rica.[13]

There are no connections to Panama or Nicaragua.

Dry canal

There are plans and studies regarding the construction of a dry canal across the country, from the Caribbean sea to the Pacific ocean, through the northern plains of the country, in a similar route to the Route 4 road. The main way of merchandise transportation would be using railroad to transport container, but there are plans to build ten road lanes alongside the railroad tracks. [14]

Private railways

There are very few private railways, in small loops.

Swiss railroad

Tren Turistico Arenal

At the Hotel Los Héroes in Nuevo Arenal, Tilarán Canton (Guanacaste Province), a Swiss hotelier has built a mountain railway for the guests of his panorama restaurant, Pequeña Helvecia (little Switzerland). The rolling stock had been originally used by a Swiss farmer from Chéseaux, who built a 600 mm (1 ft 11 58 in) field railway but never got a permission to run it. The hotelier bought it in 1999 and put in operation in 2000 as a tourist attraction under the name "Tren Turistico Arenal". As of 2004 and 2017, it is 3.5 km (2.2 mi) long, with an elevation of 200 m (660 ft) and two tunnels.[15][circular reference]

Castillo Country Club

Built in the 1970s, this is a small 1.2 kilometer loop railroad with a diesel engine and three passenger cars for family entertainment purposes inside the club. It was built by engineers that previously worked on the rail to the Pacific.[16]

See also


  1. ^ http://www.infrastructure-intelligence.com/article/aug-2016/infrastructure-costa-rica%E2%80%99s-achilles%E2%80%99-heel
  2. ^ http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/a-bird-eye-view-of-costa-rica-s-transport-infrastructure_5jlswbwvwqjf-en
  3. ^ "TBT: Costa Rica's Pacific Railroad in Puntarenas". 17 October 2019. Retrieved 17 October 2019.
  4. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Costa Rica § Chief Towns and Communications" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 220.
  6. ^ "INCOFER: Historia de la institución" [INCOFER: History of the institution] (PDF) (in Spanish). Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 May 2014. Retrieved 12 May 2014.
  7. ^ "Jerarca de Incofer afirma que uso del tren para transporte de carga y llegada a Paraíso y Alajuela son tareas pendientes" [Chief of Incofer confirms operation of freight train and reaching Paraíso y Alajuela remain unfinished jobs]. La Nacion (in Spanish). Grupo La Nacion. 22 April 2014. Retrieved 12 May 2014.
  8. ^ "INCOFER incumplió con restauración del tren San José-Caldera" [INCOFER did not fulfill promise to restore San José-Caldera train]. Semanario Universidad (in Spanish). Universidad de Costa Rica. 8 June 2011. Retrieved 12 May 2014.
  9. ^ "Costa Rica Transportation". Destination360. Destination360. 2012. Retrieved 7 May 2012.
  10. ^ Córdoba, Juan Diego (6 May 2019). "Así serán los nuevos trenes del Incofer". Retrieved 17 October 2019.
  11. ^ Recio, Patricia (6 December 2018). "Incofer compra ocho trenes con aire acondicionado y capacidad para 372 pasajeros". Retrieved 17 October 2019.
  12. ^ Office of Safety (April 1995). "NATIONWIDE STUDY OF TRAIN WHISTLE BANS". U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration. Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. Retrieved 7 May 2012.
  13. ^ "Shaw Group in talks with US railroad cos for Feristsa project, Central America, Infrastructure, news". Retrieved 2010-10-16.
  14. ^ Chinchilla, Sofía (14 November 2016). "Estudios para determinar factibilidad de canal seco estarían en un año". La Nación. Retrieved 17 October 2019.
  15. ^ Info at Ferrolatino.ch
  16. ^ "El Trencito del Castillo, una maquinita cargada de alegrías y de historia". Retrieved 17 October 2019.

External links

  • AmericaTravel, operator of Tico Train Tour (history, stations, pictures)
  • Incofer (basic info, contact)
  • Unofficial timetables of Central American railroads
  • Chronology of the Railroad in Costa Rica (history, pictures)
  • The Tramways of Costa Rica
  • Unofficial site with time table, history and more
  • Banana-Expres animadoc about interactions between the railroad construction and Costa Rica's development
  • Documents and clippings about The Costa Rica Railway in the 20th Century Press Archives of the ZBW
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