THE Chilean government published a $US 4.2bn urban public transport investment plan on November 4, of which about $US 1.9bn or 45% could be financed by concessionaires. The plan is focused on the capital of Santiago, to which over 70% of the funds are destined, but also covers the largest regional cities.

The $US 4.2bn is, however, a headline figure, since feasibility studies have yet to be carried out for many of the projects, including the proposed seventh line of the Santiago metro. Although the prime aim of the plan is to improve the functioning of Chilean cities, there is a secondary, macroeconomic goal: to help revive Chile's flagging economy, where GDP growth has dropped from its customary 5% per year to just 2%.

At 103km, Santiago's metro is already the most extensive in South America, and once lines 3 and 6 - currently under construction - are completed it will total 140km.

SantiagopassFirst to be built was Line 1 which runs along the city´s main west-east axis and is by far the most intensively used - almost 40% of the 2.3 million passengers using the metro each weekday travel on Line 1. Much of the line's overcrowding stems from a reform of public transport in the capital in 2007 which funnelled bus routes into metro stations. An easterly extension inaugurated in 2010 added to Line 1's passenger flow.

The need for an alternative to Line 1 has been discussed for several years, and on November 5 President Bachelet revealed that feasibility studies for a new seventh line would start immediately, and should be finished within six months. There is little doubt that the studies will conclude on a positive note, although the country´s guidelines on the social evaluation of projects are formally quite rigid.

There is no firm plan for the route Line 7 will take. One idea is for a new express line running beneath Line 1 from Pajaritos to the Military School, but with fewer stations. Since the main objective of Line 7, which is estimated to cost $US 1.5bn, is to decongest Line 1, it would not necessarily add much to the metro´s overall ridership and would entail an increase in operating costs per passenger.

Such an idea is not favoured by Santiago Metro which prefers a line following a new east-west alignment which would attract users from Line 1 as well as tapping new markets.

The government envisages that the new line will involve private participation for the first time in the metro's history, although the extent and nature of this is yet to be determined. Even if the line is operated by a concessionaire, it would be encompassed within the TranSantiago integrated fare structure.

Included in the plan, and already evaluated positively, are a 5km extension to Line 2 south from La Cisterna to Hospital El Pino in San
Bernardo, and a 4km extension to Line 3, which is under construction, from Huechuraba west to Plaza Quilicura. These two projects are expected to cost $US 1.17bn, or $US 133m/km, which is expensive compared with previous stretches of Santiago's metro.

Other capacity enhancement projects for the Santiago Metro are underway, at a cost of $US 317m, and include the acquisition of 12 new trains and rebuilding of sections of Tobalaba station, the interchange between lines 1 and 4.

The president also referred to plans for two new commuter rail services serving Santiago. One would run 27km north from Quinta Normal on metro Line 5 via Quilicura to Batuco, and the other would run 61km southwest from the existing commuter rail terminal at Alameda to Malloco and Melipilla.

The mayor of the affluent municipality of Las Condes, Mr Francisco de la Maza, has been promoting construction of a light rail line from a shopping centre in the neighbouring suburb of La Dehesa to Manquehue station on Line 1. Although the municipality has financed recently-completed prefeasibility studies for the scheme, which is budgeted at $US 250m, the project was conspicuously absent from the investment plan announced by the government.

Regional projects

In fact none of the proposed light rail projects outside Santiago, such as the link from the northern suburbs of Antofagasta to the city centre, made it into the plan. Instead, for Antofagasta, a northern coastal city which is home to some 375,000 people, a 17km segregated corridor for buses was announced following an alignment further inland, together with a 13km cable car line similarly aligned to be run by a concessionaire. The busway would cost $US 102m and the cable car $US 173m. The cable car would run at 12-second intervals with a capacity of 3000 passengers per hour per direction.

The plan also includes a cable car line between the coastal city of Iquique, to the north of Antofagasta with a population of some 200,000, and Alto Hospicio located on a ridge 650m above it and home to 100,000 people, many of whom work in Iquique. This 3.3km line would have a similar capacity to that of Antofagasta. The $US 45m project would also be tendered.

Another proposed light rail project absent from the plan is that for Concepción, a city close to the coast and the heart of a conurbation with a population of one million. Instead the plan includes evaluating the feasibility of continuing a suburban rail line, currently being extended south to the dormitory town of Coronel, onwards some 5km through the city centre at a cost of $US 260m. Suburban and freight trains share a 125-year-old 1.9km single-track bridge across the Biobio River. As the bridge is increasingly becoming a bottleneck a feasibility study will be conducted into building a new three-track bridge, for which there are various cost estimates.

For Valparaíso, a city of 250,000 inhabitants but the focal point of a conurbation of one million, another cable car line is proposed, to connect Francia station on the Valparaíso regional metro (Merval) with higher-altitude residential districts. This would cost an estimated $US 66m.

Valparaíso is famed for its historic funiculars, known locally as ascensores, nine of which are to be rehabilitated, with three new ones built. All electrically-powered public transport modes in Valparaíso will be embraced by an integrated smart card payment system, similar to the successful "bip!" scheme installed in Santiago.

Finally, the feasibility of introducing DMU commuter services in two of Chile's southern cities is to be studied. One service would operate over a 70km line linking Temuco with Gorbea and Loncoche to the south. Four round trips a day operated by three DMUs are being considered. The other proposal is to introduce a service on a 27km line from Puerto Montt north to Puerto Veras and Llanquihue. Five DMUs would be needed to operate a 15-minute interval service during peak hours, reducing to hourly intervals off-peak.

Chile is the only South American member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and aims to be considered a genuinely developed nation by 2020. The government realises that a component part of achieving this objective is for Chile to possess a public transport system comparable with those of other OECD members, which is why President Bachelet is keen to implement the plan.