The proposal was rejected on financial grounds, and instead the government of the day pressed on with its pre-existing plan for what came to be known as TranSantiago, whereby the metro or high-capacity buses serve main corridors, fed by smaller buses on lower-density routes.
Perversely, it is the very financial hole created by TranSantiago that might help clear the path for new light rail projects, both in Santiago and provincial cities.
TranSantiago was inadequately planned and, when launched in early 2007, sparked a public outcry that successive governments could address only slowly, turning it gradually into what may yet develop into a world-class transport system. But doing so came at a hefty price tag. In pre-TranSantiago days, the city´s public transport covered its costs, but in recent years its monthly deficit has been running at around $US 60m. In September 2009, during the congressional passing of a law for budget financing to cover the loss, provincial representatives insisted on counterpart funds being provided to finance transport projects outside the capital.
Some of these funds were used to subsidise fares, but round $US 17m a month was used for investment, both in infrastructure and renewal of bus fleets. Such financing was intended as a temporary measure due to be phased out by 2014, by which time it was hoped that TranSantiago would be running profitably. However, it eventually dawned on politicians that TranSantiago´s deficit will be a permanent feature, and the government has therefore proposed a new financing law, currently making its way through Congress, which should channel $US 1.44bn a year towards public transport, split equally between Santiago and the rest of the country. Half of each allotment to be used to subsidise fares while the rest will fund services in isolated districts and investment. This potentially opens the door to light rail projects, and there is no shortage of potential schemes in development.
LRT projects have been proposed for the northeastern suburbs of Santiago and for the provincial cities of Antofagasta, Concepción and Copiapó, with the Santiago and Antofagasta studies currently the most advanced. The Santiago project is a 9km line serving an upmarket part of the city and is an initiative of the municipality of Las Condes. Starting at the Portal La Dehesa shopping centre, which is well connected by feeder bus lines and already has extensive car parking capacity, it will run mainly along major avenues to Manquehue station on Metro Line 1, where there is another shopping centre. The estimated cost is some $US 200m and the line would have hourly capacity of 6000 passengers with a fleet of 15 LRVs. As with the metro, ticketing would be integrated with the TranSantiago bus network. A 40-year concession is due to be tendered in the second half of this year.
Antofagasta has been eyeing light rail for the last five years. As well as being home to some 375,000 people, Antofagasta is a major port and is the administrative hub for the booming copper mining district inland to the northeast. The city clings to the Pacific coast, hemmed in by an escarpment 2km inland, which separates the coastal strip from the pampa, at 500m or more above sea level. The city's geography means it has developed along a north-south axis, making it fertile ground for a medium-capacity rail system.
The French government has funded a prefeasibility study of an LRT line, which was carried out in 2011 by consultants Artelia. This recommended a single north-south line 16-19km in length with capacity for between 100,000 and 120 000 passengers per day. The project would cost around $US 300m. Santiago Metro is now involved in taking the project forward, while the Transport Planning Secretariat (Sectra) is contracting a study to update Antofagasta´s transport plan, upon which the future of the proposal would seem to depend.
The population of the municipality of Concepción is about 230,000, but approximately one million live in Greater Concepción, which encompasses satellite towns strung out along the coast and inland along the Biobio river. Some are already served by two electrified but low-frequency suburban rail lines, operated by a subsidiary of Chilean State Railways (EFE). In 1999, after EFE relocated Concepción station from a convenient central location to a less accessible site further south, a preliminary study was made of a light rail line as a means of connecting rail passengers with their final destinations. A decade passed with little progress until in 2009 EFE started to push the idea again. The matter was put on hold after the severe earthquake of February 2010, but in the latter half of 2011, the Regional Government tendered a $US 600,000 prefeasibility study, using TranSantiago counterpart funds, although this is yet to report. The proposed line is 5.5km long and would run from from the new EFE station to Biobio University, via the city centre. The project has a preliminarily budget of $US 137m.
Copiapo's population is approximately 170 000, which might normally be considered too small to justify a light rail line, but like Antofagasta the city is in boom mode due to an upsurge in mining activity in the surrounding region. The Ferronor main line currently runs right through the urban area from the southeast to the northwest, but plans are afoot to relocated the line to bypass the city, thereby freeing up the existing alignment for potential use as a tramway. In the meantime, Ferronor, in collaboration with the local municipality, is repairing a diesel railbus to operate special services along the line and reacquaint local people with rail transport.