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Metro Systems in Latin America: A new era begins [free access]

July 1, 2010

Up till the turn of the 21st century, transport planners in Latin America were primarily focused on the development of bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. While the dominance of BRT continues, urban rail systems have also gained importance as an essential mode of mass transportation over the past one decade. A large number of cities are recognising the importance of urban rail systems for developing a sustainable, integrated multi-modal public transportation network capable of meeting the mobility needs of urban centres.


The gradual shift towards the adoption of rail-based systems has been fuelled by the rapid pace of urbanisation, which has raised transportation demand in cities. As a result, metro systems and subways have increasingly become viable modes of transport especially in larger cities with high population densities.


Currently operational systems


At present, Latin America has 19 metro systems with a total network length of over 800 km, spread across the countries of Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile and the Dominican Republic. Of these, Brazil is leading with metro systems in five cities, followed by Mexico and Venezuela each with metro networks in three of their cities. The following table highlights the operational characteristics of the existing metro systems.


Table 1: Operational Characteristics of Existing Metro Systems in Latin America



Date of commissioning

Length (km)

Stations (no.)

Daily ridership

 Mexico City


Friday, September 05, 1969






Monday, September 15, 1975




 Sao Paulo


Saturday, September 14, 1974






Sunday, March 27, 1983




 Buenos Aires


Monday, December 01, 1913






Wednesday, November 23, 2005




 Rio de Janeiro


Monday, March 05, 1979






Saturday, March 31, 2001






Monday, March 11, 1985




 Porto Alegre


Saturday, March 02, 1985






Thursday, April 25, 1991






Thursday, November 30, 1995




 Belo Horizonte


Friday, August 01, 1986






Friday, September 01, 1989




 San Juan

Puerto Rico

Monday, June 06, 2005




 Santo Domingo

Dominican Republic

Friday, January 30, 2009






Monday, January 13, 2003






Monday, June 08, 2009






Wednesday, October 18, 2006




Source: World Metro Database, Merobits Organisation


Figure 1: Existing Metro Systems in Latin America


Source: UrbanRail.Net


In terms of traffic volumes, the Mexico City metro leads with a daily ridership of nearly 4 million. It is followed by the Sao Paulo metro with a ridership of 1.93 million. Other systems which experience heavy traffic are Chile’s Santiago metro, Venezuela’s Caracas metro and the Buenos Aires Subte in Argentina.


The most recent addition to the list is the Maracaibo Metro in Venezuela. Also known as Metro del Sol Amado, the subway is among the region’s smaller systems with a network length of just 6.5 km covering 6 stations. 



Evolution of metro systems


Up until 1970, there were only two metro systems in Latin America – the Subte of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is the oldest system commissioned as early as 1913; and the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo Metro serving Mexico City, which opened in 1969, and remains the largest metro system in Latin America with a network length of 201.7 km.


Another three systems were added in the 1970s. One of these is Chile’s Metro de Santiago, inaugurated in 1975, which is also the second largest metro system in the region with a length of 92.4 km. The 1980s saw a sudden momentum, with the addition of five new systems spanning over 185 km. However, the momentum was lost in the 1990s, with the only two new systems emerging.


Since 2000, seven new metro systems have been commissioned in Latin America, spanning about 140 km. Of these, the largest system has come up in Valparaiso, Chile.


Source: Global Mass Transit Research


Rolling stock and technology


The metro systems procure their rolling stock from a variety of technology giants. Traditionally, the region’s rolling stock market has been dominated by France-based Siemens. However, lately, railcar manufacturers like Alstom, Bombardier and Mitsubishi have managed to increase their presence. Alstom in particular, has managed to capture a significant share of the rolling stock market, securing  orders for metro systems in the cities of Caracas, Medellin, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Buenos Aires and Santiago del Chile.


The deployment of cutting-edge technology on these systems has enabled smooth operations. Most operational metro systems have implemented the latest automatic train operation and control systems, electronic ticketing solutions, passenger information systems and so on. Passenger safety and security has also been enhanced through the use of advanced surveillance networks like closed-circuit television cameras, intrusion detection systems and real-time passenger information systems. Other modern passenger facilities like onboard Wi-Fi connectivity are relatively new and are being introduced on some systems.


Factors impeding subway development in the region


The sluggish development of urban rail systems in Latin America prior to 2000 can be explained by several factors. Traditionally, the region had a preponderance of bus-based transportation and therefore the emphasis has been on the replacement of existing primitive bus services by modern, dedicated busways, also known as bus rapid transit (BRT). Consequently, most cities have proactively undertaken the development of dedicated BRT corridors to transform the face of bus-based transit in the region with little emphasis on metro or subways.


Another major obstacle is the cost factor. Metropolitan subway systems are among the costliest mass transit options. Building costs average over USD100 million per km, which explains why there are fewer than 200 systems in the world, mostly concentrated in industrialised countries. Heavy rail-based systems or metro projects are known to be the most expensive form of rail-based transit systems costing between USD30 million and USD100 million per route km as compared to BRTS systems, which  require lesser upfront costs and are therefore less expensive.


To justify the high costs for right-of-way acquisitions, relocations and excavations require very high traffic volumes. Therefore, only when cities reach a certain size and density, does a subway becomes a viable mode of transport, capable of moving large numbers of people across various points within the city. The benefits that come from enabling such density include efficiency and productivity gains, both of which are essential for a metro system to be an effective transportation option.


Apart from the high costs of development, the construction of urban rail systems involves many complications. The general lack of space in urban centres make the construction of elevated structures and underground tunnels for these systems quite difficult, often entailing the expropriation of landed property and displacement of settlements, which lead to delays. These in turn delay the construction of such systems, frequently causing cost overruns.


Thus, in contrast to light-rail and busways fewer metro systems were initially built in the region, partly for fiscal reasons and partly because areas that could economically justify the high cost outlays involved in setting up such systems were few. 


Private participation in metro development


So far, all metro systems in Latin America have been developed by their respective state and city governments with financial assistance from multilateral funding agencies. Private participation in the development of these systems has been limited, being confined mostly to design, supply and signalling contracts.


However, over the years, the operation of metro systems has increasingly passed on to private players. Cities that have competitively contracted out services for their urban rail lines include Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Of these, Buenos Aires has been the pioneer in inviting private participation in operations and, until 1997, no other city in Latin America had followed Buenos Aires down the privatisation path. However, in the same year, the operation of the Rio de Janeiro metro was contracted out, and in Medellín bids were invited for the operation and maintenance (O&M) of the existing metro system. Reportedly, the privatisation drive has helped increase ridership on these systems and raise operational efficiency. In the light of these benefits, cities are increasingly inviting private participation in O&M of these systems.


The way forward


The success of operational metro systems has inspired the establishment of similar systems across many more cities in Latin America. Thus, while the existing systems are adding to their capacity through an upgradation and expansion of their route network and fleet strength, plans are being drawn up to replicate such systems in more cities across the region. The cities of Bogota, La Paz and Panama City have already embarked upon similar projects while several more are in the planning stage.


Notably, of the 19 cities that have operational metro systems, BRT systems co-exist in 11, indicating that that the region’s public transportation systems are rapidly transforming from predominantly bus-based systems to more integrated, multi-modal transit networks. In a region that is poised to face a burgeoning demand for transportation, the development of metro systems as part of integrated mass-transit networks holds high rewards in terms of cost-effectiveness as well as productivity gains.