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Transantiago, Chile: Attempts to fix a beleaguered system [free access]

May 1, 2011

Transantiago, the public transport system in Santiago, Chile, which comprises a bus rapid transit (BRT), feeder bus lines and a metro system, completed its fourth year of operation in February 2011. Considered one of the most ambitious transport reforms ever undertaken in a developing country, the system tried to resolve all the transport-related problems of Santiago. However, the system’s performance, belying expectations, has been rather dismal. It has been plagued with a multitude of flaws and glitches since its inception, and emerged as a case study in the pitfalls of transport reform.


The mass-transit system


Prior to Transantiago’s implementation, the city’s public transport system was a commuter’s nightmare. Comprising a fully privatised service, it was run by 3,000 operators using a fleet of 8,000 converted trucks with a bus chassis, mostly unfit for public transport. Since 2001, the buses enabled 43 per cent of the motorised trips in the city.


Public transport services in the city were characterised by long and inefficient bus routes, the absence of fare integration with other transport services or with the subway, fierce competition for passengers, undignified treatment of passengers and a high accident rate. Besides, poor maintenance of the vehicles contributed to a high level of noise and environmental pollution. Commuter resentment against the system was rising and according to a survey conducted in 2003, the bus system was voted the city’s worst public service.


Persistent and severe complaints prompted intervention from the government of Chile to overhaul the city’s public transport system through an integration of the metro with the private bus system, based on a trunk-and-feeder model, modern bus fleet, integrated fares and high-tech centralised control system. An entirely new transport industry structure was conceptualised and franchised through an international bid for tenders, with operating contracts awarded to ten national and international firms.


The Transantiago project has three main components: development of a BRT, expansion of the existing metro system, and integration across all transit modes in the city. These are described in Box 1. The initial conceptual framework, estimated at USD250 million, was later revised to incorporate an extensive expansion of the metro network with total capital costs of almost USD2.5 billion.



Box 1: The Transantiago mass-transit system


BRT development involved the creation of 18.8 km of segregated corridors, 4.6 km of new road connections, 62.7 km of road and pavement improvements, and construction of about 70 bus stops. The bus fleet was made up of 1,200 new low-floor articulated trunk buses, 1,500 conventional trunk buses and 2,300 feeder buses.


Metro network expansion included construction of 66 km of tracks and 68 stations at a total cost of USD2.4 billion. About 45 km of tracks were built between 2000 and 2006, enhancing the ability of the system to deliver 830,000 trips per day. Another 21 km were built after 2006 which enabled 254,000 additional daily trips.


Integration of transit services involved the installation of a unified financial system to sell, validate, consolidate and report transactions, using contactless fare cards, and construction of two inter-modal stations. The system allowed the integration of information systems for centralised operational control and user data collection. Investment in support systems such as fare collection, operations control, and user information is estimated at USD30 million.


Source: Global Mass Transit Research


The new, integrated public transport system, commenced operation on February 10, 2007 with much fanfare. It comprised 200 km of dedicated bus lanes divided into two main subsystems, main lines and local lines, and full integration of the BRT with the Santiago metro. About 1,776 new buses were launched replacing all previously operated vehicles. Additionally, a new fare structure was implemented which allowed transfers between buses and the metro at very low fares or for free, using a contactless smartcard.


While the plan seemed ideal, implementation became an issue. The roll-out was initiated without several key system design elements being in place, so that the system immediately encountered serious problems on service quality and coverage, alienating much of its initial user base. The main barriers faced in implementing the Transantiago project are indicated in Box 2.



Box 2: Key barriers faced during Transantiago project implementation


Lack of inter-agency coordination: Large-scale re-organisation of all transport services within Santiago required the participation of several government agencies. It called for the creation of a special group (Transantiago) to coordinate the activities of the different agencies and implement the processes (preparation, bidding of concessions, oversight).


Interference from agencies with different agendas: The metro authority was most interested in expanding the metro network and deciding user fares. To incorporate the agenda of the metro authority , the metro was integrated within the decision-making committee. The metro agenda prevailed and more resources were committed to metro expansion.


Opposition from traditional transport industry leaders: Industry leaders were not interested in modification of the existing regulatory regime and opposed project implementation. When transport leaders organised a blockage of the city to put pressure on the government, they were prosecuted. Even though no priority was given to existing operators, they were allowed to use existing vehicles for many of the concessions. This decision later caused some implementation problems.


Large-scale re-organisation of public transport services in the metropolitan area: Route re-organisation was a complex technical problem (requiring a supply-demand balance for  a social optimum). So the Inter-ministerial Secretariat of Transport Planning developed a sophisticated design model (routes and service schedule) to maximise net benefits to society at large. Development of the design model took time and participation of a skilled interdisciplinary team also delayed the process.


Source: “Planning and Implementation Issues of a Large-scale Transit Modernisation Plan: The Case of Transantiago, Chile” by Dario Hidalgo and Pierre Graftieaux




Transantiago was implemented for the entire metropolitan area in a single sweep, commonly known as the Big Bang approach. The only component with phased implementation was the metro expansion. At the time this decision was undertaken, it was believed that a citywide transformation would bring all the benefits of organised operations to all commuters simultaneously, as well as facilitate reductions in congestion and harmful emissions for users and non-users alike. However, the different system components such as infrastructure, support systems, financial administration and control measures, were ill-equipped to meet the challenges involved in a simultaneous launch.


Right from its commencement, the system experienced problems such as inadequate routes and stops leading to an increase in walking distance, low service frequency leading to high waiting times and overcrowding, incomplete user information on routes and frequencies, lack of coordination in the transfer of commuters from one transit mode to another, and poor support infrastructure facilities such as interchanges.


Faults in design were observed in the overoptimistic expected commercial speed of the buses, which did not take into account the lack of specialised infrastructure such as segregated lanes and enclosed stations with pre-payment facilities, access to buses through a single door, and operation along the curbside (which increases friction from other vehicles), and reduced travel speeds and increased dwelling times.


Even though infrastructure for Transantiago was not complicated, project completion faced delays due to lengthy processes of expropriations, contracting, implementation and permits by different authorities. As a result some project elements such as bus stops, signs and signals were not completed on time. Additionally, the infrastructure allocated to support integration and bus operations was insufficient. This made things especially difficult at transfer points (resulting in very long dwell times as a result having to enter and exit through a single door). 


Issues related to the support system were the main cause behind implementation delays of the Transantiago. Fare-validation systems were not completed and tested on time, and several buses were not properly equipped to handle fares in the first week, which led to free operations.


Control systems were also delayed requiring extensive manual supervision. The MTC did not have the required manpower and resources to supervise operations. Some operators did not deliver services as expected but there were no measures to enforce contract compliance.


Although the government launched a massive user education campaign in 2006 to encourage people to use the Transantiago system, the information failed to reach many users because it was not well tailored to the needs of commuters. As a result, most commuters were disoriented and frustrated during the first few days of the launch.


Transantiago reforms


By 2008, the system started showing improvements, but was dependent on a large monthly subsidy of about USD30 million. In 2009, a law was passed providing a  USD1.1 billion subsidy to Transantiago, to be disbursed over 2009-14. The government was keen to tackle  the various issues to improve service quality, so it undertook a series of measures (Box 3).



Box 3: Government interventions to solve the transit crisis in Santiago


Short term

  • Replacement of over 800 buses
  • Extension of routes to improve access in poorly served areas
  • Launch of express bus services with fixed schedules
  • New text message information system and better onboard information services
  • Parallel bus services to the metro lines
  • New metro cars to increase metro capacity
  • Extension of the metro service schedule to 6 am to 11 pm
  • Increase in the number of security guards on the metro (to 230)
  • Expansion of temporary pre-payment facilities from 15 to 30
  • Strong supervision on the service supply, requiring a minimum of 5,600 buses
  • Increased night-time services
  • Creation of user attention kiosks to receive complaints in all neighborhoods


Medium term

  • Creation of an autonomous metropolitan transportation authority
  • Creation of an operational unit to plan and supervise services
  • Development of a law to allow early termination of concession contracts
  • Training for bus drivers to improve services
  • Construction of segregated lanes
  • Expansion of exclusive lanes
  • Replacement of temporary pre-payment facilities by high-quality definitive structures
  • Completion of 2,500 bus stops across the network


Source: Global Mass Transit Research


Transantiago currently has one BRT under concession - the Santa Rosa line. The 3.9-km corridor was awarded in 2006 to the concessionaire Concesionaria Santa Rosa, comprising Arauco (20 per cent equity); Conpax Concesiones (20 per cent equity); Claro Vicuña Valenzuela (20 per cent equity); Constructora Trebol (20 per cent equity); and Empresa Constructora Agua Santa (20 per cent equity).


As of December 2010, Chile's public works ministry Ministerio de Obras Públicas (MOP)  evaluated concessions in at least two exclusive BRT corridors of the BRT system - the Independencia corridor (an 8.1-km route that would run along the avenue of the same name and would require an investment of USD91 million for bus stations and signage) and Santiago city's Gran Avenida Avenue corridor (an 6.4-km route which is estimated to cost USD80 million including bus stops, secondary roads and other complementary works).


Recent initiatives of Transantiago since 2011 are provided in Table1.


Table 1: Recent initiatives




January 2011

Pilot project to test the use of biodiesel buses (Ecolution line provided by Sweden-based Cania) by Alsacia (concessionaire of Transantiago's Line 1) with fuel supplied by Brazil-based Petrobras.

January 2011

Allocation of USD9.1 million by MTT to develop a plan for public transportation safety

February 2011  

Launch of a USD28.9 million project to install 700 cameras from 2011-15 to ensure exclusive use of bus lanes

February 2011

The final stretch of Line 5 of Santiago’s metro (8.6-km stretch, 7 new stations) entered revenue service.

February 2011

MTT announced eight new bus routes which will connect with the new metro stations in Maipú.

Source: Global Mass Transit Research


Current status


The reforms have brought about the much-desired transformation of the system. For instance, an increase in the number of buses has raised the frequency of operation. Better control of the headways has brought in service regularity. The routes have been altered to provide better access. Also, an increase in pre-paid zones has fast-tracked boarding and alighting on buses and the metro.


In February 2011, Santiago’s metro system totalled 103 km (with 108 stations) making it the second largest metro network in Latin America, after Mexico City’s metro system. These positive changes have resulted in a drastic improvement in public opinion on Transantiago.


Recently, some contract irregularities and payment card defects by the system’s financial operator have come to the forefront. In March 2011, Chile's transport and communications ministry Ministerio de Transportes y Telecomunicaciones (MTT) began the process of applying sanctions against the financial operator of Transantiago, Administrador Financiero de Transantiago (AFT), after finding irregularities in the administrator's concession contracts. The administrative process is expected to last a year and aims to determine whether a fine will be applied. AFT comprises Chilean banks BCI, Banco Estado and Banco de Chile, Spanish bank Santander and Chilean retailer Falabella.


In April 2011, MTT levied a USD3.58 million fine on AFT for the failure of the payment card Bip earlier in the year. AFT's Bip validator machines failed to recognise credit on around 50,000 payment cards in early-March 2011, which meant users were unable to use the credit they had bought on the transport network. According to MTT, the process is part of normal controls and applies to all Transantiago operators. AFT will be entitled to appeal the decision.


Also in the same month, Chile's housing and urban development minister Magdalena Matte resigned amidst allegations of overpayment to local construction firm Ingenieria Y Construccion Kodama Ltda (Kodama). Kodama had won the contract to build an express bus lane in 2006 with a bid of CLP25.5 billion. However, when it later sued the government for CLP41 billion, citing extra costs incurred due to delays in construction, the housing and urban development ministry paid the firm CLP16.6 billion in an extrajudicial settlement. The government is currently investigating the case further regarding this payment.


During 2010, fares on the Transantiago system were raised several times to meet the system’s budget deficit of USD700 million. In September 2010, the government approved a USD400 million subsidy for the BRT system. The government of Chile is also pumping in massive investments for the system’s future expansion, which has already started. In February 2011MTT announced plans to invest around CLP101 billion in the Transantiago bus transit system up to 2015. The project involves the following:



In 2011 so far, over CLP11 billion is to be invested in repairing bus stops and paid zones, as well as building new shelters in almost all districts in the city. An additional CLP5 billion will be spent on the installation of solar panels to power lighting at 3,700 bus stops. A pilot project has already been carried out in the districts of Renca and Peñalolén. Meanwhile, The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has issued a request for proposals to help improve the management of Transantiago.


For its scope and components, Transantiago continues to be a reference for planners, practitioners and decision makers worldwide for lessons to be learnt in implementing mass-transit projects.


(1 CLP [Chilean Peso] = 0.002 USD)