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Medellín’s Miracle

A Metro de Medellín NTL STE5 undergoing testing on the Ayacucho tramway on 10 February 2016 — D. Spencer

Colombia’s second city has undergone a transformation in the 21st Century, fuelled by investment in innovative urban transit systems.For many years Medellín, Colombia’s second city, enjoyed a reputation as the world’s most violent city as conflicts between rival drug barons ruled the streets in many neighbourhoods. Just 25 years ago the annual homicide rate neared 400 per 100 000 residents.
The killing of infamous drug baron Pablo Escobar in 1993 marked a turning point in the city’s recovery, spurring a wave of social investment that included development of sustainable transportation systems and improvements of the urban environment and reclamation of communal spaces.
Although the city had a short-lived horse tramway in the late 19th Century and an electrified line that ran for three decades from 1921, modern Medellín suffers many of the issues common to cities in Latin and South America: clogged central corridors, potholed roads and smog from increasing road traffic. Much of this is driven by the hordes of private minibuses that serve the city’s transport needs.

Metro and Metrocable
From initial plans that date back to the 1980s, the first section of what is now a 35.5km (19.4-mile) two-line metro opened in November 1995. The latest addition, a short south-western line A extension from Itagüí to La Estrella opened in September 2012 and the system now carries over a half a million passengers per day. To bolster the existing 42-train fleet, an order for a further 20 three-car sets was placed with CAF in July 2015; the Spanish manufacturer delivered 13 three-car sets under a contract signed in 2009, with an option for a further three more trains agreed in 2014).
But while the metro serves the city’s core there was still a need to address mobility for the hundreds of thousands living in the barrios that crowd the steep mountain slopes of the Aburrá Valley in which Medellín is located. Traditionally some of the most dangerous areas of the metropolitan area, travel into downtown areas from these simple cinderblock shanty towns used to take three to four hours for informal workers.
This all changed with the opening of the first Metrocable gondola lift system to the north-eastern barrio of Santo Domingo Savio in August 2004. Serving an area inaccessible by bus routes, line K significantly improved travel times into the city, also helping to reshape the social fabric with sports and educational facilities and libraries built around the stations. These are now vibrant and thriving centres of the communities that the gondola serves.
Reportedly saving its users up to COP50 000 (EUR14) per month in commuting costs – the average monthly wage is 589 500 (approx. EUR165) – the benefits have been tremendous for this new mode, the first time a gondola has been integrated into a mass transit system in any city. Two further Metrocable lines opened in 2008 (Line J: San Javier Metro Station – La Aurora ) and 2010 (Line L – a tourist-oriented line from the line K station at Santo Domingo to Arví Park, designed to develop tourism).

The Ayacucho tram
Developing a reputation for innovative transport, the latest addition to the Metro de Medellín network launched in October 2015. A rubber-tyred tramway was identified as the solution for the ‘Ayacucho’ corridor connecting Metro line B along the steep corridor heading east to connect to two future Metrocable lines in 2008 and construction of a 4.3km (2.7-mile) line began in 2013. A USD320m budget was allocated for the project, largely funded by French Government credit.

Using a single guide rail, the fleet of 12 NTL (formerly Translohr) STE5 cars can negotiate steep gradients (up to 12%) on the line, which serves nine stations. The 39m STE5 vehicles have a turning radius of just 10.5m.
It is reported that approximately 7000t of CO2 annually will be reduced in Medellín by the new line, expected to carry up to 85 000 passengers/day once fully open.
Alstom, leader of the UT Alstom-Sytecsa consortium, has provided the line’s electrical systems, engineering, traction equipment and substations along the nine-station line. Project management was managed by its Spanish subsidiary, while consortium partner Sytecsa completed the installation.
Despite the announcements, much of the line was still to open in early 2016 (see TAUT contributor Dave Spencer’s impressions, below).
Yet the story doesn’t stop there. Authorities have mooted a monorail to link low-income neighbourhoods in the north-east of the city and further rubber-tyred tramlines are planned to link the nine satellite cities that make up the Aburrá Valley Metropolitan Area, with the aim of achieving one million public transport passenger journeys per day by 2020.
Opinion: Dave Spencer
Latin America causes goosepimples in even the most ardent transport enthusiast, but reading up I soon found that far from a ‘new’ destination Colombia was already convention central for many Canadian and American companies.
Bus Rapid Transit is very much the baby of the Colombian transport planner, with large cities without much cash in the till adopting what seems like a cheap option by allocating bus lanes and arranging for the latest large-capacity vehicles from Brazil. I witnessed them from the capital Bogotá up through Medellín to the Caribbean coast at Cartegena.
Bogotá, under the TransMilenio brand, is trying to rationalise the many private operators duplicating routes which add to pollution levels. Another initiative is the Sunday closure of city roads for cyclists and runners – an idea now exported to other countries. BRT systems are the first steps towards government control of transport provision in a country which is still dominated by fierce private competition with cash-in-hand fare payments the norm.
The Ayacucho interchange at San Antonia is reached fairly swiftly on a very crowded Metro train, yet my heart sank as I negotiated the maze of exits to reach the ‘tram’ line. It was a sea of orange plastic fencing and building work – one NTL car stood fenced in, while a mock San Francisco tram stood on sleepers like a sick joke.
A French engineer confirmed my fears; the reports of a launch in 2015 had been vastly overstated. Something took place, but it certainly hadn’t been fare-paying passenger service and those taken on free rides must have travelled on sections short of the terminus. Basic infrastructure was in working order, but from access points, fare collection, electronics and final civils along the carriageway there was obviously much work still to do.
After 17.00 on weekdays trial running was undertaken and as the bright sun ducked down and cast shadows the vehicles emerged, with police, security and Metro staff clearing the path. Worried engineers clutched clipboards with pages of items ticked or crossed – surely real completion can’t be that far off?