Cuenca’s tram marks its first anniversary but Covid, lack of bus connections, keep ridership low

Sep 28, 2021 | 12 comments

According to Jorge Moscoso, director of Cuenca’s Tranvía de los Cuatros Rios, the one-year anniversary of tram operation should be a time to celebrate. “The system is working very efficiently and is exceeding our expectations in almost all respects,” he says. “We’ve encountered very few technical problems, we’re running on time, we have one of the lowest accident rates in the world for urban systems and riders give us high satisfaction ratings.”

Two units of Cuenca’s tram at a platform on Av. España.

There’s only one problem, he says. “We need more riders.”

As of mid-August, Moscoso says the system carried an average of 14,000 riders a day but he believes the number today is closer to 16,000. “Our goal is to transport 40,000 and I think this is a realistic figure under normal circumstances and under the original plan. The problem is that circumstances are not normal.”

The tram began operation during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, running under limited capacity rules, Moscoso points out. “Today, things are improving but many people are still afraid of public transit. The city’s bus system is still carrying only 50 or 60 percent of passengers it carried in 2019 and I think you can apply those levels to tram ridership as well. Even if the health crisis continues to get better it will take time for full ridership to return to buses and for the tram to reach higher numbers.”

The second obstacle to reaching the 40,000 passenger goal, Moscoso says, is the lack of integration with Cuenca’s privately owned bus system. “From the beginning, we planned interconnectivity that would serve both the tram and the buses and this has not happened. For a number of reasons, we don’t expect this situation to be resolved in the near future.”

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Former consultant to the tram project, Juan Pazmiño, agrees that true bus-tram integration is nowhere in sight. “The pandemic has blown up the plans that were in discussion in 2019 and there are, honestly, cases of bad faith on the part of both bus owners and the city,” he says. “Bus companies have been painted as the bad guys by all three city governments that have negotiated with them, under [mayors Paúl] Granda, [Marcelo] Cabrera and now [Pedro] Palacios. But promises have not been kept. The municipal council, under Cabrera, committed to periodic fare reviews and increases as needed as well a one-cent increase when all the old blue buses were replaced. These commitments have not been kept.”

The tram director predicts that ridership will increase as the Covid-19 pandemic fades.

Pazmiño says that the increase in diesel prices, which the city has no control over, has put an additional burden on bus owners. “It’s a perfect storm and it’s difficult to see when things can be resolved.”

He agrees that, under normal conditions, the 40,000 daily ridership number can be achieved. “First, we need to get beyond the pandemic, second, we need real integration of the systems and third, we need an electronic card that works for both buses and the train.”

Until conflicts between the city and bus owners are resolved, Palacios says the tram will continue to need a subsidy. That figure currently stands at about $7 million annually but the mayor expects it to drop as the pandemic recedes. “It is a legitimate function of the city to provide public funding for public transportation, especially in the case of the tram when we are just beginning service. It is certainly required during the health crisis.” He adds that the city also supports the bus system, providing a subsidy for elderly, student and disabled passengers.

Moscoso says that, except for the pandemic, Cuenca’s tram start-up experience follows the same pattern as seen with new systems in other cities. “Similar systems in Spain, France and China have needed large subsidies for periods of four to seven years before they approached a break-even point and some of them, by design, still receive public funding.”

The single most encouraging aspect of the tram’s first year, says Moscoso, is its sky-high popularity among passengers. “EMOV [Cuenca’s transportation authority] conducted a survey in August and the tram received a 96 percent satisfaction rating compared to 64 percent for buses and 74 percent for taxis,” says. “The most popular tram in Europe, in Bordeaux, gets a 90 to 92 percent rating.”

He continues: “Yes, we have problems to overcome but they will eventually be worked out and the tram will meet and exceed original expectations.”

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