By Liam Higgins
When he was asked last week about the highlight of his first year in office, Mayor Pedro Palacios didn’t hesitate: “Obviously, it was the launch of the tram,” he said in a television interview. “2020 was a very difficult year because of the pandemic but we are proud to end six years of frustration and finally get the train on the tracks. We have high expectations for the system in the coming year.”
Tram director Carolina Ormaza echoes Palacios’s sentiment and said she is both relieved encouraged about the tram’s future. “I have to admit that I was nervous at the beginning of service in May,” she says. “This is a new transportation concept for Cuenca and we began operation in the middle of the coronavirus health emergency. We had ridership projections but these were calculated before the pandemic and didn’t take into account social distancing rules, which meant we could only operate at 50 percent capacity during the first months.”
Despite the Covid challenge, the tram ended 2020 with daily ridership of more than 20,000, up from about 6,000 on the first day of commercial operation, September 22. “We think we would have had 5,000 more riders if it weren’t for the pandemic,” Ormaza said. “We are also encouraged by the public’s purchases of the electronic passenger cards. At the end of September, we had sold less than 8,000 cards. Three months later we have sold 37,000.”
Ormaza expects ridership to grow throughout 2021, especially in the second half of the year when health officials expect the Covid pandemic to decline. “Our goal is 39,000 riders by December 31, 2021. We have a four-year plan to reach a minimum of 64,000 a day, which is the break-even point for operational cost of the system.”
She adds that the 64,000 figure assumes full integration with municipal buses, which are privately owned.
Ormaza says there will be no change in tram fare in the coming year. “The rates were established by the municipal council in March and they will remain in place during 2021,” she said. “We temporarily reduced the single ride ticket from $1 to 30 cents, due to the impact of Covid, but that expired at the end of the year as more regular riders purchased cards.”
Open fare with a card is 35 cents per ride although frequent riders can buy ticket packages that reduce the price to 30 cents. Those over 65 years of age, students and the disabled ride for half fare, or 17 cents.
Cards can be purchases at the Feria Libre market, the ETAPA office at Tarqui and Gran Colombia, the Nueve de Octubre shopping plaza, the main bus terminal on Ave. España and at the airport.
Tram – bus integration
From its beginning six years ago, the tram was intended to integrate with city buses, which are privately owned. The master plan describes a “feeder system” where some bus routes would drop passengers near tram platforms. The plan envisioned the elimination of several bus routes that would be taken over by the tram
Ormaza hopes to reach full integration of the bus system and the tram by the end of 2021. “There is no certain date for this but we remain in contact with the bus union and stand ready to formulate the final arrangement when they are prepared,” she says. “The municipality has the authority to mandate full integration but it is our preference to work jointly with bus owners to achieve integration.”
The integration is already working in the parishes of Ricaurte and Baños, Ormaza says, where buses deliver passengers to tram platforms.
“The major goal of integration is to have a single electronic card for both the tram and the buses and we hope to accomplish this by the end of the year,” she says.
Safety and accidents
According to Ormaza, one of the most pleasant surprises of the first eight months of operation has been the low accident rate. “Based on the experience of other tram systems in Europe and Asia, we estimated that we would have 25 collisions with motor vehicles by the end of year. Instead, we have had 16,” she says. All costs for repairs are borne by the drivers who invade the tram tracks, she explains. “The tram always has the right of way and we have a comprehensive signage program to inform drivers. There are no excuses for not obeying the signals and signs.”
There have been no serious injuries to drivers in the accidents, Ormaza says. “Unfortunately, there was a fatality in November when in bicyclist ignored traffic signals and collided with the train in the historic district.”
System overview and the future
Considering the obstacles the tram has faced, Ormaza says she is enthusiastic about its future. “This has obviously not been a typical benchmark year,” she says. “The pandemic has drastically affected all aspects of the start-up and we have been forced to make adjustments to meets its requirements. On the other hand, we have come very close to meeting our pre-pandemic objectives and, in the process, silenced the critics who claimed the tram would never operate or, if it did, that no one would ride it.”
Ormaza says she and her staff remain focused on completing the four-year plan to reach financial sustainability. “We have a great amount of work to do to sustain the progress that began in 2020,” she says. “Beyond that, we will look to add new tram lines, or spurs, increase ridership, and further integrate with the buses. Ultimately, the tram is part of the city’s plan to electrify all public transportation, as well as taxis. This should be accomplished by the end of the decade.”