Chile: New ‘Transantiago’ mass transport system fails

Students join local protests

Pollution has been a major problem in Santiago, the Chilean capital, for decades. The public transportation system, mainly based on bus lines circulating all around town, worsened rather than alleviated the problem. The system also relied only on the "invisible hand" of the market. This meant bus drivers were paid by the number of passengers they carried. They did not stick to bus timetable and drove furiosuly to snatch away as many passengers as possible from other drivers.

So the ‘solution’ to pollution and traffic choas is supposed to be a new integrated public transport system, including the (so far, excellent) Santiago metro. In the pipeline for years, and heavily advertised for months, ‘Transantiago’, promised to enhance transport for everybody. It is based on a metrobus system, which means that so-called ‘Troncales’ serve as the backbone of the transport network in those areas where there is no subway. This means passengers unavoidably have to change transport vehicles during their journey, but (theoretically) individual buses will be utilised better and the system, as a whole, will be more flexible. Furthermore, pollution should decrease because the Troncales are bigger, more modern and running at lower pollution levels than the old small yellow buses.


But since 10 February, the first day the new system was fully implemented in Santiago, transport is chaotic. As the old transport lines, some of which covered the whole city, no longer work, hundreds of thousands of passengers have to figure out new journeys. Having to walk for more than a kilometer is more a rule than an exception. Bus schedules are often extremely irregular or there are big intervals between buses (or both). The subway network practically collapsed on Monday 5 March, the first day after the summer holidays. This hit more than 2 million passengers (before Transantiago was introduced, the biggest daily number ever measured was less than 1.4 million!). Inside the metro, passengers are packed 7 people per square meter. During rush hour, there are long queues at bus stops and subway stations, and accidents are common. Last week, a 49-year-old man died from a heart attack while in an overcrowded metro.

The reason for this chaotic situation is obvious: Contrary to official propaganda, people’s needs were never considered during the creation of the Transantiago project. There were no investigations on passenger numbers and how they travel, the metro timetables were not altered, no extra coaches were found. The only thing that really changed is the structure of ownership of public transport in Santiago. There are no longer hundreds of small entrepreneurs, often running one or two buses, but there are now ten "big fishes" dividing the market amongst them. They get public subsidies and announced they will increase ticket prices after a "period of grace", which lasts until August.

A protest movement against the new Transantiago is growing bigger daily: Since Tuesday 6 March, apart from daily afternoon demonstrations in the city centre, suburbian street battles take place at nights. This is mainly due to clashes between youth and police. The media speak about “more than 6” clashes per night. Last week, a young passerby, who even according to a police report had nothing to do with the protests, was severly injured by two police fired rubber bullets.

For nationalisation of public transport

Socialismo Revolucionario (SR – the Chilean CWI section), takes part in the protests and intervenes with flyers calling for further protests. We call for the nationalisation of the public transport system. This gets a warm response from many highly frustrated commuters. And even a pro-ruling class commentators warn that if by winter (from June on) the situation has not improved significantly, “the social situation could escalate”.

The Bachelet government decided on a few "urgent measures", most of which are old proposals which either were not complied with by the private operating companies, or which were abandoned during the Transantiago project planning phase, due to bureaucracy and nepotism. The installation of GPS-controlled technology to adapt bus schedules constantly has not worked, as the technology is not operative for a month after the new system started. The fact is much less bus lanes than planned were in place on 10 February, the first day Transantiago was fully in place. The transport situation may have improved for many passenger, compared to before the system change, but it is now more expensive and takes.

Alliances and initiatives formed against the Transantiago, but most of them are limited to one neighbourhood, particulary in the outskirts most effected, like Peñalolén, San Bernardo or Maipú. An alliance with a broader approach, however, is called ‘Movimiento por un transporte público y digno’ (movement for a public and decent transport), which is supported by, among others, ‘ANDHA – Chile a luchar’ and Socialismo Revolucionario. This organising committee successfully held its first demonstration in the city centre last Tuesday, with about 1,000 participants. The SR comrades participated with an updated flyer containing more concrete demands, like calls for more bus lanes, new buses and a raise in their frequency, and a call for nationalisations under citizen’s control, by users and transport workers representatives.

Students join protests

On Today, 15 March, a new factor entered the protests. Students, who one year ago organised by demonstrations nationwide fighting for better education, went onto the streets of Concepción, the third biggest town in Chile. One of their key demands was for free public transport. Another group of students took over the Ministry of Education, in Santiago, demanding cheaper tickets and a solution to the many Transantiago problems.

To solve Santiago’s transport problem, it is essential to nationalise the transport system. But, the only way all the people will profit from this is to form a new a transport system with truely democratic structures, i.e. the population has to participate in the planning of the transport grid, for example, via neighborhood comittees, and the company has to be controlled by its workers. This, however, can only be achieved by widening the protests, linking the various initiatives, and by including the unions.

Immediate measures needed include better transport schedules (less empty buses in the non-busy periods and shorter intervals between buses in the rush hours) more bus lanes and more bus lines in and to the city outskirts.

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March 2007