A Lowdown on Chile’s Public Transport

Failing to do that would be a sin.

I am talking about public transport in Chile, and why not discussing the most significant undertaking of the country’s transit history — The Transantiago System — would be an injustice.

During a survey conducted in 2003, Santiago residents voted the bus system in the Chilean capital as the worst of several city services, which showed dissatisfaction with public transit.

The irony was that this came after the government had committed many resources to improve mobility in the city.

What was going on?

A research report titled: Transantiago: The Rise and Fall of a Radical Public Transport Intervention authored by Juan Carlos Muñoz, Juan de Dios Ortuzar, and  Antonio Gschwender captures this in great detail.


The government had moved in to restore order in the chaotic industry through an intervention known as the Transantiago System.

Let’s go back in time to establish the root of the problem

The city’s bus system had been left in the hands of private operators since the late seventies.

In the eighties, full deregulation had left the city’s residents at the mercy of the private operators running some 8,000 converted lorries with a bus chassis unfit for public transport.

The services were unprofessional, which was made worse by reckless driving as drivers’ wages depended on fares sold. This also promoted unhealthy competition for passengers characterised by fights.

The buses were organised into 289 routes operated on a concession basis, and nearly 80% of all these buses depended on the city’s six main arteries, which caused heavy congestion.

The drivers of these lorry buses were jacks of all trades. They also collected fares and were the same people who would handle police en route to the destination or hop out of the vehicle to fix the bus when it broke down.

The drivers also worked overtime beyond the recommended hours, straining themselves to make an extra coin which put passengers in great danger.

This was a recipe for chaos, which led to an accident every three days, high levels of environmental pollution, uncouth treatment of passengers, and long, inefficient bus routes.

The Transantiago System

The Chilean government responded by recalibrating the entire public transport system, integrating the popular but underused metro and private buses.

This is well explained in a bulletin published by the Economic Commission for Latin America in 2017 titled Implementation of the Transantiago system in Chile and its impact on the transport sector labour market.

“Transantiago’s original design sought to improve the quality and coverage of public transport in the Chilean capital. Tenders for new buses were issued, in preparation for the creation of a system of trunk and feeder routes that aimed to optimise the number of vehicles needed,”


The idea also included the integration of fares with the metro’s physical infrastructure.

Smartcard payments were introduced, and the office of a financial administrator was created and tasked with furnishing each provider with a payment system and the requisite technology to manage the network resources.

The original design also had it that no operating subsidies from the state were going to be required.

The Transantiago System went into operation on February 10, 2007.

However, the new system was poorly received, and to make matters worse, the project’s initial implementation was worse than the earlier regime it was replacing.

It soon dawned on authorities that the bus fleet had to be increased, infrastructure had to be built to service the new system, state funding had to be allocated for its operation while operator contracts and routes had to be modified.

“For example, while the original design provided for only 5,100 buses, 5,975 were in service by the end of 2007 and, by 2016, the total had risen to 6,550.

The number of bus routes increased from 276 to 379 over the same period, to address the demands of users who felt that the change had adversely affected their connections with the rest of the city or who shunned the transfers that the trunk-and-feeder system offered.

When Transantiago was introduced, there were only 99 kilometres of priority bus lanes; by 2016, the total had risen to 303,”


The Transantiago System at Present

When a new Minister of Transport with a wealth of experience in the sector was appointed in 2007, he corrected the flaws of the initial Transsantiago System.

New buses were acquired to cover the shortfall.

In 2007, there were 179 bus lines, but that has since been expanded to 219 normal lines and 15 express lines popularly known as “Super Expressos” that only operate in peak hours without intermediate stops. The express lines also use designated urban freeways that are not open to private vehicles.

The Ministry also noticed that the smartcard payments system was running on a financial deficit of over 35%, attributable to many factors, including low fares and fare evasion.

A few tweaks were made to correct that, and after it was identified that the smartcard payments system was functioning properly, the government reverted to paying operators per passenger basis.

Although the Transsantiago system is not flawless, it is working reasonably well at present.

It completed ten years of service in 2017 and is considered one of the most ambitious transport projects ever undertaken in a developing country.

Poor Implementation of Transport Projects

Santiago del Chile is also struggling with poor implementation of public transport projects despite the relevant institutions accumulating strong institutional and technical experience over the years.

Authors Oscar Figueroa and Claudia Rodríguez paint a clear picture of this in a report dubbed Urban Transport, Urban Expansion and Institutions and Governance in Santiago, Chile.

“In part, there have been coordination problems within the sector, to coordinate among the distinct entities involved in providing infrastructure and transport services.

In spatial terms, there has been a lack of coherence between transport services provided and the urban context, resulting in operational repercussions in terms of service quality, and the creation of sometimes perverse incentives for inorganic urban development, “


Modes of Transport in Chile

Lessons from the initial failure of the Transantiago System have contributed immensely to improving the public transport network in Chile.

The different modes of public transport work interdependently which has worked a treat for Chileans in Santiago and from other parts of the country.

The noteworthy modes of transport include buses, the metro, taxis, and train transport.


Buses are a common means of transport across Chile. They are also the most preferred mode for intercity travel.

They are also the mode with the most extensive reach enabling journeys from rural areas to cities and vice versa via long-distance coaches.

Most bus companies offer clean, efficient, and comfortable services across the country, while a couple of international bus companies offer routes to neighbouring South American countries.

Prices vary depending on the class of travel. Different companies offer special services such as Wi-Fi, onboard screens to watch movies and shows, while others capitalise on refreshment breaks to attract customers.

Most Chilean cities and towns have a central bus terminal. Santiago, by virtue of being the capital, has several terminals.

Data Corner

A research report dubbed Commercial Bus Speed Diagnosis Based on GPS-Monitored Data observes that GPS technology can be used to evaluate performance by monitoring the commercial speed provided by bus services.

The paper authored by Cristian E. Cortés, Jaime Gibson, Antonio Gschwender, et al. was published in 2011.

The study analysed data drawn from Transantiago buses.

Data from more than 6,000 buses operating on more than 700 routes is available every 30 seconds, courtesy of the open data initiative.

“Evaluating system performance by monitoring the commercial speed provided by bus services is highly desirable; however, in dense networks, it becomes a difficult task because of the amount of information required to implement such a monitoring procedure.

The introduction of GPS technology in buses can overcome this difficulty in terms of information availability, although it presents the challenge of processing huge amounts of data in a systematic way,”



The Santiago Metro is the second-largest mass rapid transit system in Latin America after the Mexico City Metro.

It has seven lines complete with 136 stations and operates between 5 AM to 12 AM.

It is the most convenient mode of moving around during peak hours.

Riding with the Santiago Metro is somewhat expensive compared to buses but is affordable when judged from an effectiveness point of view and when its pricing is juxtapositioned with other metros in the region.

Pickpocketing is a huge problem when riding with the Santiago Metro; hence tourists and foreigners are advised to be vigilant.

Data Corner

A book dubbed Innovative Applications of Big Data in the Railway Industry authored by Shruti Kohli, A.V Senthil Kumar, John M. Easton, et al. observes that Big Data mined from smartcards can be used to predict passenger behaviour.

The study based its findings on data collected from the Santiago del Metro.

Smartcard data can be used to better understand the behaviour of travelers, their traveling habits and the purpose of their trips or the final destination based on their historical data,”



Taxis are a safe mode of public transport in Chile, and for that reason, they are preferred by people for making short-distance trips in Chilean cities and towns.

Taxis fitted with fare meters is the common standard in Chile, but passengers are always advised to ensure that the meter is running and the fare is reasonable before agreeing to take the ride.

 It is also advisable to negotiate a fee for longer trips beforehand because the price will be much higher when calculated by the meter at the end of the trip.


Collectivos are also common in Chile.

They are shared taxis where passengers pay a lot less but share the ride with a couple of other travellers.

Collectivos are considered a convenient way to save money.

Digital Apps

Uber, Cabify, and Beat have a huge presence in major cities and towns in Chile.

They are reliable and are a good option for non-locals who don’t speak Spanish.

They are also preferred because drivers immediately establish the passenger’s destination once they key it on the app; all they have to do after that is follow the map.

Where language barrier is a problem, the passenger can mention the name of the destination they are headed to, and the driver will use their institutional knowledge to navigate the location.

Data Corner

Big Data Analytics can be applied to enforce market regulation in the taxi industry at a time the sector is witnessing anticompetitive tactics by both digital apps and traditional players.

This is suggested by a study dubbed Data-oriented Urban Transport Reform in Middle-income and Developing Cities authored by Daniel J. Graham, Daniel Hörcher, and José Carbo Martinez published by the International Growth Centre (IGC).

“A better understanding of the transport system and the behaviour of economic agents through big data analytics is helpful for the efficient regulation of formal and informal transport services.

In middle-income and developing cities where organised public transport services may have a relatively small market share compared to informal providers, including taxis, the need for price and quality regulation is of utmost importance,”

“If the information on customer experience can be shared between users, service providers and the regulator, then the chances of the prevalence of abusive competitive behaviour decreases,”



Chile has a mountainous terrain which has made it illogical to invest in rail over the years.

Although the state agency Empresa de los Ferrocarriles (EFE) runs a couple of routes, train transport is not considered an important means of transport in the South American country.

Train transport is confined to Central Chile and routes to neighbouring countries.

The EFE also runs the metro in Santiago.

Data Corner

Big Data has been identified as an efficient and evidence-based way to manage railway assets, as pointed out by a report dubbed Railway Assets: A Potential Domain for Big Data Analytics authored by Adithya Thaduri, Diego Galar, and Uday Kumar.

“The maintenance of railways was pointed out on application by using big data by Markov state classification. The metaheuristics can be seen as sophisticated and intuitive methods which mimic natural phenomena and explore the solution within a feasible region to achieve specific goals and applied in railway engineering,”


Once Bitten Twice Shy

Chile has learned the hard way how poor planning of a transport project can be expensive.

The lessons garnered from the Transantiago System will be invaluable heading into the future.

Against this backdrop, it is telling that Chile is incorporating Big Data to solve its various transport challenges.

Using GPS systems to evaluate bus systems’ performance is a good example of how authorities are tapping this technology to make informed decisions.

It makes sense to avoid a repeat of something that cost you so dearly in the past.