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Friday, April 11, 2014

The Real Deal on Traveling on Panama's First Metro Train

Hey everybody,

I’m working hard on the next PFR Location Report, but I wanted to take a short break from that to tell you all about my Metro train adventure. By now, you’ve probably heard all the hoopla. The Metro has been all that everyone's talking about lately, and since it's free for this inauguration period, most people living here in Panama City have already ridden the train, and many people living out in the interior have made special trips to the city just to check it out.

Finally, the Metro Train is Operational!

I set out yesterday to try the train myself, and in typical Panama For Real style, I’m going to break it all down for you. I rode the train from one end to the other to time it, then rode back to start all over again so that I could get off at each stop and take pictures to show you exactly what you can expect no matter where you decide to hop off the train.

First, let’s imagine you live out in the interior, and want to make a day trip into the city. This is where the Metro makes things exciting. You can take one of the cheap buses into the city (prices vary depending on where you’re coming from) and get dropped off at Albrook Terminal, which is connected to the Albrook Mall. I mention the mall often because it’s an easy shopping trip for many people, and includes many of the stores you might be familiar with. Plus, it has a large movie theater, a bowling alley, a casino, a supermarket, and branches for most of the banks.

The Albrook Bus Terminal from the new train station

But let’s say you’re not content with hanging out in the mall all day and want to hit downtown Panama City or even do some bargain shopping in the Los Andes shopping center. That’s what’s so awesome about the new Metro. You catch the train from the Albrook Terminal. So you can depart the bus, walk across the terminal, and make your way into the new train station. It's that easy.

Buses lined up at Albrook

For people living in Panama City, it's quite convenient. In the past, you might need to take a taxi to get to a bus to get to another bus. In any major city, bus transfers are a pain. I know, I used to do it all the time in Chicago. Now, if the train doesn't take you to exactly where you need to go,  you can just take the train to Albrook, then catch a bus to wherever you need to travel.

I think this 3 in 1 card will replace the bus card for train usage

Right now, while the train is free, the regular orange Metro Bus card will get you through the turnstiles, but I saw counters set up with advertisement for a brand new, 3 in 1 card, which will allow you to get through the bus station turnstiles (gets you out to where the buses are actually parked), can be used to pay for the bus ride, and can also be used to pay for the train. That will make things a lot easier. I imagine once the free trial is over,  the regular old bus cards will no longer be accepted on the train.

The catwalk is up those escalators in the back

To get to the train station, just walk to the center of the bus terminal (where you see the Metro Libre stand), and you’ll see escalators going up (opposite the mall). Take those escalators to get to the catwalk that leads to the train terminal. Right away, walking over the catwalk, I was impressed to see security all around.

On the catwalk

Once you cross the catwalk, you head down another escalator and over to the turnstile/pay area. 

Heading down to the turnstiles

Getting through the turnstile is easy, just slap your card down on the circle (you’ll know it when you see it). The turnstile will read back the amount of funds you have left on the card, and you just pass through. 

Getting through the turnstiles is easy

Head down yet another escalator (or stairs) and get to the underground boarding area, similar to the subways in NYC.

Stay behind the yellow line and wait to board

Before boarding the train, let me tell you a little bit about the Metro. As of right now, and I’m writing this on April 11, 2014, line 1 of the Metro consists of 20 trains. Each train has 3 cars capable of holding 200 passengers. So, during rush hour, when the trains will be at their fullest, 600 passengers can travel on each train. That’s incredible, and let me just say right at the start, that I was wowed by what I saw yesterday.

The first half of the trip is underground

I boarded in Albrook, and counted the time it took between each stop, which resulted in an average 2 minutes travel time between each platform (the longest was just over 3 minutes). And it took exactly 23 minutes to get from one end of the route to the other. That’s fast, man, and is a serious game changer for Panama City. You can’t get anywhere in Panama City in 23 minutes by car. 

Third world? Not anymore, pal!

I hopped off and on the train all day long, taking photos, and what impressed me most was the wait time for the next train. I didn’t time it, but I can tell you that I waited no longer than 5 minutes for each train. That’s awesome. With 20 trains running constantly (and they stop for only 15-25 seconds at each platform), there’s almost no wait time at all. Even if a train is jam packed, which it will be during rush hour, you can choose to back off and wait another 5 minutes for the next train. Right now, these trains are capable of moving about 15,000 passengers per hour (and are expected to carry 40,000 in the future).

There was a security guard between each car

Before I get to the stops on the route, let me just add that my biggest concern about these trains has been the security risk. Are we in danger of getting mugged or robbed? In just about every major city with trains or subways, there’s that stigma that they’re unsafe, especially for traveling at night. I have a security background so I was eyeing everything when I was on the Metro, and I have to say that I was, again, very impressed.

See? There's another guard back there, between this car and the next

For the most part, each train had a cop (or security guard), usually situated at the spot where the cars separate. I watched as these guys made contact with each other, passing nonverbal cues back and forth. They seemed to be in sync. At one point, I even saw a member of security assisting an older man who was carrying a large bag. He didn’t want the guy to have to stand up, so he walked him down the car, helping him look for an empty seat. Great customer service.

Emergency and Help Station

You’ll find emergency pull stations and help buttons on the walls. One guy accidentally pushed the green “help” button trying to get off at his stop (the door also has a lit up green button for when you want to exit).  Immediately, a voice came over the call box next to it, asking if someone were calling for help. The nearest cop was there quickly to find out what was going on. The guy explained that he pushed the wrong button, and everything was fine.

Speaking of the green button, if you want to depart the train at one of the stations, and the door doesn’t open on its own, just push the lit up “Simon Says” looking button on the door, and it will open.

This is the green button the guy meant to push

Something else that impressed me was when the train was very full and people were squished in next to each other, a voice came over the intercom (in Spanish) warning everyone to keep a close eye on their belongings (basically to watch out for pickpockets).

The train was very full at noontime 

Security seems solid on and off the train. I got off at every station on the route, just to check things out, and security was visible and alert at every stop.

These underground, and the elevated, stations had plenty of security

Now, let’s discuss the route and what stops you can expect:

The Line 1 Route

I took that picture at one of the stops. About half of the route is underground, subway style, and then it rises right around the 12 de Octubre stop and continues on from there as an elevated train.

Finally out of the darkness

So, from Albrook to just before 12 de Octubre, you can expect to see nothing but dark walls to both sides of the train, then you’ll be up above and able to see a little bit of what’s out there in Panama City. I have to warn you though, it’s not a pretty route.

The only viewable areas (from the train itself) are from 12 de Octubre to Los Andes, and if you’ve ever been to that area (I live around there and travel that way often) you know that it’s nothing like the tourist-friendly Cinta Costera. It’s all very local living. This train is meant to ease traffic and provide quick transportation for city residents. The train itself is remarkable, but the scenery around the tracks is not. So, as much as you feel like you’re on the Disney Monorail, don’t expect to see The Magic Kingdom.

Signs and an intercom tell you every stop along the way

If you board at Albrook, the first stop you come to is 5 de Mayo. A prerecorded announcement over the intercom let’s you know that you’ll be arriving at 5 de Mayo, plus, as you can see in the photo, it’s also written on a screen (several screens in fact) so you always know what the next stop is. Here’s what you see when you get off the train at 5 de Mayo.

Outside the 5 de Mayo station

Cinco de Mayo is the closest stop to Avenida Central and Casco Viejo really, so if you’re headed to either of those places, this is where you’d want to get off.

The pediatric clinic and Ave. Central this way

This platform has 2 exits (they all have 2 or more), allowing you to reach street level at both sides of the street, meaning you don’t have to cross a busy intersection at street level. The Cinco de Mayo stop allows you to exit at either Ave. 3 de Noviembre, where the Policlínica Pediátrica CSS (the social security pediatric clinic) and Ave. Central are both located or Calle 24 Este (where the Afroantillano Museum is located).

The Afroantillano Museum

Next up, according to the route listing, is a stop at Lotería, but that platform’s not operational at the moment, so for now, the train passes it. In the future, this stop will allow you to easily get to the Cinta Costera and the Piscina Adán Gordón (the Adan Gordon pool).

Right outside the Santo Tomás station

The Santo Tomás station will allow you to exit at either Calle 38 where Hospital Santo Tomás is located or Calle 40 (Ave. Cuba). Avenida Cuba is close to Hospital Nacional, so getting to this area easily will be important to a lot of people.

Universidad del Istmo

This stop is especially important to anyone attending UDI, the Universidad del Istmo, as the main Panama City branch is right outside the station.

Ave. Cuba this way

Next up is the Iglesia del Carmen station. This lets you out on Via España, right around the big church (where I got married) Iglesia del Carmen. You should be able to see it in the picture. This stop also puts you near the casino area and Hotel El Panama.  

You can kind of see Iglesia del Carmen at the end

According to the pamphlet, this one has 4 exit points. 1: Ave. Federico Boyd, 2: Ave. Manuel Espinosa Batista (Iglesia del Carmen), 3: Calle 49 Oeste (Via Véneto), 4: Calle Elvira Méndez.

Walk to the street next to McDonald's to get to a couple of the casinos

Basically, you want to get off at that stop if you want to check out the awesome church, have plans to hit the casino area, or want to do some shopping on Via España. Also, for anyone looking for a gentleman’s club (strip club), The Cotton Club is right there too. Sounds horrible. Go to this stop to either go to church or to do anything the church is against.

Via Argentina exit takes you to the Obarrio and El Cangrejo neighborhoods

Via Argentina is in the heart of El Cangrejo, one of the most expat-friendly areas of the city and a really cool, hip place to hang out. Obarrio, another great neighborhood, is also right around the corner.

Via España just outside the Via Argentina station

You'll find 3 exits at this station. 1: Obarrio, 2: Via Argentina, 3: Calle Thais de Pons (where the Caja de Ahorros bank is).

I'm not all that familiar with the area outside the Fernández de Córdoba station

Fernández de Córdoba let’s you out in another major area of the city, but one I’m not all that familiar with. This area has a lot of auto mechanics, that’s for sure. This is where I was sent to get my AC compressor replaced. This is the best stop to get off at if you need to get to Hospital San Fernando on Via España as it's only about 2 blocks away.

The exits are, 1: Cuartel de Bomberos (Calle Asia or Vista Hermosa), and 2: Via España.

But I'm not completely lost because I can still see the twisty tower in the background

So that’s 3 stops along Via España (which is one of the main thruways here in Panama City. Next up is supposed to be a stop at El Ingenio, but it's currently closed.

From the elevated 12 de Octubre station

12 de Octubre is the stop right next to my kids’ school. I’ve put pictures of this stop on Facebook before as it’s the main one I see everyday, so I’ve seen it go through all steps of its construction. 

12 de Octubre and Transistmica

The 12 de Octubre stop is right at the corner of 12 de Octubre and Transistmica (or Ave. Simón Bolívar). The exits at this station are, 1: Ave. 12 de Octubre and 2: Sector Club X.

This way down 12 de Octubre to get to Via España

If you were to get out here and head straight down 12 de Octubre, you'd pass through Pueblo Nuevo, Grill 50 (a popular sports bar), and eventually make your way to Via España.

Pueblo Nuevo is basically just a stop on Transistmica, between 12 de Octubre and San Miguelito, for anyone living in-between. The only reason to get off at that stop is if you have family or friends living in the area. No major shopping centers or attractions are located there.

From the Pueblo Nuevo station

San Miguelito, this stop will put you right at the intersection of Tumba Muerto (officially known as Ave. Ricardo J. Alfaro) and Transistmica, where the El Machetazo store and Hospital San Miguel Arcángel. The exits are 1: La Gran Estación and 2: Hospital San Miguel Arcángel.

El Machetazo and Hospital San Miguel Arcángel at San Miguelito

You’ll find lots of bargain shopping in this area, but I have to warn you, be careful. This is, unfortunately, known as one of the more dangerous areas in the city. I’ve never had any issues there, and I go to that area often, but it seems there’s always some kind of violent crime mentioned on the news in the San Miguelito area.

San Miguelito

I’m not very familiar with Pan de Azúcar, but I got off at this stop to see what was around. It seems to be, again, just a stop along Transistmica, for people living between San Miguelito and Los Andes. There’s not a lot going on there. You’d probably only get off here if you were visiting friends or family in the area.

Pan de Azúcar

The end of the line will take you to Los Andes, which I wrote about once before in my article on bargain shopping. You can see that article by clicking HERE.

From the Los Andes platform

This is a great place to go if you just want to get away from the expensive, indoor malls. Be ready though, it’s very crowded, at most times of the day.

The Los Andes Metro station a couple of months before opening

It seems there are plans to add one more stop after Los Andes, at San Isidro, but it’s currently closed.

Okay, so what did I not like about the train? There's not much to point out as far as negatives go. The train does get packed, which is to be expected, and when it does, it's a lot like the buses, people squished in like sardines. The good news is it's a quick, short ride, not like a 2-hour Diablo Rojo ride. Plus, the trains are air conditioned.

This is a lot more comfortable than the old buses

Something else I think they need to fix is the need to swipe your card when departing the train station. It's not a big deal when you get off at any of the smaller stations, but when you get off at Albrook, and the train is full, that whole bottle-neck thing comes into play where there are only maybe 6-8 turnstiles, but could be up to 600 passengers getting off the train at one time. When I arrived at Albrook at about 1pm, it took awhile to get through the turnstiles and people were cutting in front of others to get through more was a lot like trying to get through the Corredor Sur toll booths at rush hour, but with foot traffic. 

You'll find stairs, escalators, and even elevators at all the stations

The rumor is that the train is going to cost $1.50, but I'm not sure if that's set in stone. That's kind of steep, at least for most Panamanians traveling along the route the train takes you. The areas out near San Miguelito, Pan de Azucar, and Los Andes are not high-income areas. The buses are $.25 each way, so $1.50 is a big difference. We'll have to wait and see how that goes. 

School kids excitedly making their way onto the train

Other than that, everything was cool. I can tell that this is going to be great for a lot of people. The school kids looked happy to be on the train rather than crammed into a hot bus. The short amount of time it took to get to each stop was the most impressive thing about the train. That, and the amount of security. The security seemed to be top notch. 

So, that should give you the info you need to know about traveling on the new Metro Line 1.

Thanks for reading,


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