DEEPER UNDERGROUND

Panama 2017 | TRANSPORT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Roberto Roy, Minister of Canal Affairs and Metro of Panama, on the different phases of the project, encouraging use of public transport, and the effect of the Tocumen Airport expansion.

With an investment of USD2 billion, the first line of the Metro is the second largest infrastructure investment in the country after the canal. How will it reshape the infrastructure landscape of Panama and what is its importance for the country?

The long-term view for the Metro is actually a total of seven or eight lines, depending on certain factors. However, we are talking about a pretty robust network and have done the planning for this through to 2040. The first line was a USD2 billion investment, and that included an 8km tunnel. Line two is longer than the first at 21km and will have 16 stations and 21 more trains. We have been increasing ridership for the whole metro and are now at double the expected number of daily passengers. For line one, we originally calculated around 140,000 daily passengers, but we have had days with nearly 300,000, with the average hovering around 275,000. This has made us place an order for additional cars, and we are buying 70 new cars for line one. This purchase will be for both line one and will cover extra demand to feed passengers from line two. We are changing the fleet from trains of three to five cars each, thus increasing the capacity of each train considerably. This way we can cope with the estimated demand: if you look at national polls, the metro is the number one entity in public satisfaction. We are always above 80%, which gives us a lot of happiness. We are proud to have done something that has really changed people's lives for the better in Panama.

How are you working to encourage use of the metro in Panama City?

This is one of our strong points even though it had never been done before. We have a program called Metro Culture that has many different facets. There is free opera in the metro on Saturdays, which people have really taken to. We also have installed free libraries in the metro where you can pick up and drop off books. This was done in alliance with the Lions Club and 20-30 Club, and has been pretty successful. We have additional programs for disadvantaged youth where we offer information about the construction of the metro. Keeping all of these facilities clean is also high on our agenda.

What are some of the challenges and obstacles you face on a daily basis?

We started line two a year and a half ago, and line three is even longer and will go over the new bridge over the Panama Canal which will be the fourth to cross the waterway. Line three is 27km long and will be a monorail instead of a normal train because there are lots of hills on its route. Our metro is the only one in Central America, and the monorail will be the only one of its kind in all of Central or South America, apart from Sao Paulo. This will be a robust monorail with the latest Japanese technology. We see this project as a case study. Our collaboration with the Japanese International Corporation Agency (JICA) is important to us. We are going to award pre-qualified companies in the next three months and will then have a period of about six months for participants to submit their proposals. We hope to award the winning contractor at the end of 2017, with construction to start in early 2018.

How many jobs is the Metro generating?

During the construction phase, we are looking at about 3,500 jobs for each line, while the direct operation of the system will create about 500 jobs. We pay some of the best salaries in the public sector.

What are your main targets, ambitions, and goals for the coming year?

Our immediate goals are to finish line two and later the extension to the airport. The Panama airport will go from handling 13 million passengers to somewhere closer to 18 or 20 million passengers once the new terminal is open. We must capitalize on this and then ideally finish line three by 2021 or 2022.