[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 5 January 2006, 12:50 GMT
Tube travel Venezuelan style
By Hugh O'Shaughnessy
BBC, Caracas

Londoners may have the oldest underground railway in the world but it is not held in great affection, unlike the Metro in Venezuela which is punctual, cheap and held in the highest esteem.

Platform at Chacao station
Opened in 1983, the Metro carries over one million people a day

On a fine sunny afternoon Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, is a magical place.

It sits in the tropics at the northern end of the Andes in a steep-sided mountain valley which runs due east and west.

As the sun perambulates around the sky, hillsides and buildings are covered by constantly changing patterns of cloud which have always fascinated painters.

With Rio de Janeiro, Caracas is one of the few cities which has got a forest reserve in the centre of town.

Like most Latin American cities it suffers cruelly from murder and kidnapping and the gap between the poor Caraquenos - as the city's inhabitants are called - and the rich ones, is immense, despite the present government's efforts to reduce it.

But Caracas does have its pride and joy, the elegant modern French-built Metro system.

Obeying the rules

Train maintenance at Las Adjuntas workshop
Eighty-four per cent of the passengers do not own cars

You never have to wait more than a few minutes for a train.

The stainless steel carriages and the handsome stations are kept spotlessly clean. Signs are clear and elegant.

And the stations, in red brick, glazed tile and concrete, are well-equipped with escalators.

Like the trains themselves, they are also air-conditioned. So, even though the system is packed at rush hour, it is never oppressive.

Smoking is forbidden and, exceptionally, the Caraquenos - who usually ignore rules - do observe this one.

There are very few adverts on the network and that is a relief for citizens who above ground are bombarded with them from almost every building and skyscraper.

And there is no graffiti.

Bridging divides

There is one main east-west line with few junctions, just a couple of branch lines and 38 stations in all.

It links the two ends of town.

In the west are most of the poor, living in slums or giant blocks of flats sadly deficient in social services.

Map of Venezuela

In the east amid leafy luxury, golf courses and country clubs beautified with giant bamboos and bougainvillea, live members of high society.

The tunnels are not very deep and sometimes through a grill you can see a tropical tree or a plant in a park above you.

At one end of the line where the tracks are on the surface, you travel through grassy slopes and jungle-covered mountains with glimpses of distant plains and valleys.

Though the city is often hit by fierce tropical rains the water never seems to get into the system.

Education in citizenship

Fares are cheap, ranging from a few pence for a single ticket to less than a pound for a ticket valid for ten journeys.

And Metro tickets can be used on the public buses.

But the Caracas Metro, as run by the government, is more than a means of transport. It is a whole scheme of education in citizenship.

"Socially it's a wonderful no man's land where rich and poor come together," says my friend Edgar, a friendly man born in the countryside but passionate for his adopted city.

Be a Metro citizen, don't throw litter
Underground advert in Caracas

Somehow the passengers' pride in their Metro has created a sense of good civic behaviour.

Edgar, a trade union leader who is not addicted to airy-fairy ideas, says it is the result of a very successful campaign, started when the first piece of track was inaugurated two decades ago.

The idea was to get the Caraquenos to behave well and the campaign for city pride continues to this day.

The Metro declares: "The passenger must be persuaded and not told off," adding, "the example of the Metro may be extended to other activities and other parts of the country."

"Be a Metro citizen," says an advert in the carriages, "don't throw litter."

And the passengers indeed do not throw litter.

Hushed tones

An underground train travelling overground on part of the railway line in Caracas
Caracas has a population of around 5 million

Along the polished platforms people heed the warning not to step over the yellow line a foot away from the edge before the train comes in and the doors open.

They do not shout or even talk in loud voices.

Twice in one afternoon I saw young mothers telling their children to keep quiet because they were in the Metro.

And a pregnant woman does not have to stand in a carriage very long before being offered a seat.

Even this male, white-haired correspondent benefited from strangers' courtesy.

Research has established that young people make up the bulk of passengers with four out of five less than 40 years old.

Traffic reduction

Eighty-four percent of the passengers do not own cars.

So popular is the Metro that three more extensions are being built and the punters are looking forward to taking the train to the Riconada race course next year.

The real challenge will come if they ever decide to extend the line from the valley 1km down to the Caribbean coast where the international airport lies.

"They're always talking about extending it to the airport at Maiquetia. But I think that'll take a long time yet," says Jorge, an attendant at Palo Verde station, a bit sceptically.

Perhaps the Metro's greatest claim to fame is that it has got people out of cars, taxis and buses on the clogged roads and into tunnels.

In a country which is swimming in oil, where petrol is dirt cheap - no more than two pence ($0.04) a litre - that is an enormous success.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 5 January, 2006 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Venezuela
22 Nov 05 |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific