Medellin is extremely proud of its metro system, which turns 15 this year – as the first and only metro in Colombia it is a welcome point of distinction for a city sick of its bad reputation, and a tourist attraction in itself.
The first thing any visitor is universally advised to do upon arrival in Medellin is to go to the nearest metro station, catch a train, enjoy the views as it travels along the length of the valley, and take the metro-cable up to hillside barrios to enjoy a panoramic view of the city. There is even a story that in 1998 Carlos Castaño, one of the most feared paramilitary warlords and a native of Antioquia, the department of which Medellin is the capital, grilled some suspected guerrilla sympathisers for information on the new rail system while he was holding them hostage. He had to keep a low profile in the city, so hadn’t had the chance to ride the metro, and wanted to know what it was like.
This year is the system’s 15th anniversary, and stations are plastered with billboard messages from the metro to its customers; “Medellin: Thank you for so much love.” And there is a lot of love. In September, a survey showed that the metro was the public body held in highest regard by Medellin-dwellers for the fifth year in a row.
Metro customer services representative Maria Yolanda Echeverri Perez attributes this popularity to the organization’s big ideas. “The metro doesn’t just help its clients move around, the metro takes into account all of the clients’ needs.” Medellin’s metro sees itself not just as a transport system , but as a force for good in the city. The metro-cable that connects the incredibly steep roads of Santo Domingo, a barrio perched on the hillside high above the city, to the center of Medellin has dramatically regenerated an area once notorious for violence. The community is no longer cut off from the city, and people can easily commute to jobs in the center. Travel in the area still has its dangers, though: in 2009 a young woman riding in the cable car was hit in the leg by a stray bullet, fired into the air by merry-makers having a party in the streets below. There is also a metro-cable, which had to be temporarily closed earlier this year due to gunfire damage, to transport the the curious tourist to the troubled barrios of Comuna 13, which are being torn apart by warring gangs
The metro also has cultural programs, as Echeverri explains. “When people travel on the metro, we wanted them to take advantage of that time and read books.” As a result there are now two Bibliometros, public lending libraries installed at stations. Another scheme, Rolling Words (Palabras Rodantes) has seen dispensers set up in stations where people can take free copies of small, beautifully-printed books of short stories and extracts from novels. The idea is that people take a book, read it on the train, take it home if they like, then return it, but only about 30% make their way back into the system.
“What people are doing is collecting them,” says Echeverri, “the books go to a cousin, an uncle, a friend, and they continue to fill the role when somebody else reads them.” The project’s fame has spread across the world, she says, or at least to those places with a lot of Colombians. “I have often received phone calls to my office from Spain, Miami, Canada, from people who ask if we can send a certain book that they are missing from the set.”
The metro also runs an annual short story competition for young people, and holds an annual ceremony for participants. “We made this event to entertain people, to give them something else to focus on, we are talking about those communities which have difficult economic conditions and that don’t have access to culture,” say Echeverri.
Most important, perhaps, is that people love Medellin’s metro for what it represents. It is a space in the chaotic city where things are orderly; you can’t eat, or put your feet on the seats, sit on the floor, smoke, or listen to loud personal stereos, and these rules are enforced by the policemen present at every station. “People in the metro feel secure, the metro is clean, people behave themselves,” says Echeverri. “In the metro people have manners. That is why we have managed to put ourselves into the heart of the Medellin people, and not only them, but the Colombians, and even the visitors.”