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ARGENTINA: Privatised Railways – a Timebomb

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 16 2007 (IPS) - A riot by commuters enraged over delays, who destroyed part of the busiest train station in Buenos Aires, has drawn attention to the profound crisis afflicting Argentina’s privatised railways, which have severe shortcomings despite the huge subsidies they receive from the state.

“This was a calamity waiting to happen; we are fed up with the constant delays, the cancellation of services, the mistreatment and disregard of passengers,” Maria Petraccaro complained to IPS.

Petraccaro is an activist with Recuperemos el Tren, a group of commuters that has been carrying out a petition drive in Constitución station – where the late Tuesday rioting took place – to present a complaint to the government.

“I don’t justify the violence or destruction, but if they treat us like animals, they can’t expect us to react like human beings,” said Petraccaro. “No matter how patient you are, I challenge you to travel on this railway line for a month, and I guarantee that you will soon feel like breaking everything in sight.”

When Argentina’s railway system was privatised in 1991, different lines were awarded to various companies under concessions that included government subsidies to make the deal more attractive, in exchange for payment of an annual concession fee and the maintenance of the rail system, which continued to be owned by the state.

The country’s 32,000 kilometres of railway tracks shrank to 10,000, since only the most profitable were maintained. A number of cities lost their rail connection to the capital, while links between provincial cities, and with other countries, disappeared. As a result, hundreds of small towns and villages became isolated ghost towns, and regional economies sustained enormous damage.

The system now operates with severe deficiencies, even though the state shells out the equivalent of 660,000 dollars a day in subsidies to the concession holders. According to the companies, the state funds go almost exclusively towards keeping fares down, rather than towards investment or maintenance of infrastructure.

The commuter riot, not the first to break out in recent years, took place in the Constitución station in the southern part of Buenos Aires, which serves more than half a million people a day. The outbreak of violence was triggered by an interruption of service at rush hour caused by the break-down of a train and the company’s failure to inform commuters of what was happening.

The train broke down 600 metres from the station. Many of its 800 passengers walked to the station, complaining that they had been waiting on the train for over 20 minutes – a phenomenon that commuters’ groups say is all too frequent.

In the station, the angry passengers joined their voices to those of other commuters who were running from one platform to another, trying to find a way home, or waiting on packed trains which were not moving because of the interruption in train services.

As the frustration and anger reached boiling point, people began to set fire to and destroy installations like ticket and information offices, ticket machines, public telephones and a security office, and to throw stones at police officers. However, vehicles were spared, and shops in the station were not damaged or looted.

Some 25 people were injured and 16 were arrested.

On Wednesday, President Néstor Kirchner defended the government policy of subsidising the railways to keep down fares, and said Tuesday’s collapse had to do with the increase in the number of people commuting to the metropolitan area, fuelled by the economic recovery. “In the 1990s, the trains were empty, because there was no work,” said the centre-left president.

He also said investment in the railways was occurring, although he lashed out at some of the companies, but without naming names.

Shortly before the president spoke, the Interior Ministry admitted that the violent outbreak was a reaction by commuters to deficient services, but said that once the rioting began, “violent activists with rocks and Molotov cocktails” got involved.

Similar arguments were set forth by businessman Sergio Taselli, who runs the Trenes Metropolitanos S.A. train service out of Constitución station. “People were furious, and some took advantage of the situation to commit excesses and burn the ticket booths,” he said.

In his view, the problem is not the train services but the increase in demand. “The number of passengers has risen threefold since 2003, and we are making investments but are unable to keep up with the growth in demand,” he argued.

However, commuters aren’t buying the company’s arguments. “It sounds logical: if the economy is recovering, there are more passengers. But what’s supposed to happen? Are we going to return to the recession, or will they make the necessary investments?” asked Petraccaro.

Commuters complain that it is not just a problem of being crammed into overcrowded train carriages, but that delays and interruptions of services are frequent, trains are shrinking in length because cars break down and are not fixed or replaced, and promises to switch from diesel fuel to electrification on new lines have not been fulfilled.

The crisis has not only been reflected by violent incidents, but also by the emergence of associations of commuters who hold peaceful demonstrations outside the companies that run the railways and in front of public offices.

Commuters have organised in Recuperemos al Tren, which includes the Grupo Suer (Sufridos Usuarios del Ex Roca) and Mejoremos el Tren, and the Frente de Usuarios Desesperados del Sarmiento (Fudesa).

In November 2005, rioting broke out in the Haedo station on the Sarmiento railway line when services were suspended after passengers had already been delayed at the station for nearly an hour. In that incident, 15 train carriages and a police car were set on fire, nearby shops were looted, 29 people were injured, and over 100 were taken into custody.

As on this occasion, the company running the railway and government officials complained that organised groups were involved. But commuters say that then and now, the large majority were merely furious passengers, sick and tired of the delays that force them to spend several hours on a train platform or an overcrowded train trying to get to their jobs, schools or home.

“All of the suburban lines suffer the same problems: terrible service, including delays, unreliable departure and arrival times, and lack of security and information,” Cristina Suárez, a member of Fudesa who rides the Sarmiento line, told IPS.

Fudesa collected 6,000 signatures to complain about the train services, which were presented in October to the national transport regulatory commission, in charge of overseeing the concession holders. “They responded in March, saying that according to surveys, the service had improved significantly,” said the activist.

“They don’t take people seriously. They think we don’t realise that they’re lying, that they never came to the trains to carry out surveys because they wouldn’t even be able to climb aboard since the carriages are so packed,” said Suárez. “The state and the companies are totally responsible for these outbreaks of violence, and for any that may occur in the future.”

Juan Carlos Cena, with the Movimiento Nacional de Recuperación de los Ferrocarriles Argentinos, commented to IPS that passengers “are tired of the companies’ abuses, the government’s silence and the complicity of the trade unions,” all of which conspire to make the railway system “a disaster.”

Cena, a former railway worker, said the solution is for the state to regain control of the administration of the railways and to design a unified public policy that would include planning to take into account the growth in demand and the maintenance of locomotives, carriages, tracks and platforms to prevent accidents.

Argentina’s national Ombudsman Eduardo Mondito said the state should admit that “the subsidies policy has failed.” He added that, if necessary, “the concessions of the companies that fail to make the necessary investments, like Trenes Metropolitanos S.A, should be taken away.”

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