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ARGENTINA: Bad Trips for Most, High Speed Trains for the Few

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 29 2008 (IPS) - The Argentine government has given the go-ahead for a high-speed electric train which may be the first in Latin America. But experts and, above all, commuters who travel daily on slow, shabby suburban trains are angry, because the multi-million dollar project will only benefit an elite few.

“We’re not against modernisation, but we will continue to travel in sub-standard conditions,” Juan Pablo Gómez, an administrative employee and regular traveller on the Roca line, which runs from Constitución station in Buenos Aires to the densely populated southern suburbs, told IPS. These trains carry 600,000 passengers a day.

The plan is for the high speed train to link Argentina’s three main cities: Buenos Aires, Rosario in the northern province of Santa Fe, and Córdoba, the capital of the central province of the same name. The 710-kilometre route will be covered in three hours by trains reaching a maximum speed of 320 kilometres an hour.

According to experts, no other trains in the Americas are as modern as the ones Argentina will be using. High speed trains of this kind are mainly found in the European Union or Asia.

The Argentine high speed trains will be built starting this year, and will be ready in 2012, at a cost 3.9 billion dollars, to be paid from 2015 onwards. Fares have not yet been announced, but it is thought they will be equivalent to or greater than air freight costs.

Many users of the suburban railway system, who spend sometimes hours a day commuting to and from work, are against the project. In their view, it will siphon off resources that should be devoted to improving the suburban network rather than to a transport system that will only be used by those who can already afford a plane ticket.

Gómez is active in an organisation called Pasajeros del Roca (Roca Line Passengers), which has a web site and holds regular meetings for its members. Its influence has grown, and now dozens of associations of passengers who travel on different lines have been organised.

The Subsecretariat of Transport has met with representatives of the Roca group four times in the last three months, he said.

“Government officials have admitted in the meetings that transport is in a state of crisis due to lack of maintenance and safety. Two years ago a train was derailed in Adrogué station, which showed how serious the situation was, and now some works are under way,” he said.

However, most users think the plans that have been announced, to electrify railways and take them underground, add more carriages and improve stations across the system, are the same old promises that have been repeated for years, only more insistently now that the high speed trains are drawing criticism.

With the exception of the Mitre line, which runs from Retiro Station near the port of Buenos Aires to Tigre, in the north of the city, the suburban lines are in a deplorable state.

The trains have broken seats and windows, frequent breakdowns and accidents, and too few carriages, so that some passengers hang out of the doors of trains, and others even travel on the roof.

In late 2007, the head teacher of a secondary vocational school informed a television channel how students were travelling on the Belgrano Sur line within the Buenos Aires suburban area. Short of carriages, the train was always crowded, and students and other passengers trying to get home regularly travelled sitting or lying on the roof.

“The promises are pure propaganda; there isn’t a single feasibility or environmental impact study for the underground tunnel they’ve announced for the line from Once to Moreno (another urban railway),” Juan Carlos Cena of the National Movement for the Restoration of Argentine Railways complained to IPS.

“Even making the announcement about a ‘bullet train’ is utter nonsense, from the technical, political and geopolitical points of view,” he said. “Such an overweening project is a mark of disrespect for commuters who travel on railway systems that are on the brink of collapse. First they should solve the basic problems.”

Cena, the author of the book “El ferricidio” (roughly: The Murder of the Railways), pointed out that the country’s railway system had 47,000 kilometres of track until the early 1990s, which has been reduced since then to 10,000 kilometres.

“There are 850 ghost towns where the trains used to go, and there are even people living in abandoned carriages and stations, for instance in Rosario, a future stop on the ‘bullet train’ line,” he said.

The railway factories that produced tracks and carriages in different parts of the country are now closed and apparently forgotten, in spite of repeated promises to reopen them, Cena said. In contrast, the high speed trains will rely on imported technology for their manufacture and maintenance.

The project was first proposed in 2006, under President Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), and it has been staunchly defended by his wife and successor, President Cristina Fernández, who said it was “a leap into modernity,” a project “that would completely raise the profile of the region.”

In April, after signing the contract with the consortium that will be carrying out the works, the president emphasised that the high speed railway will connect 60 percent of the Argentine population, according to official estimates, and create 5,000 direct and 25,000 indirect jobs.

She rebuffed criticisms about the cost of the work and doubts about its priority, promising that along with the high speed railway, improvements would be made to the suburban lines.

“We are not going to stop building sewers, schools, roads or hospitals,” she said, explaining that the project would be financed over 30 years with a seven-year grace period.

The railway will be built by a group led by the French company Alstom, which has experience with high speed trains, but is under investigation in France and Switzerland for allegedly paying bribes to win contracts in Brazil, Venezuela, Indonesia and Singapore.

Isolux of Spain and EMAPA and Iecsa of Argentina are also members of the consortium.

The state will issue public debt bonds in part payment as the works progress, and expenditure will be accounted for in the national budget every year. In this way, the need for the project to be approved by Congress was avoided.

This is one of the aspects most heavily criticised by leading opposition politicians, who think the high speed train may present an opportunity for corruption. Lawmakers belonging to the opposition Radical Civic Union party have asked the National Audit Office, headed by Leandro Despouy, a member of the same party, to investigate the project.

Former member of Congress Mario Cafiero and lawyer Ricardo Monner Sanz have brought a lawsuit to establish whether Planning Minister Julio de Vido and others violated any of the duties of public officials or committed administrative fraud in signing the contract.

Meanwhile, a group of political, social and student organisations have launched a petition drive to cancel the high speed railway project and promote a plan for “Trenes para Todos” (Trains for Everyone), which would involve lower costs and address all-round improvement and extension of the existing system instead.

The campaign was launched on the Internet in mid-May, and in less than 10 days had gathered 350,000 signatures.

Among its participants is filmmaker Fernando “Pino” Solanas, a presidential candidate in last October’s elections for the leftwing movement Proyecto Sur, which took just 1.6 percent of the vote.

“It is unacceptable that no national debate was convened on the transport crisis and the reconstruction of the railways as an alternative,” said Solanas, who has directed outstanding films such as “Sur” (South).

“The president is determined to carry on with a project that runs counter to the national interest, generates foreign debt and does not offer a solution to millions of passengers from every corner of the country who are waiting for their railways to be replaced and upgraded,” he said.

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