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Argentina’s Rail Tragedy Shows Changes Coming Too Slowly

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 14 2013 (IPS) - The latest railway tragedy in the Argentine capital, the third in less than two years on the same commuter line, brought to light the severe limitations of a hybrid public-private system, despite the changes underway.

Thursday’s collision, which killed three people and injured over 300, occurred when a commuter train on the suburban Sarmiento line crashed into a train that had stopped near the station in Castelar, on the west side of the city of Buenos Aires.

Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo said the packed train had undergone repairs and had a new brake system. He suggested that the conductor, who was detained pending investigation, may have been speeding.

Last year, the centre-left government of Cristina Fernández launched a plan for investment and greater state involvement in the metropolitan railway network, after two serious accidents on the Sarmiento line, which links the centre of Buenos Aires with the western suburbs, and was previously run autonomously by a private firm.

The first accident happened in September 2011, when a bus crossed the tracks in front of an oncoming train. The barriers were down but the driver presumably thought they were stuck, as they often were. The train, which crashed into the bus, was derailed and was hit by a train approaching from the other direction. The accident left 11 dead and 212 injured.

And in February 2012, a commuter train slammed into a retaining wall at a railway terminus in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Once, killing 51 people and leaving over 700 injured.

After that tragedy, the Fernández administration withdrew the concession from the Cometrans consortium, and as an emergency measure created a new management unit with two private operators that were already running the other suburban lines.

The new unit runs the Sarmiento line under supervision and orders from the state, which now has greater decision-making authority and control and can levy fines that are automatically discounted from the private companies in case of infractions or breach of contract.

The centre-right government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999) privatised Argentina’s railways in the early 1990s, awarding the concessions to private companies. The contracts were renegotiated over and over again, while the quality of the railway services took a nosedive due to a lack of investment, maintenance and upgrading.

Nevertheless, the state coffers continue to shell out an average of 3.8 billion dollars a year in subsidies to keep fares down; 25 percent of that total goes to the six commuter lines serving the suburbs of Buenos Aires.

“There have been changes recently. Some things have improved. But Randazzo isn’t a magician, he’s a minister,” Norberto Rosendo, the president of the Comisión Nacional Salvemos al Tren (Save the Train National Commission), told IPS.

Rosendo was an engineer for Ferrocarriles Argentinos, the state-run company that ran the railways up to the 1990s.

“Improvements have been delayed for more than 20 years, since the railways were privatised and systematic maintenance stopped being carried out. And the outsourcing of repairs doesn’t work,” he said.

Rosendo was referring to the system under which the state hands over the parts to be repaired to Emprendimientos Ferroviarios SA, of Cometrans, which was removed as operator of the Sarmiento and Mitre lines after the February 2012 catastrophe in Once.

The owners of Cometrans and roughly two dozen former government officials are facing charges of criminal negligence and fraudulent administration in relation to the accident.

According to Rosendo, the government could have expropriated the Emprendimientos Ferroviarios SA repair workshop, which employs some 400 workers.

Gradually moving back into state hands

“Why isn’t a state-run company directly set up?” he complained. “I believe it’s because it would reduce the opportunities for corruption, since a state-owned firm has to be held accountable, but third parties are more difficult to control.”

The expert clarified that he was not making an accusation against the minister, who he had no reason to believe was part of a network of corruption, but was criticising the system itself.

“They should move towards total nationalisation, with participation by workers and users,” he recommended. “That is the kind of company that is needed, one that is held to account, that has its own repair shops, that doesn’t have to pay others to fix things or commission new carriages from China.”

Randazzo had announced a contract with Chinese companies for the production of carriages that would mean the complete renovation of the trains on the Sarmiento and Mitre lines in 2014.

The trains that are now running are 50 years old and are subject to continuous repairs. “They have to be thrown out as junk,” Rosendo said.

Users of the system also have complaints and suggestions. VIAS (Verificación Informativa y Auditoría Social) is a group of people who use the railway system in Argentina and carry out surveys and post photos to document complaints on Facebook.

In recent months, improvements have been reported, such as the reopening of bathrooms in train stations, more flagmen, and different safety measures.

But trains are still delayed, there are still doors that don’t close, and there are even risks of electrocution.

Carlos de Luca is one of the activists with the Frente de Usuarios Desesperados del Sarmiento, a movement of users of the Sarmiento line that in the years before the accidents was collecting signatures and protesting the often appalling conditions in the trains.

Although the movement’s complaints did not help prevent the tragedies, they did serve as information and evidence in the lawsuit over the February 2012 catastrophe, he told IPS.

“My wife was pregnant, and I used to go meet her at the station because she was scared. One day she fell. Incredible things happened in Sarmiento, like people who would return home barefoot” because they had lost their shoes in the daily crush.

“Today we are in anguish over this new accident, but I believe that something is changing since the state took over responsibility,” he said.

“The thing is, the changes can’t be seen overnight, as you would like, but we see there is a will to improve things,” he said. “What we have always been asking is for the state to take charge.”

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