By Ashton Farmanara
Late last month, Argentina once again attracted unwanted international attention following another disastrous commuter train crash that claimed 50 lives and injured more than 600 people. The tragedy prompted further investigation into the eighth consecutive train crash since 2008, highlighting the urgent need for transportation reform and corporate restructuring. The incident was especially shocking considering the stellar safety record of the trains’ operator. Initially, the crash was blamed on faulty brakes. Argentina’s dismal record regarding its commuter train system, however, proves that this latest event stems from several other serious issues that need to be addressed in the same light. Over the past decade, the Argentina Railway Union has reiterated the fact that safety standards are inadequate, in a country once proud of its largely British-built railway system which had deteriorated over the years, thus increasing the risk for an accident of massive proportions to occur at any given moment (EuroNews).
Compared to other transportation services in Argentina, its railways are no longer given priority and thus, the lack of maintenance has gradually deteriorated over the past two decades. Ultimately, the lack of federal investment in sustaining the British-engineered railways has contributed to the steady decline of the Argentine railway system. The once vast network of railways contrived by fiscally minded British investors and implemented British engineers has declined in stature over the past two decades as a result of prodigious deficits that increased the onus of sustaining the railway system (Journal of Latin American Studies). Over the past decade, trains have become so predictably unreliable that many disillusioned Argentines have arrived to the point that they seem to be reluctant to travel by train. Many Argentines do currently take advantage of alternative methods of travel, including the elaborate interurban bus service that is regarded as one of the most comfortable and straightforward methods of transportation available anywhere in the region. Nevertheless, as of now, Argentina has the eighth largest railway network in the world, with 36,966 kilometers and much that needs fixing (CIA Factbook). Recently, the Fenandez-Kirchner administration garnered an unsavory reputation with safety advocacy groups after purchasing obsolete trains and parts from Spain and Portugal that carry the inherent risk of failure or malfunction in the near future. The very fact that the Argentine government has been allowing its citizens to board obsolete and poorly-maintained trains raises the question of whether or not the Fernandez administration is sufficiently sensitive about the safety regulations of the commuter train system.
Though Argentina’s railways have been heavily subsidized dating back to Nestor Kirchner’s rise to power in 2003, many Argentines remain skeptical as to whether or not those subsidies have been sustained by President Cristina Fernandez. This quandary has led many Argentines to question whether all of the AR$4.15 billion in railway subsidies was actually spent on improving the public transit system. The Fernandez administration has been accused of corruption and carelessness concerning the railway system, which carries 420 million passengers each year (). It has been nearly two now decades since Argentina’s railway system was privatized, and the primary issue that needs to be addressed is the lack of oversight over the subsidies that originally were intended to upgrade what has now become a notoriously lackluster railway system. With no oversight, frivolous and negligent spending of government cash is a near certainty. Public transportation is a key public interest that can curtail aggregate carbon emissions, facilitate personal mobility, and provide access to job opportunities. It would certainly be a shame to see Argentina’s once impressive railway system collapse as a result of mismanagement and faulty regulatory protocol. Transportation personnel and government officials need to formulate initiatives aimed at minimizing the likelihood of another calamity in order to generate confidence among citizens who have grown wary of utilizing public transit services. The Argentina Railway Union has held the Fernandez de Kirchner administration culpable for nearly every act of mismanagement leading up to the wreck, primarily because of its obstinate position on the issue. President Fernandez’ recent proposal to cut collective subsidies amidst Argentina’s looming budget deficit would allocate the responsibility of overseeing the rail system to private companies. Many Argentines believe such a move would only amplify the existing lack of supervision towards the safety and efficacy of the rail line.
Despite the fact that the Fernandez de Kirchner administration is conscious of the many problems that exist in the transit network, it has continually downplayed the concerns of the Argentina Railway Union. Instead, the Fernandez de Kirchner administration has shifted its attention to issues that, according to them, are more politically salient. The efficiency of the railway system and the safety of the citizens who routinely board the trains certainly deserve to be a priority. Some action needs to be taken as far as increasing the level of regulation and lowering the subsidies that have been squandered by negligent transportation personnel. This unsettling pattern of wreckages is deeply troubling and immediate action is essential in order to prevent future accidents that have claimed an inexcusable number of lives over the last decade.
Ashton Farmanara is a COHA Research Associate