Saturday, February 9, 2008

Making Tracks for Mar del Plata?

Last Thursday the "Gran Capitán" train, which covers the 1,007 km from Buenos Aires to the Misiones province capital of Posadas, arrived five hours late. That's the good news. On its previous run, with 550 passengers en route from Posadas to Buenos Aires, it arrived 18 hours late and had to change locomotives three times. The average speed was barely 20 km per hour, and the trip took 48 hours.

It seemed ironic then that, hot on the rails of her recent announcement of a bullet train from Buenos Aires to Rosario and Córdoba, president Cristina Fernández yesterday announced plans for a similar project, to cost US$800 million or more, to the Buenos Aires province beach resort of Mar del Plata, 500 or so km south. When completed, it would whisk passengers from the federal capital to the Atlantic sands in two hours-plus. Theoretically, at least, you could spend the afternoon in Mardel and return home for dinner.

The project is audacious but passenger traffic to Mar del Plata, unlike that to Rosario and Córdoba, is decidedly seasonal. Another question is what it will cost the passengers: even with a superannuated infrastructure nearly in ruins, trains like the "Gran Capitán" are already highly subsidized, and it's only the poorest Argentines who use them. Fares from Buenos Aires to Posadas range from US$13 to US$23, depending on the ticket category, compared to about US$45 for the cheapest bus.

Either the latest bullet train will be far more highly subsidized, or it'll be so expensive that only the wealthiest Argentines will be able to afford it. Meanwhile, the "Gran Capitán" has apparently made its last trip.

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