Sunday, March 2, 2008

My Ride's Here

I was staying at the Marriott
With Jesus and John Wayne
I was waiting for a chariot
They were waiting for a train...

With only a week or so left in Buenos Aires, as I'm nearly finished with updating my guidebook to the city, I've been tying up some loose ends. One of those loose ends is checking out improvements to the public transportation system, which means another opportunity to borrow a song title from Warren Zevon, whose lyrics I've quoted above. I'm not quite ready to check out permanently as Warren did, but there's a tangophile melancholy as I get ready to leave my second home and head to Chile, before returning to California at month's end.

My main task was to ride the Subte's new Línea H, but I got sidetracked en route when, near the university medical school, I saw one of the new articulated buses that are being introduced into the city. I didn't ride it, as it wasn't going anywhere I was headed, and there aren't any on routes through my barrio of Palermo as yet. It remains to be seen how efficient they'll be in navigating narrow colonial streets in Monserrat, San Telmo, and other historic areas--despite the vehicles' flexibility, difficult turns would seem to limit their usefulness along many routes.

Anyway, back to the Subte. Línea H, which opened in October, runs from Once (a transfer station with Plaza Miserere, on Línea A) in the north to Avenida Caseros in the south. There are additional stations at Venezuela, Humberto Primo (a transfer station with Jujuy, on Línea E), and Inclán. Eventually it will run north from Once to Recoleta, uniting some of the city's poorest barrios (such as Barracas) with what is probably the richest. I was impressed, though, with the improvements to the street level station at Plaza Miserere, which is also the starting point for the Sarmiento railroad's suburban commuter lines to western suburbs in Buenos Aires province. This is traditionally a rundown line, and I don't usually recommend it for excursion destinations such as Luján (the bus provides better service and is more direct). Part of the Sarmiento is due to be undergrounded, which should reduce car-train accidents in the city.

One of the Subte's shortcomings has been that all the transfer stations are downtown, so that travel to outlying parts of the system is indirect. Going from Palermo to Caballito, for instance, means changing trains at Plaza de Mayo, then backtracking. In that sense, the Subte resembles Argentina's air transportation system. It's impossible, for instance, to fly from the northwestern city of Salta to the western city of Mendoza without passing through the Buenos Aires hub and changing planes--effectively doubling the travel time and distance of a direct flight (there are none in this instance). When Línea H is finished, the distance and time for crosstown trips should be shorter, and it may even reduce congestion in downtown trains.

Meanwhile, at Plaza Miserere, I found it possible to transfer from Línea A (the city's oldest subway line) to Línea H (the newest), but not easy. You have to enter the Subte and then follow a complicated system of low-ceilinged catwalks before emerging into a tunnel that, after a considerable walk, finally delivers you to the glistening new Once station. Trains are not yet frequent, however, and only run about every ten minutes, compared with five or six minutes on other lines. Though it was around 5 p.m., the train I rode to the end of the line at Caseros was almost empty.

Part of the reason might be that it's hard to get information about the improvements. In riding the Subte the last several days, I've observed that none of the system maps yet includes Línea H, so Metrovías still has some work to do though it finally has appeared in their online map (which is hard to find if you don't know where to look on the site). On the station platforms, the ubiquitous SubTV screens provide frequencies for every line except Línea H.

On reaching Caseros, I turned around immediately to Humberto Primo, where the transfer to Jujuy station (Línea E) and connection to San Telmo was far simpler. Still, the few passengers I saw made me wonder about the line's viability, at least until the rest of it opens. For most Porteños, the Subte takes them to and from work, but few Recoleta residents work in Barracas (and few probably ever venture there). It's possible, though, that the new line will eventually help maids and dogwalkers who make their living in Recoleta get to their jobs more quickly.

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