Every once in a while, I get inquiries from people who want to travel on Argentine trains, probably because of the ironically romantic vision propagated by Paul Theroux’s overrated opus The Old Patagonian Express. Theroux's book was a self-indulgently dyspeptic rail journey through the Americas that ended on the narrow gauge train (pictured here, now exclusively a tourist attraction) from the hamlet of Ingeniero Jacobacci to the city of Esquel.
As politely as possible, I tell visiting railfans not to bother - except for serious foamers, long-distance train travel in this country is trial and tribulation. At one time, the British-built Argentine rail system was the envy of the Americas but, under the populist Perón regime in the late 1940s and early1950s, it became more important to keep fares low than to maintain service and even rolling stock. By the time I first traveled on Argentine trains in the early 1980s, the system was so decapitalized and deteriorated that we would spend hours in unexpected delays in the middle of the Pampas, with no heat in winter and no cooling in summer. Once, on the Ferrocarril San Martín line from Buenos Aires to Mendoza (a route which no longer exists), the entire train was packed with conscripts, who could travel free of charge so long as they stood - which they did for the whole 24-hour trip.
Former President Carlos Menem catches a lot of flack for the rail system’s deterioration, as he privatized so many state services in the 1990s, but in reality Argentine railroads were beyond repair - almost literally - long before then. In the interim, comfortable long-distance buses, with sleeper service that almost matches airlines’ business class - at least in comfort and spaciousness - have superseded them. They are also far faster than the remaining trains.
Still, at intervals, the resurrection of the rail system becomes a hot topic, as it did two years ago when the government presumably reached a deal with French interests to build a bullet train between Buenos Aires and Córdoba via Rosario, thus linking Argentina’s three largest and most commercially important cities. This would cut travel time to Córdoba to three hours (as opposed to nine by bus).
Nobody is holding his breath for this to happen, though. Yesterday, the Buenos Aires daily Clarín published an account of a recent rail journey from Retiro station (pictured here, with a commuter train at the platform) to Córdoba that took 15 hours - but only because it covered half the route by bus when the train broke down. Its average speed was 43 km per hour, and nowhere was there any sign of the so-called bullet train. The link above includes a film clip that sardonically contrasts today’s train services with those of yesteryear.