Saturday, February 25, 2012

Aftermath: Behind the Buenos Aires Train Wreck

This past Wednesday, Buenos Aires made front pages around the world, and not in a good way. At Estación Once de Septiembre, only about three km west of the central Plaza de Mayo, a runaway commuter train crashed into the end of its platform, killing 51 Argentines and injuring 703, according to the latest statistics.
Once de Septiembre – the surrounding neighborhood is known simply as “Once” - is the Buenos Aires terminal for the Línea Sarmiento, the railroad that connects the capital with its poorer western suburbs and a few long distance destinations. Though government-owned, it is under the administration of Trenes de Buenos Aires (TBA, Trains of Buenos Aires). That has been the case since the early 1990s, when then-President Carlos Menem unleashed a privatization deluge but, at the same time, his successors have provided enormous subsidies to keep fares from rising.

I have ridden the Sarmiento line, though not recently, to visit the city of Moreno (no longer included in my guidebooks because its main attraction, the Molina Campos museum, is not open to the public) and the devotional center of Luján. In fact, the last time I took the train to Luján was shortly after another disaster, the Cromañon night club fire – also in the Once neighborhood - took 194 lives in late 2004. On board the train, I saw many T-shirts supporting the Callejeros (literally, “street people,” the punk band that played at the Cromañon that night).

Virtually all of those passengers were poor working-class Argentines for whom the Sarmiento was their main means of transport into town. Some Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) consider the Sarmiento crime-ridden, but I never felt any threat whatsoever from my fellow passengers. The other side of highly subsidized fares, though, was the lack of attention to maintenance; the doors on the ageing rolling stock, often covered in graffiti, did not always close. Compared with TBA’s northern commuter line, which serves a more prosperous area from Retiro to Tigre on the Línea Mitre, it was downright dilapidated.
Yesterday, to get a better grasp on the scenario, I rode the Subte to Once, which is also home to a thriving Jewish community, with yarmulkes on every block. At the entrance to the terminal, concerned friends and families looked for the names of the injured on a computer printout that listed them by hospitals they were sent to. Film news crews were everywhere and, in the middle of the floor, friends and family of one Lucas Menghini – the last unaccounted-for passenger - were preparing and distributing missing person flyers. The platform and tracks where the crash took place were screened out and guarded by federal police, presumably awaiting forensic examination.
News of the wreck continues on the front page of every newspaper except the sports daily ¡Olé! Meanwhile, the blame game has begun, but it’s a complicated one. The locomotive engineer, who survived the crash, claims the brakes failed. The federal government insists it will take the victims’ side in legal proceedings, but the concessionaire is a triad of Cirigliano brothers, who assumed control during the presidency of Néstor Kirchner, the late husband of current president Cristina Fernández. They, in turn, have ties to transport secretary Juan Pablo Schiavi, who could get thrown under the bus, so to speak - could it be that the government will be prosecuting itself? The victims’ families are skeptical.
Meanwhile, searchers recovered the body of Lucas Menghini last night. For my part, when I next go to Luján, I’ll take the bus.

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