Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Metro v. the Heat Wave

It’s been hot in Santiago, and the heat wave is supposed to continue for most of the month. According to the forecast, the highs won’t fall below 30° C (86° F) until March 15th and, in the past few days the mercury has topped out around 33° C (92° F). Normally Santiago, which sits about 550 meters (roughly 1,800 ft) above sea level, cools off at night, but that hasn’t been the case on some nights. I’ve been staying at a large, high-ceilinged room at Barrio Brasil’s La Casa Roja (its gardens and pool, pictured below, offer some  relief). Even then, the room stays warm enough that I’ve been sleeping atop the sheets, rather than beneath them.
I’ve felt the heat walking around town, despite sticking to the shade as much as possible, and the intensity of the sun – the UV intensity has been very high, a concern to those who, like myself, have had the unpleasant experience of a melanoma. Where I’ve noticed it most, though, has been aboard the Metro, the city’s exemplary underground railway. Usually, in Santiago, I don’t need to do anything first thing in the morning but, the past couple days, I’ve had relative early appointments that required me to take the train when it’s packed with commuters – and I mean packed. The combination of high temperatures and SRO density has made the commute a test.
At downtown’s Los Héroes transfer station where I often board, passengers have been lined up five and six deep or more along the entire platform; those disembarking barely have time to get out before the crush starts in the other direction. These older stations on the original Línea 1, while well-maintained, lack air-conditioning and the concessionaires have tried to compensate by locating wall fans, with a small hose that creates a spray (pictured above), to cool things off. That doesn’t work particularly well unless you’re standing directly in front of it.
Aboard the train, of course, that means near-suffocating conditions and, by the time I got to my stop 12 stations to the east, it was a relief. Later that same day, though, and today as well, I had reason to take the newer Línea 4 south from the Tobalaba transfer station, and it was a revelation – temperatures in the station itself were mild, and the glistening new cars along that line (pictured above, outside of rush hour) were among the first in the system to be air-conditioned. Late last year, the Metro acquired 12 of these trains, of nine cars each.

Meanwhile, construction is evident along much of Línea 1, as the Metro modernizes and upgrades stations whose interiors, though well-maintained, are outdated 35 years after the system opened. It bears mention that I have never seen graffiti on any Metro station or car – I can’t say it never happens but, to all appearances, the taggers’ work never lasts for long.
I can’t help but contrast that with the Buenos Aires Subte. To be sure, there are sparkling new stations on the cross-town Línea H (such as Estación Once, pictured above), but many older stations are badly in need of renovation, especially along the original Línea A and Línea B. That’s without even mentioning the fact that, on Línea B, many relatively new cars are enveloped in graffiti that recall the chaotic New York subway of the 1970s.

I’ve compared the two systems in greater detail elsewhere, so I’ll just add that, in Buenos Aires, public transportation is a political football. The federal government and the city are presently arguing over responsibility for the system, while the concessionaire Metrovías sits – on its hands, apparently - and waits.

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