For decades now, riding Línea A of the Buenos Aires Subte – Latin America’s oldest underground railway – has given its regular patrons and tourists alike the sensation of riding though history. Yesterday that became literally true, as municipal authorities shut down the line for two months and, when it reopens, the classic wooden Brugeoise carriages that have, served the former Compañía de Tranvias Anglo Argentina (CTAA) will no longer operate. With minor makeovers, those carriages had operated since 1913, so they fall just days short of a century.
According to the Buenos Aires Herald, they comprise “70 carriages out of the original fleet … of an original total of 120 carriages, built by La Brugeoise, Nicaise et Delcuve between 1912 and 1919 in Belgium.” On one level, that’s a pity, because their outward solidity and the craftsmanship of their burnished wooden interiors evoked a period when Argentina’s future seemed bright, and the decades of political turmoil that began with the 1930 military overthrow of President Hipólito Yrigoyen were yet unimaginable. In recent years, political conflict has paralyzed the system, as the federal and city governments have argued over who should operate the system, and pay for it.
Despite their picturesque patina, the historic cars had outgrown their usefulness. They shook on the rails and, frequently, their sliding doors would not close properly – or not at all. I’ve never heard of anyone falling from a moving car, but it wouldn’t have surprised me. During the suspension of service, the city government will retrain its personnel and install electrical upgrades to accommodate 45 new Chinese carriages; 30 others from Italy’s Fiat are already in operation.
According to the city daily Clarín, nostalgic Porteños overran the line yesterday with cameras and cell phones yesterday to snap the final hours of the historic cars, but the question remains what to do with them. Apparently, the operators will retain some 15 cars and, presumably, some might be in good enough condition to operate them as a tourist attraction on weekends, when ridership is lower. That leaves another 55 or so to dispose of, and municipal culture secretary Hernán Lombardi made an ambiguous suggestion that they could serve as libraries in city parks – it was unclear whether he was proposing placing intact cars in the parks or dismantling them for the wood, in order to build new structures. In the former case, they would probably suffer vandalism by the same tasteless taggers who have already defaced so many of them.
In other rail-related news, Argentina’s federal government has announced similar overhauls on the Mitre and Sarmiento suburban rail lines, which will receive 409 new Chinese-built coaches to replace the dilapidated, vandalized cars that now operate on both systems. The notoriously ruinous Sarmiento line was the site of a major crash that killed 52 passengers last February at Estación Once de Septiembre (pictured above in 1900, and below immediately after the crash with the damaged area screened behind the policeman).
Both the Subte and suburban lines, particularly the Sarmiento, have been the victims of disinvestment that have made them uncomfortable and even dangerous. This has been the fault of successive federal governments that have suppressed fares at rock-bottom levels in the interest of “social peace,” but it apparently took major fatalities to spur the current administration into action.
At the same time, the federal government has deplored the city’s apparent intention to raise Subte fares to 3.50 pesos, about 70 US cents at the official exchange rate. It’s worth noting that in Chile, where general price levels are roughly comparable to Argentina, fares on Santiago’s immaculately maintained Metro system range from 590 to 670 pesos (roughly US$1.25 to US$1.45), depending on the time of day. If the new Subte fares take effect, they will have tripled in a year, but they’re still a bargain by almost any standard.