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Transit For All:Should Buenos Aires’ trains be Re-Nationalized?


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When city budgets are cut, public transportation is often on the chopping block. And routes and lines serving those who need the service most, can be the first to go. But from New York to Argentina, an emerging ‘transportation justice’ movement is standing up for people’s right to ride.

Thanks to contributing producers Jennifer Kemp, Eric Klein, Eilis O’Neill, Britta Conroy-Randall and to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation for partial support of this show.

Featuring: Nick Persky, San Francisco Youth Commission member; Paolo Acosta, Balboa High School student; David Campos and John Avalos, San Francisco supervisors; Romeo Edmead, blind advocate in New York City; Lester MarksLighthouse International Government Affairs director; Laura Rodríguez, train rider; Edgardo Reynoso, Sarmiento Line Trainworkers’ Union organizer; Olga Vicente, Transportation planner; Adrián Lutvak, Student activist; Juan Carlos Cena, National Movement for the Recovery of Argentina’s Trains president; Julián Rebón, Universidad de Buenos Aires sociology professor; Suzy Thurston, Derek EspinozaTriMet riders; Cameron Johnson, OPAL member; Neal McFarlaneTriMet CEO, Khanh Pham, former OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon communications director; Jared FranzOPAL Environmental Justice Oregon transportation policy assistant

Should Buenos Aires’ trains be Re-Nationalized?

The trains of Greater Buenos Aires, Argentina are falling apart. Every weekday, their carriages are filled with commuters on their way to the city.  Despite irregular service, it’s still the fastest and cheapest way to get to work.  But the cars are old; the rails are worn; the wooden covers on the electric third rail are often rotten or missing entirely. So how did it get this way? Well a group of train workers and student activists says the problem is that private companies have been put in charge of this public transit system, and aren’t giving it the attention it needs.  The only solution, they say, would be to put the trains back under state control. And they’re organizing to do just that. From Buenos Aires, Eilís O’Neill has more…


Should Buenos Aires’ trains be Re-Nationalized?

Steltzer: The trains of Greater Buenos Aires, Argentina are falling apart. Every weekday, their carriages are filled with commuters on their way to the city. Despite irregular service, it’s still the fastest and cheapest way to get to work. But the cars are old; the rails are worn; the wooden covers on the electric third rail are often rotten or missing entirely. So how did it get this way? Well a group of trainworkers and student activists says the problem is that private companies have been put in charge of this public transit system, and aren’t giving it the attention it needs. The only solution, they say, would be to put the trains back under state control. And they’re organizing to do just that. From Buenos Aires, Eilís O’Neill has more…

O’Neill: Every day, three million people from Greater Buenos Aires enter the city to go to work. Hundreds of thousands of them get there by train. In the south and west of the city, many of the people that ride the trains are poor or working class, and the trains they take are in terrible shape. For years, video game tester Laura Rodríguez rode one of these lines every day.

Laura Rodríguez: Hasta que no lo tenés que tomar todos los días en hora pico, realmente no llegás a entender lo horrible que es viajar ahí. Cuando llega el tren lleno, está tan lleno que hay gente en la puerta y no podés entrar. Cuando tenés que llegar a tu laburo, a horario, tenés que empujar, y es re violento. Es re feo. A mí me han arrancado la ropa. Una vez, una nena se cayó entre la andén y el tren. Se cayó ahí porque la gente estaba empujando para entrar. Y la nena lloraba, y la gente le pasaba por al lado. A mí lo que se me ocurrió hacer fue hacer como un muro con mis brazos para que no la tocara y para que la puedan levantar tranquilamente. Y putean mucho.
Until you have to take the train every day at rush hour, you don’t really understand how horrible they are. When the train is full, it’s so full that there are people in the doors and you can’t get on. When you have to get to work on time, you have to push, and it’s really violent. It’s horrible. I’ve had my clothes ripped off me. Once, a little girl fell between the platform and the train. She fell there because people were pushing to get on. And the girl was crying, and the people just walked by. What occurred to me to do was to make a wall with my arms so that her mother could lift her out. And people swore at me.

O’Neill: In the 1990s, under neoliberal president Carlos Menem, Argentina underwent a wave of privatization. The government granted the operation of the trains of greater Buenos Aires to private companies. The state still owns the rails and the cars, and it controls the ticket prices and gives subsidies to the concessionary companies that operate the lines. But Edgardo Reynoso, a third generation train-worker and an organizer of the Sarmiento Line Trainworkers’ Union, says those subsidies aren’t always used to maintain the transit system.

Edgardo Reynoso: Lejos de invertir en el sistema ferroviario, desviaron esos fondos—los fondos públicos—hacia sus cuentas personales. Nosotros hemos hecho investigaciones en que hemos encontrado a concesionarios depósitos en paraísos fiscales.
Far from investing in the trains, the people that manage the trains deposited the public money in their personal accounts. We’ve done investigations in which we’ve found the CEOs of concessionary companies with deposits in tax havens.

O’Neill: The drain on public resources and the poor state of the trains went on for years…until February of 2012.
On the Sarmiento Line, in western Buenos Aires, an accident brought attention to the disrepair. A train’s brakes failed as it was coming into the station. Unlike newer cars, which slide on top of each other during accidents, the first two cars smashed together. Fifty-one passengers were killed and hundreds more were wounded. Laura Rodríguez was on that train.

Laura Rodríguez: Tratamos de levantar a la gente pero pesaban como una tonelada cada uno. Tratamos de organizarnos para que los que estaban heridos se quedaran adentro del tren, y cuando venían los médicos, que los revisaran ahí. Fuimos caminando para adelante para salir. Y cuando llegamos a ver el primer y el segundo vagón, estaban incrustados el uno con el otro. No parecían dos vagones: parecía uno. Y mucha sangre negra. Eso me dio mucha impresión. Era negra la sangre—re densa.
We tried to pick up the people that had fallen but each one weighed a ton. We tried to organize ourselves so that the wounded could stay inside the train, so the medics could take care of them there. Then we walked along the platform to leave. And when we got to the first and second cars, they were jammed together. They didn’t look like two cars: they looked like one car. And there was a lot of black blood. That shocked me. The blood was black—really dense.

O’Neill: After the accident, the government intervened in the Sarmiento Line and now operates it in conjunction with two private transportation companies. For more than half a year, there have been no trains at night or on Sundays and holidays, so that workers can repair the tracks.
Reynoso, who started organizing the workers of the Sarmiento Line in the late 1990s, says his union has always asked for more maintenance of the trains and tracks and that, as a result of last year’s accident, the government is finally listening.

Edgardo Reynoso: Bueno, acá estamos en Once. Es inconcebible pensar que en este lugar de tanto tráfico de trenes—estamos hablando de 350.000 personas al día—haya estado tan deteriorado. Ahí estás viendo una cantidad de rieles que se están amontonando. En este sector falta todavía cambiar los rieles. Si, por ahí, si deslizás un poquito más la mirada, vas a ver aquellos rieles bastante desgastados.
Here we are in the Once Station. It’s inconceivable to think that this site of so much traffic—we’re talking about 350,000 people every day—was so dilapidated. There you can see the new rails in a pile; in this part they still need to change the rails. If you look that way, you’ll see the worn-out rails.

O’Neill: Not all passengers feel reassured by the repairs. After the accident, Laura Rodríguez started taking the bus to work, even though it cost five times as much as the train and took half an hour longer. Transportation planner Olga Vicente says the loss of train passengers is going to put the entire transportation system of greater Buenos Aires in crisis.

Olga Vicente: Hay una pérdida notable de pasajeros en las vías ferroviarias en los últimos tres años. Creo que entre los automóviles, los chárteres, y los colectivos, han llevado los pasajeros que fue desgranando el tren.
There has been a notable loss of passengers in the train lines during the last three years. The passengers that left the trains now commute in personal cars, shuttle buses, and regular buses.

O’Neill: A group of trainworkers and student activists has come together to demand the renationalization of the trains. They say doing so would not only improve conditions for those who currently ride but could also tempt former passengers back out of their cars and buses and onto the rails. Student activist Adrián Lutvak says putting the trains under state control would create the possibility for central planning and greater transparency.

Adrián Lutvak: No es que ponga expectativas máximas ni en este gobierno ni en el estado en particular. Lo que yo creo es que cuando el estado es el que ejerce esa potestad sobre ese servicio, hay mucha mayor posibilidad de control, de disputa.
It’s not that I have high expectations either for this government or for the state in general. What I believe is that when the state controls the trains, it’s much easier to control and dispute decisions.

Lutvak isn’t alone in the struggle to renationalize the trains. Juan Carlos Cena was a trainworker for forty-four years and is now the president of the National Movement for the Recovery of Argentina’s Trains. He says Argentina should look at Spain’s overhaul of its trains, begun in the 1990s, for a model of how far a national railroad system can come in a short time.

Juan Carlos Cena: Cuando España tuvo que modificar los ferrocarriles, toda esta estructura, porque entraba en el Mercado Común Europeo, Felipe González estructuró todos los ferrocarriles; cambió el ancho de las vías; electrificó todo, todo, todo. Capacitó al personal. No te imaginás cómo trabajaron los sindicatos. Trabajó todo el mundo. Y hoy, los ferrocarriles españoles están fabricando trenes de alta velocidad.
When Spain had to change its railroads, all that infrastructure, because it was entering the European Common Market, then-prime minister Felipe González restructured all the railroads, changed the width of the rails, and made everything electric. He trained the employees. You can’t imagine how hard the unions worked—how hard everyone worked. And, today, the Spanish railroads are making high-speed trains.

O’Neill: Cena says Spain’s ability to overhaul its trains shows how the government has the resources, the planning capability, and the long-term and national-level vision required to overhaul a transportation system.

Juan Carlos Cena: Es decir, que el desarrollo tecnológico y las grandes inversiones para ese desarrollo tecnológico y la conservación la conoce el estado. El privado el único que busca es la ganancia, nada más
Only the state can manage big-scale technological development and the huge investments necessary for that technological development. Private companies only want profits, nothing else.

O’Neill: The profits that the transportation companies of greater Buenos Aires are reaping come from government subsidies, not ticket sales. Many passengers, especially those on the Sarmiento Line, say they pay only occasionally—or never.

Sergio: No one pays, nowadays. After the accident, no one has ever paid. They stopped asking for the tickets.

Julián Rebón: Eso tiene que ver precisamente con bajar los niveles de disconformidad. Y hay, en la lógica de la población: “Bueno, si no pagás, no tenés derecho de quejarte, ¿no? Bueno, viajás gratis”. ¿No?
This has to do with lowering passenger dissatisfaction. There is, in people’s logic: “Well, if you don’t pay, you don’t have the right to complain, right? Well, at least you commute for free.”

O’Neill: But sociology professor Julián Rebón says the better way to lower passenger dissatisfaction is the more expensive way: to improve service and prevent accidents. And he adds that the whole idea that the trains of greater Buenos Aires could or should bring monetary profits is faulty.

Julián Rebón: La ganancia de un sistema de transporte como el ferroviario es precisamente en los aspectos sociales positivos que genera, ¿no? Genera como un sector de población se puede trasladar hace su lugar de trabajo. Genera menos contaminación. Genera menos embotellamiento. Genera menos hechos de violencia. Genera un montón de cosas, ¿no?
The profits from a transportation system like the trains lie in their positive social effects. The trains make it so people can get to work. They cut down on pollution. They cut down on traffic. They reduce violence. They have a lot of positive effects.

O’Neill: A number of legislators agree that the trains are a necessary public good that needs to be renationalized, and they’ve written bills to that effect. One of those bills, written by Victoria Donda, a leftist opposition member of the Chamber of Deputies, would nationalize not only the trains of greater Buenos Aires but the railroads of the entire country. The federal company created to run these trains would be directed by one representative from the executive, one from the provincial railroads, one from the workers, one from the passengers, and one from the cargo train users. Juan Carlos Cena, of the National Movement for the Recovery of Argentina’s Trains, says right now there’s not the political will that would be necessary to renationalize the trains—but that there will be.

Juan Carlos Cena: El tren vuelve. El tren vuelve como volvió en todos los países del mundo.

The train comes back, says Cena. It will come back as it did all over the world.

For Making Contact, I’m Eilís O’Neill in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact.
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Lisa Rudman is our Executive Director; Jen Chien and George Lavender, producers; Irene Florez, Web Editor; Lisa Bartfai, Salima Hamirani and Eryn Matthewson production interns, And Barbara Barnett, Dan Turner and Alton Byrd volunteers. I’m Andrew Stelzer. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

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