The Story of a Train Crash in Buenos Aires and What it Has to Do with Climate Action

Beatrice Murch/CC BY 2.0

In order to understand how much this story has hit me, how different I have reacted to it, I should first say I don’t usually read newspapers or watch the news. I write about design, culture, travel, so I get informed about the issues that I care about -- usually the tangential, the interesting over the important -- through blogs, social networks, magazine essays published two months after a news broke.

But not since last Wednesday. Not since I found that a train crashed against the end-of-the-line barrier in one of the busiest hub stations in my city (one of the busiest in the country), squeezing the wagons one inside another, intricate sculptures of metal popping on the train roof, killing 49 people (they would later be 51), injuring 600 (they would later be 703).

Beatrice Murch/CC BY 2.0

Since I found out about this, I have been glued to Twitter, newspaper websites, I even watched the news channel on my computer (I don’t remember if I ever did this in the two years I’ve been living without a TV). When I woke up the day after the accident, I felt the urge to go to the station, to be at the place where this had happened (considering the beats I cover, going to a place where hot news is happening is not my thing either). Unlike my usual self, I have been actively pushing the subject on social networks, not quite accepting how anybody could be talking about anything else than this.

Although I have taken the train line in which the accident happened perhaps once, this is an issue near to my core. As an environmental blogger, I keep writing about how everyone should just stop using the evil car and support magic mass transport or bike. I talk insistingly about how amazing trains, subways, buses are, even romanticize them. Trains above all. I can’t just let this pass by. On what ground can I say, from now on, over a Sunday family lunch or at a dinner with friends, that riding public transport rules?

Why would I think that, you imagine, after a simple accident? The answer to that relies on the shared notion, the shared certainty (among media, citizens and train workers), that the accident was something not aleatory, not a tragedy out-of-nowhere, but the consequence of a process.

How the story rides

The decades of destruction of the national Argentine train system come to mind as the natural starting point. Privatized by president Carlos Menem in the 90s, the Argentine rail network went from 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) in the 1980s to an 80% reduction in the 2000s. To try to understand this, take a look at this graphic showing the comparison between the two:

© Argenpress

The privatization of trains left towns isolated and provoked the migration of at least one million people to cities, as a documentary on the subject by now Deputy Pino Solanas showed.

It was taken under the premise that trains were unprofitable -- "Are public services around to be profitable? Or to serve the community? Should schools or hospitals be profitable?” asks Deputy Solanas; but did not live up to its goal (a goal expressed only as justification for the process, which seems to never have been a goal at all) of improving the service. Thefts and accidents multiplied, machinery was neglected and trains went from means of transport to precarious means of transport for the poor.

Are you guessing where all the transport of people and goods went? Motorized vehicles, expressways. Whose reckless use left Argentina at the top of the ranking in traffic accidents: in the 16 years the association ‘Luchemos por la Vida’ has been keeping track, deaths from traffic accidents have only dropped from the 7,000 a year once (2002), and have surpassed the 8,000 three times. In 2011 there were 7,517 traffic-related deaths, which is an average of 21 people a day.

In that course of thinking, the fact that the main shareholder at the company that now runs the line in which the accident occurred (Trenes de Buenos Aires or TBA), is a corporation who owns, among other means of transport, 11 bus lines, does not seem minor.

© Paula Alvarado

Slowly and clumsily trying to revive the system and in sync with its anti-inflation strategy, the government has been sending millions on subsidies to the companies running means of transport since 2007 (76 million pesos, or 17.4 million US dollars, on January 2012 alone to TBA). Subsidies that were supposed to help keep the ticket price low for workers while allowing investments to improve the services, subsidies that seem to have been used only to maintain the operations while increasing profits.

Add a non-controlling government, you may think, and the setting is ready for a disaster. But the setting was so ready that accidents happened more than once. Depending on how you want to look at it, Wednesday’s was either the second crash in five months or the seventh in 14 months in Argentina (fair to note is that some involved vehicles crossing railways).

And there were all the accidents that didn’t happen. A letter by a user posted on the wall of the station where the train crashed mentioned a broken ventilator choking a wagon with smoke only seconds before reaching a station in this same line in 2008. The writer asked, “What would have happened if this occurred half the way between stations? Cromañon?”, evoking the gruesome incident in which a fire inside a club without proper emergency exits killed 194 people in December 2004. An incident which happened, curiously, right around the corner from the Once station in which this year’s 51 died on the train.

Details

According to the latest reports on the case, the train driver claims to have warned the control central that brakes were functioning with delay, although a recording released by the company doesn’t evidence such warning.

It is of little importance: as it is seen by mostly everyone, the crash is, or should be, above all a wake up call for a reform in the Argentine transport system. As columnist Marcelo Wainfeld writes in Pagina 12 newspaper: “The tragedy (which came in a bad and maybe late hour) accelerates an agenda much more vast than its specific causes.”

There are already rumors that the train concession will be removed from TBA.

Wrong expectations

There’s a part of the story, however, that’s keeping this tragedy from making any sense at all to me.

When I visited the station the day after the accident, I was shocked by how calm people looked. With the train covered by shade cloth and the other platforms functioning, the only evidence that there was something wrong was the police covering the access to the crash site and some reporters with cameras. Outside, street vendors were selling plastic figures of men riding horses and people coming in and out from the station were stopping to buy them. Inside, some passengers seemed more interested in the cameras than in, perhaps, protesting about what had happened; others were paying bills or buying lottery tickets.

I thought this may had to do with the fact that the incident wasn’t entirely over yet. After the 49 bodies had been removed from the station, after the 50th victim had died in the hospital, and after the injured number had been set at 703, there was one person missing. A 20 year old young man named Lucas Menghini Rey wasn’t found in care centers and his family was looking for him frantically.

© Paula Alvarado

It would have been easy to talk about ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ about 'hope,' if he had appeared alive. But, two days later, he appeared dead in a wagon of the train that had not been checked.

People have had enough, I thought at that point. Where are we gathering? What are we doing about this? I wondered. I tried not to pay attention to the incidents in the station that followed the discovery of the body, which were just a couple dozen kids with repressed anger wanting to break things. And when the first Facebook event arrived for a protest this coming Tuesday, I got excited: people were going to respond in masses.

Up to the moment I’m writing this, two days after it was published, little over 1,000 people have confirmed assistance to that event (only in intention, let’s remember it’s just hitting the ‘Join’ button after all). A call to occupy the city’s Obelisk the same day has encouraged another 1,600 to ‘intend attending.’ A network like Facebook can do lot better than that.

A problem of conformism

The before mentioned user letter posted at the station read that, besides the poor governmental and company performance around trains, it was the passenger’s reaction what astonished the most. “[The problem] not only has to do with letting the government and company humiliate and run over our rights, but with even collaborating with the engrossment of their earnings by paying the ticket, taking the time to form a line before doing it.”

You could argue that a demonstration will not just form out of nowhere. But when it doesn’t emerge in response to a train crashing against the end-of-line barrier leaving 51 dead and 703 injured, it makes us seem, to name it somehow, catatonic.

President Fernandez de Kirchner has been heavily criticized for not talking after the accident. But why does she have to do it? There is nobody really asking, no fires to put out.

Beatrice Murch/CC BY 2.0

As for my previous remark, I know there will be no trouble in keeping my defense for public transport among friends and family: even with accidents like these, they will always be a safer bet than cars, more so with our statistics. But how much better we could do.

My lack of faith in our activism muscle might be wrong, and perhaps this week's massive protests will ignite a process of change. I know I keep following the news and pushing the issue, and I'm preparing to get out this week and participate in the marches. But I recognize there is the chance that some minor adjustments will be made -- some heads will roll here and there -- and this subject will fly out of papers until another accident has us scratching our heads again thinking, "How was this possible?."

Meanwhile, it appears to me that there’s a parallel between the Argentine crash case and climate action in general. Think about the idea of watching a disaster approaching. Knowing what's wrong, what could be fixed. Foreboding the bits of metal flying in the air and the lives that will have to be taken if that thing that is wrong is not fixed. And just not acting on time. Letting the train hit the end of the rail without brakes.

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Tags: Argentina | Buenos Aires | longreads | Public Transportation | Trains