Buenos Aires, Argentina – It was almost rush hour and Ana Elisa Fauque, a 31-year-old doctor from a suburb of Buenos Aires, peered down the railroad tracks then sat on a bench near the end of the platform, with no train in sight.
As far as commuter behaviour goes, this was routine. But she had also not chosen her seat by chance.
“I travel in the last wagon and far away from the accordion-space between the cars,” she told Al Jazeera, as she waited at the Ministro Carranza train station in the neighbourhood of Palermo. “In Once, people were trapped between the cars.”
After tragedies like the 2012 Once train crash, which killed 51 and injured hundreds more, passengers like Fauque are taking safety into their own hands. But the deterioration of the rail system has also prompted the government to initiate the largest railway renovation in the nation’s history.
The overhaul, which includes the replacement of nearly 1,500 passenger cars and hundreds of miles of wooden railroad ties, is expected to cost approximately $4bn according to the Ministry of Transportation. It also intends to improve both metropolitan and long distance service.
A handful of sleek new trains, outfitted with airconditioning and plush seats, have already been incorporated into local fleets, while a plan to restore the routes between Buenos Aires and the nearby cities of Mar del Plata and Rosario should be complete by the end of 2015. Other advancements include the incorporation of signalling systems and overpasses that separate railways from traffic.
Major renovations needed
But as the renovation proceeds, it also has shed light on the gargantuan challenges facing Argentina’s railway network.
“There are no good locomotives, no good passenger cars, no cargo wagons, the railway tracks are neglected,” said Marcelo Peyregne, who manages engineering operations at the Port of Buenos Aires. “They’re starting from zero.”
In the 1990s, large fiscal deficits led the Argentinean government to privatise rail lines, among other state assets. Subsidies were given to private contractors and expected to cover the costs of upkeep. But with little control and widespread mismanagement, much of the money lined the pockets of favoured train operators, causing railways to fall deep into disrepair.
Some electrical systems, platforms, and buffer stops designed to halt trains, for example, have not been replaced in more than 50 years.
While the government has now promised better oversight of the seven metropolitan train lines largely or wholly financed by the state, refurbished, often rickety wagons still comprise the majority of passenger trains – an issue that has led some to question whether the renovation is ultimately a provisional fix.
“Usually, before making railway investments you make a long-term plan that becomes part of a larger policy,” said Jose Barbero, who specialises in transportation policy and planning at the National University of San Martin. “It’s like they’re doing things one by one without any overarching logic.”
Politics at play?
Highlighting the government’s schedule for implementing improvements, Barbero suggested politics were at the crux of the current renovation.
The government is rushing plans in the hopes that they'll complete investments before elections next year.
“The government is rushing plans in the hopes that they’ll complete investments before elections next year,” he told Al Jazeera.
Critics like Barbero pointed to the overlap between the renovation and the electoral calendar and said that Florencio Randazzo, the interior and transportation minister, was using his position to carry out a pre-presidential campaign instead of focusing on the overhaul itself.
The minister recently confirmed his 2015 presidential aspirations as a candidate for Front for Victory, the party of the current government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
But others have applauded his management. According to a survey by the public relations firm Ipsos-Mora and Araujo, Randazzo is the most popular official in the president’s cabinet, an image bolstered by frequent, near-monthly ceremonies that are held to celebrate trains.
“What we’re doing right now is laying the groundwork,” said Mauro Burraco, a spokesman for the transportation ministry, before adding that the renovation was an ongoing project.
Burraco called attention to the renovation of a second metropolitan line that aims to be completed by the middle of September, and recently-imported materials like locomotives and wagons that will eventually be used to transport cargo.
“Any train line that is currently in service, will not fall out of service again,” he told Al Jazeera.
For Maria Lujan Rey, though, not enough has changed.
Her son, Lucas Menghini Rey, was an aspiring musician when he boarded the train headed to Once on that tragic day two years ago. He never got a chance to play the guitar again.
Two days after the brakes failed on that crowded train and the locomotive slammed into a station platform, his body was found lodged between the third and fourth carriages in a small compartment originally designed for use by the train’s motorman.
“It’s a paradox that people die trying to fulfil their obligations while some don’t even do the minimum their positions require,” his mother said recently.
“As long as this topic isn’t given the seriousness it deserves, we’ll keep travelling the same way.”