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Argentine train crash sheds light on need for transportation reform

A privatized and highly subsidized train industry in Argentina has left few accountable for safety and oversight. A deadly commuter train crash Wednesday was the eighth since 2008.

A passenger waits inside a commuter train at Once train station as train services resumed after a train crashed when its brakes failed at rush hour in Buenos Aires on Feb. 22, 2012.

Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

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A commuter train crash yesterday – the latest in eight rail accidents in Argentina since 2008 – is shining a light on the government's unaddressed transportation problems and poor regulatory standards.

The Buenos Aires metropolitan train system was privatized in 1991 as the government faced budgetary pressure due to a deep fiscal crisis. Four private companies took over and were responsible for the seven lines serving the Buenos Aires area. But these companies largely failed to expand and improve transportation services after taking the helm, and the Buenos Aires train system has slowly deteriorated over the past two decades.

The exact cause of Wednesday’s crash is still under investigation, but it reflects the dire state of the Argentine rail system. An estimated 50 people died and nearly 700 were injured in yesterday's accident. Services including upgrades and safety checks to the Sarmiento Line train, which failed to brake yesterday as it entered the Once Station, were deemed “acceptable,” said Roque Cirigliano, director of Trenes de Buenos Aires (TBA), the company responsible for the crashed train.

"We've invested more than a lot of the other train companies," Mr. Cirigliano said.

Some find Cirigliano’s statement worrying. A 2008 report issued by the National Auditor’s office found numerous deficiencies in trains operated by TBA.  The shortcomings listed include a lack of emergency brakes and inoperable hand brakes.

Representatives of Argentina’s railroad union have been trying to call attention to poor conditions in the commuter train system since 2005, they say.  Their calls for action were consistently unmet, union representatives say, and they blame "perverse administration" for the system's problems.

Subsidies to blame?

In the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2001, transportation prices were frozen and the losses of transportation companies were covered by expanded subsidies from the national government, which kept costs low for commuters. Commuters in the suburbs of Buenos Aires pay roughly 25 cents for a commuter train ticket, lower than most regions in Argentina and the rest of Latin America. A similar ride on a commuter rail in Santiago de Chile costs almost $2.


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