On 22nd February, Argentina suffered one of the worst train accidents in its history. Fifty-one people died and 703 were injured. Initial reports indicated that a failure in the brakes made the train slide into the shock absorbers at Once station.
Roque Cirigliano, speaking on behalf of Trenes de Buenos Aires (TBA) the company operating the Sarmiento line where the accident took place said it was possible the incident was the result of a “human error”. Marcos Antonio Córdoba, the 28-year-old train driver, explained to a judge that he tried twice to brake but the systems did not respond. Juan Pablo Schiavi, the transport secretary expressed his condolences and launched an investigation into the incident.
The country wants answers. Although this incident was one of the most deadly, fatalities on the railroads are all too common. Last year 23 people died in train accidents across the country and at least 300 were injured.
On a typical Sunday 11 days after the crash, another train on the Sarmiento line was delayed because someone was killed on the tracks. José Luis, a funeral worker from Buenos Aires province, shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and engaged in a debate with the woman standing next to him. She blamed the person walking on the tracks, he thought it was symbolic of the bigger picture. “They don’t put enough money into maintaining the service,” he said. “The money the government gives the companies for maintenance just disappears.”
The neglect of the Sarmiento line is obvious to anyone who travels on it. The floors in the carriages are peeling, chunks are missing from interiors and often lights do not work. Trains crunch along the tracks and travel with their doors open but the problems are not just superficial: mechanical issues are endemic. Of the eight pressurised brakes on the train involved in the accident, it is reported that only five were working properly. Some of the trains are so decrepit that more experienced drivers refuse to operate them.
“What happened here could have been avoided,” José Luis said. “It’s not this bad on the Mitre line; that’s for a different class of people.”
Inequality on the Tracks
This is the sinister reality of train services in Buenos Aires. TBA operates the Sarmiento and Mitre train lines in the capital, which transport around 180 million passengers a year. Mitre runs in the more affluent northern area in the city; according to the transport secretariat’s statistics, 24% of its commuters are university educated. Sarmiento carries around 25,000 more passengers a day between Once and the province and under 11% of its passengers have finished university.
Two of the most devastating train accidents in Argentina in the past year occured on the Sarmiento line. Last month’s accident took 51 lives and last September 11 people died when two trains and a bus collided near Flores station.
Verónica Pérez is a sociologist from the Instituto Gino Germani at the University of Buenos Aires and has studied the state of urban trains in Buenos Aires. “The Sarmiento line is far less well looked after,” she says, ”even the employees of the national transport commission said so; they talk about how, ‘all the meat from the asado goes to Mitre’.”
This iniquitous distribution of ‘meat’ raises the question of where the money comes from and how it is administered; it is here that the issue becomes more complicated and where the notion of responsibility becomes diffuse.
In the 1990s during Carlos Menem’s presidency, Argentina went through a wave of privatisation. Nearly everything was sold off and a number of services, including the train lines, were granted to private companies. “Granting isn’t the same as a privatising,” Pérez explained, “the government didn’t sell all the railroad material, they remain the property of the state.”
The company is charged with running the train service and the government has to ensure that a minimum of quality and safety is provided. The minister of the economy fixes the fares and the government gives the train company subsidies for providing a public service. “It’s a system that works with the state and the companies. It’s the company’s responsibility to operate the service, but it’s the state’s role to control it.“
The Cirigliano family own TBA and have done so since the mid-90s. Two brothers, Mario and Claudio Cirigliano inherited a couple of colectivo lines from their bus driver father. They acted shrewdly during Menem’s privatisations, snapping up a few state companies and have since enjoyed a blistering rise to prominence. They are today considered one of the most powerful families in the country and their influence stretches well beyond the transport sector.
The government gives them millions of pesos in subsidies to invest in maintenance and running costs of their trains. In January, the month prior to the tragic crash, the government gave TBA a staggering $77m in subsidies. Many people believe that it is the misuse of this money that is at the heart of the calamitous state of the trains. A piece of graffiti on a wall near Once station puts it bluntly: “TBA – Corruption kills.”
Quintessential Argentine Businessmen
One of the most vociferous among their detractors is former Buenos Aires province deputy, Sebastián Cinquerrui. He wrote an exhaustive paper entitled, ‘TBA and the Cirigliano Group; the quintessence of Argentine businessmen’ in which he highlighted the unsavoury dealings of the group.
“The operational mould of this business group was to use its political influence to incur benefits,” he wrote. “They made their own business deals with the money coming from the state that is supposed to finance the operation of their ‘granted’ railroad service.”
He cites a well-documented case from 1998 in which the group bought material at 4000% of its real price, a deal that is made easier because the Cirigliano Group also owns a company that constructs material for railroads, Emfer S.A., which generally wins TBA’s maintenance contracts. “With their subsidies, instead of investing them, they reported the highest overheads they could and that was their way of making the biggest profit possible.” Verónica Pérez explained. Money that should have been spent on rail maintenance was not; most people believe this was not an isolated incident.
The Ciriglianos have had close ties with every government since Menem and many believe that they get treated to favourable contracts as a result. “This type of management is only possible … with complicity from the relevant employees and the highest authorities in the political power,” Cinquerrui wrote.
Ricardo Jaime, the ex-transport secretary and a close political ally of former president Néstor Kirchner had particularly strong links to the Cirigliano Group. He became embroiled in a corruption charge and was accused of accepting bribes and flying in private jets paid for by the businessmen whose companies he was giving subsidies to, among them the Cirigliano Group. He resigned in 2009, citing “personal reasons”.
Overt corruption is not the only problem, however. According to Pérez, the government’s job is to “provide investment”, but also to “make sure the money is spent in the right way”. It is this second duty that is apparently not being fulfilled. The political will to improve the trains does seem to be there – investments have increased exponentially in the past few years – but as long as the money is not being invested where it needs to be, progress will not be made.
Cinquerrui put it in no uncertain terms in a radio interview with Cadena 3 two days after the crash: “The more you invest [in maintenance], the less accidents there are; the less you invest, the more accidents there are.”
Whether the misuse of funds is due to carelessness on the government’s part or direct complicity is another investigation altogether but many people now consider the current system of privately-run public services defunct. Running railroads safely with good service, especially when fares are fixed at a low price, does not make for a great business model. Private companies whose main priority is reporting profits are prone to cut corners, and that can have tragic consequences.
“The logic of state regulation is not the same as the logic of businesses,” Verónica Pérez explained. One has a responsibility to citizens; the other has a responsibility to shareholders. Juan Carlos Cena, who has worked on Argentine railroads his whole life and written two books about the subject, was unequivocal in his analysis after the crash. “The chaos of Wednesday 22nd February is the product of the politics of concessions (granting),” he wrote on his website.
The unfortunate reality is that it often takes a tragic event like last month’s accident to galvanise politicians into action. The government has taken control of TBA’s urban train service while the investigation is ongoing; some believe that the move should be permanent, others want a restructuring of the whole system. The fact of the matter is: 51 people did lose their lives because of a “human error” last month.
It is now left to the Argentine justice system to determine whose error it was.
Find out what locals think about the state of the trains here.