Daniel Tunnard is back.
The man known to some as “the Englishman who took all the buses in Buenos Aires” has just released his second book, this time after taking (nearly) all the trains in Argentina. A self-confessed “train enthusiast”, Tunnard took nearly three years to travel on 47 (of around 70) routes still active on the country’s decrepit rail network, which once stretched over 47,000kms but today is predominately a rusty monument to national frustration.
Tunnard visited far-flung destinations (e.g. Tucumán, Bariloche), forgotten rural towns dotted around the Pampas (e.g. Junín, General Pico), and the gritty urban suburbs of the conurbano, seeking out local events that were “typically Argentine without being stereotypically Argentine.” Moving at an average speed of around 25kms per hour on rickety trains, the journeys to these places provided countless hours to reflect on the Argentina that slowly passed by outside the window.
The result is ‘TRENspotting en los Ferrocarriles Argentinos’, a collection of shrewd and humorous observations about the blend of crappy trains and warm-hearted people that so neatly captures the essence of Tunnard’s adopted home for nearly two decades.
We caught up with the author shortly after the official book launch earlier this month to find out more about his endless train journeys, visiting the ‘no-go’ areas of Greater Buenos Aires, and whether he has finally had enough of Argentina’s public transport…
I realised a few months into this that it’s far, far easier to write about taking all the buses in the city than all the trains in the country (duh), because I just went out in the morning, took three bus routes, and then came home again. With the long-distance trains I had to book the ticket, which in itself can be three weeks’ work (Tren Patagónico, I’m looking at you), then book accommodation, get coaches back from there because the next train left a week later, sort out a bank loan to pay for it all, work round national strikes, etc. And since it wasn’t the kind of project I could do in seven months, as with the buses, it became this really long thing that dragged on forever. I gave up on the book three times. And moved to another town. And wrote another book, then came back to this one. I could’ve taken ten years.
One of the first trains I took, the old one from Rosario to Buenos Aires, was quite typical in being a crappy old train with really nice people. I wrote this:
“So I have this thought as I smoke in the creaking middle of the two carriages, that despite the decrepit infrastructure and the rusting undercarriage and the bouncing rails and the political indifference to all of this, here is a people that is warm and sociable and gregarious and musical and kind, and a bit tetchy and short-tempered after eight hours on a train, but still wholly good and decent people who are the fundamental reason for living fourteen years and God knows how many more in Argentina. (But if I’m being completely honest, my true reasons for for staying here are stasis, inertia, laziness, the dread of having to move to another country with a wife, three cats, a piano and thousands of records and books. It’s just as well the people are pleasant.)”
The first time it wasn’t so much that I gave up as I didn’t have any work or money for about three months so the book was on hold. But by then I’d also reached a stage where I was finding that all the journeys were kind of the same and it was hard to come up with an original idea to write about these monotonous journeys. If any readers want to do a writing experiment, take what is perhaps the most boring train in the country, the Urquiza from Federico Lacroze to General Lemos in San Miguel, and write about it. It’s quite dull. There are a few trains like that. But I kept coming back because I found that no matter how unappealing the prospect was of spending a weekend on a train, as soon as I got to the station, or as soon as the train started moving, the magic of that just took over. And also because if you write a book about taking all the trains in the country and then only take like, twelve, no one’s going to buy that book.
There were so many memorable journeys. The train to Rosario (which had the most memorable passenger, the old guy who kept us “entertained” with his guitar for a good hour of rock nacional clasics), taking the sleeper to Tucumán, the Tren Patagónico to Bariloche. Special mention goes to the Tren Solidario http://www.trensolidario.org/principal.html, which puts on special trains to places where passenger trains no longer go, delivering food and clothes to needy families. Simultaneously the most uncomfortable and the most fascinanting journey in the book.
Plaza Constitución. What every railway station should be.
Chapter 41. Buenos Aires (Constitución) – 25 de Mayo
9 January 2015
The best time to go to Plaza Constitución, the best railway station in
the world, is on a sweat-drenched Friday afternoon in January, where a
ceiling has never differed so much from a floor, where the
sand-blasted vaulted and majestic ceiling is the only indication of
the station’s glorious, Prince of Wales corner-stone-laying past,
where the toilets are reached by descending a spiral concrete
staircase into the bowels, where a disregarded sign begs pissers not
to smoke in the pissoirs, where holiday-makers for Mar del Plata and
Tandil and commuters for Quilmes and Lomas de Zamora pour in off
sun-scorched avenidas Lima and Brasil to warm breezes and semi relief
of shade, where evangelicals once blessed travellers at the outset of
perilous journeys, where babies are borne across the concourse in
nappies alone, where new electric escalators and elevators ascend to
we know not where, only working when rented out for adverts to play
first-world locales, where one in every two stand sells panchos con
lluvia de papas pay, where old men queue for their train tickets then
queue for their lottery tickets, or gaze on a brand new cordoned-off
VW Voyage that can be theirs in a raffle so they need never come here
again, where the Ferrobaires ticket office where you go to buy your
ticket for the new train to 25 de Mayo, whence you will travel to
Carlos Casares tomorrow for a much-awaited (and only partly
ironically) sunflower festival with its requisite sunflower queen, is
a step back in time to Edwardian garlanded ceilings and wainscoting
and silence, ten degrees cooler than anywhere else in the station, a
former café where a female string quartet once played to the patrons
from the balcony above, where you are informed to your dumbfounded
hubris that all the tickets for 25 de Mayo have sold out, and where
you speak to the man at the platform entrance to ask if is there
anything that can be done, and he says no, for look how diddy this
train is, and you look and it is indeed diddy, like a supporting but
cute character in Thomas the Tank Engine, and you know if you
persisted for ten minutes with some maudlin story he’d probably take
pity and let you on, but you think you’ve probably taken enough trains
for a book anyway, and you no longer have the enthusiasm for spending
weekends in provincial towns, sunflower festival or no, and, frankly,
you’d rather fuck off back home and have a shower and to hell with the
When fellow trainspotter Jonathan Evans and I were taking the dodgier parts of the Roca and, especially the Aldo Bonzi-Puente Alsina train on the Belgrano Sur, which is basically 40 minutes of shanty town, Jonathan said to me that after taking these trains ‘You’ll never lose an argument with a porteño again.’ He should have known better than to dream that any argument with a porteño could ever conclude in anything more than bitter stalemate.
Whenever you write a book, I think there are always things you wish you’d done differently. I could’ve taken more trains, even taken trains in Bolivia and Brazil and elsewhere, but you reach a point where it’s enough already and your wife won’t let you spend any more money on this book you’ve been writing for three years. Also, I wish I’d heard about the Tren Solidario back in 2010 and started writing the book then, as I would’ve been able to take the train to Mendoza and whole load of other places. I also missed out on taking the Gran Capitán, the legendary 48-hour train to Posadas, as it stopped running in 2011, when I was still faffing about with the buses.
It’s Welcome to Mesopotamia, which the Indy has already published some extracts of. It’s about how my wife and I did what a lot of porteños dream of doing and left Buenos Aires and moved to the country and built a house and tried to conceive in a town called Concepción. The book’s all about what a terrible idea this turned out to be.
I was going to buy a vintage Mercedes W123 and write a book about that called “Travels With Marlene”, but I chickened out of that hideous expense and inconvenience in the name of art and bought a Renault Clio instead. Very little literature has been written about the Renault Clio, and I doubt that will change. I’d like to write a book about taking trains somewhere else -India, USA, southeast Asia- but that’s the kind of thing you need a publisher to finance. And also I’ve learned that the part I like the most about writing is sitting at my desk, rather than the part where I have to go out and take public transport, so any future book will have to wait a few years.
TRENspotting en los Ferrocarriles Argentinos is now available at bookstores and online at Editorial Marea.