Argentina: critics blame train crash on 1990s privatization

An Argentine commuter train smashed into a barrier at Station 11 in the center of Buenos Aires on the morning of Feb. 22, killing 51 passengers and injuring 706. Failing brakes caused the crash, the train’s operator told a judge. According to a source in the judicial system, Marcos C贸rdoba testified that the brakes had failed twice before the crowded train crashed, and that he had warned his supervisors.”In each station I advised the traffic controller by radio that I had problems with the brakes,” C贸rdoba said.”From the other side they answered: ‘Go on, go on, go on.'”

National Transportation Secretary Juan Pablo Schiavi said that tapes of conversations between the operator and the controller would be turned over to the judge. (El Informador, Guadalajara, Mexico, Feb. 26, from EFE and Notimex)

A spokesperson for Trenes de Buenos Aires (TBA), the company that runs the commuter line, initially suggested that the disaster resulted from”human error,” and rumors circulated that C贸rdoba, who was rescued from his cab and hospitalized, had been drinking. Tests showed later that he had not consumed any alcohol. Labor unions blamed TBA management, charging that it and the companies holding Argentina’s railroad concessions have been pocketing subsidies from the government instead of investing in maintenance and new equipment. A mechanic working for TBA reported that the trains are using brake compressors that are 60 years old. (La Jornada, Mexico, Feb. 24, from correspondent)

Argentina’s extensive state-owned rail system was privatized under former president Carlos Sa煤l Menem (1989-1999) as part of a radical program of neoliberal 鈥渞eforms.” Privatization proponents said privatization would improve service and reduce operating deficits. But after the economic collapse of late 2001, Argentine’s federal government had to start providing subsidies to keep the system running. The subsidies continued and actually increased later as the economy improved, rising from $4.9 million a month in 2003 to $60 million in 2008.

The Feb. 22 crash has led to calls for the federal government to renationalize the railroads, but this comes at a time when the administration of President Cristina Fern谩ndez de Kirchner is struggling with growing deficits. (Notimex, Feb. 25, via El Financiero, Mexico; T茅lam, Argentina, Feb. 24) (Earlier this year Fern谩ndez’s government cut federal subsidies for the “Subte,” the Buenos Aires subway system, in half and turned over its operation to the municipal government in a cost reduction move that resulted in large fare increases and militant protests by riders and subway workers.)

In other news, about 5,000 people marched from the Congress to the presidential residence in Buenos Aires on Feb. 23 in support of communities in the northwestern provinces which have been since the beginning of the year protesting against open-pit mining in their region. The march was called by the Union of Citizen Assemblies (UAC), a coalition of some 100 local assemblies in the northwest; the demonstration was backed by 1980 Nobel peace prize winner Adolfo P茅rez Esquivel, members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, student organizations and leftist parties. Speakers from the assemblies called on President Fern谩ndez, who supports open-pit mining, to put aside”ignorance and arrogance” and “listen to the affected communities.”

The organizers had considered postponing the demonstration because of the train crash the day before, but they decided instead to honor the victims with a black flag at the head of the march. (La Naci贸n, Buenos Aires, Feb. 24; Los Andes, Mendoza, Feb. 24)

Update, Feb. 27: According to a tape released by TBA on Feb. 25, the operator of the commuter train that crashed in Buenos Aires on Feb. 22 never told the traffic controller that there was a problem with the brakes. Operator Marcos C贸rdoba’s voice is only heard on the 18-minute tape at the beginning of the trip. (La Gaceta, Tucum谩n, Feb. 27, from La Naci贸n)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 26.

See our last post on Argentina.