Argentina: relatives march for train crash victims

Hundreds of relatives and friends of people killed or injured in the crash of an Argentine commuter train on Feb. 22 marched in downtown Buenos Aires the night of Feb. 28 to demand a thorough investigation of the accident and punishment for those responsible. Carrying candles, pictures of the victims and signs describing the commuter trains as “metal tombs,” the protesters called for a meeting with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The march ended with a vigil at the Obelisk in the Plaza de la República. (Clarín, Buenos Aires, Feb. 28)

Fifty-one people were killed and 706 were injured when the train, running on the Sarmiento commuter line, smashed into a barrier in Station 11 in Buenos Aires at a speed of about 20 kilometers an hour. Although investigators have yet to determine the exact cause of the accident, more and more evidence has emerged of a failure to maintain the line by its owner, Trenes de Buenos Aires (TBA), and of a lack of oversight by the federal government.

According to the Argentine daily La Nación, the National Transportation Regulation Commission (CNRT) found that a hydraulic bumper at Station 11 wasn’t working. The bumper should have absorbed much of the impact of the train hitting the barrier; instead, “it was as if [the train] hit a wall,” railroad workers’ union spokesperson Horacio Caminos said. “If the hydraulic bumper had been working correctly, the impact of the train at 20 km an hour would have been less and maybe wouldn’t have provoked the tragedy that it caused.” Similar problems appear in a report the CNRT presented to the government last year about the Sarmiento and Mitre lines, which were taken over by TBA after the system was privatized in the 1990s. According to the Argentine media, the commission found that TBA was fined more than $1.5 million from 2008 to 2009 and was responsible for more than 60 derailments.

A report by the National Inspector General’s Office, completed on Feb. 29 but not made public, is said to have found that the federal government was also responsible because of its failure to monitor TBA. Much of the criticism has focused on Transportation Minister Juan Pablo Schiavi; the stress may have contributed to heart problems for Schiavi, who had an emergency angioplasty on Feb. 29 to clear an obstructed artery.

Meanwhile, doubts grew about the condition of the rest of Argentina’s extensive rail system, including the Buenos Aires subway, which was operated by the federal government until this year. Center-right Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri announced on Feb. 29 that the city was breaking off talks with President Fernández’s administration about the transfer of responsibility for the subway system from the federal to the municipal government. “This can’t go on,” Macri said at a press conference. “We can’t take on the burden of these 10 years of lack of investment,” a reference to the nine years that the federal government has been in the control of the left-leaning Fernández and her predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007). (Ironically, Transportation Minister Schiavi was Macri’s campaign manager before switching to Fernández’s party). (La Razón, Buenos Aires, March 1, from EFE; Univision, March 1)

Questions remain about the state of the train’s brakes before the crash. The operator, Marcos Antonio Córdoba, testified to federal judge Claudio Bonadío on Feb. 24 that the brakes had failed three times during the trip before the crash and that he had alerted the TBA traffic controller to the problem. The day after Córdoba testified, TBA management presented the judge with a tape of the controller’s conversations; Córdoba’s warnings didn’t appear on the tape. But some of the media noted that the tape covered only 18 minutes of a 35-minute trip. This wouldn’t be surprising, since the recording device was apparently voice-activated, but it left open the possibility that the company could have edited the tape. (Diario Uno, Tucumán, Feb. 26)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 4.

See our last post on Argentina.