So what’s the Buenos Aires metro system like?

Inside a Line B Metropolitan Cammell car, circa 1938. Image: Archivo General de la Nación/creative commons.

Alright, we all know you come here for information about underground transport systems, and that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Without further ado, let’s start learning you a thing or two about Subte, Buenos Aires’ underground system; the thirteenth largest subway network in the world.

First, history. Much like the District Line, the Subte was a long time coming. Porterños – the inhabitants of Buenos Aires – had been talking about building an underground network since the late 1800s. Really, this is no surprise, given that the tram network operator was the Anglo-Argentine Tramways Company, and London had just recently opened its own underground.

With a large tram network, many considered an underground system to be unnecessary. Nonetheless, the first stage of the new network opened in 1913, becoming the first underground rail system in Latin America, the first in southern hemisphere, and the first in the Spanish speaking world. (Madrid’s arrived five years later.)

A geographical map, with planned extensions in grey. Image: JoshuaPers/Wikimedia.

The Subte system boasts six lines — A, B, C, D, E and H — with 86 stations that extend finger like from the area near the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosado (yep, “The Pink House”, where the president lives). While, technically speaking, many of the lines intersect with each other, they only do so at the extreme eastern edge of the network. In land, only the C and H lines, which act like barriers to catch wayward tourists, have any chance of returning you to the line you want to be on should you lose your way. As such, vigilance is an important part of riding the Subte – especially since it is not always possible to change directions without paying for a new journey if you find yourself heading the wrong way.

There’s also a ‘P’ line, which intersects at the end of the E line. The P stands for PreMetro, which is a 7.4km tramway that runs along the outskirts of Buenos Aires. While not technically part of the Subte subway network, it does appear on the map and passengers can use their Subte cards (basically an Oyster card) on both, as well as buses and other public transport.

The architecture of the stations has been copied from the A line ever since its inauguration over 100 years ago, keeping the theme running across the entire network. Originally owned by the state, the Subte system was privatised in 1944, the same year that the E line was officially opened. The most recent line, H, was officially opened in 2007. Now, some 10 years later, it is due to be extended with an additional 20 trains running on the line.

While not as large as the Tube, or serving quite so many people, the Subte can still get suitably rammed during the rush hour period. In that time, you’re just as likely to find your face wedged into someone else’s armpit as you are on the Central Line. There are considerably more buskers, who operate like those you’ll see in the New York Metro. Additionally, it’s not uncommon to see a small group set up a literal band — complete with drum kit — in the space between the doors. They do appear to move when the train stops but, on the occasion that they don’t, be careful not to trip on your way out. 

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.