Buenos Aires moves to revive the largest railway network in Latin America

Buenos Aires. Image: Getty.

If you wanted a glimpse of what life in rural Argentina is like, you couldn’t do much better than the area around the Cabred train station. Located in a tiny town where most of the streets are unpaved, many of the area’s residents opt to build their houses out of unpainted bricks and sheet metal roofs. While better off residents may choose to travel in rusted out used cars dating from the eighties, many still opt to get around on horseback.

This town would have no real reason to exist were it not for the fact that a train line runs through the area. It dates from the 19th century, and little seems to have changed since. Back in the day, the town was inhabited by Argentina’s famous gauchos: cattle raising, rabble rousing country dwellers every bit as raucous as the cowboys of the US. From the looks of things, there are still plenty of gauchos around Cabred.

But recently, the area has been given an injection of modernity. The train line, long underserved by passenger services, is now visited by the rumbling whir of shiny new rolling stock, with automatic doors, LED signs, and loudspeakers that announce each station. (Curiously, the announcer speaks with a Spanish accent, rather than the distinctive local one.) The trains are capable of whisking the town’s residents to the centre of Buenos Aires, 75km to the east, in just under two hours. They’re part of a massive effort by the national government to end a decades-long period of neglect, and make the region’s once functional train system usable once again.

Commuter trains in Buenos Aires are closely linked to the history of Argentina’s national train system. This system dates back to the 1850s, when the nation’s agricultural resources sparked a railroad building boom, funded in large part by capital from Britain: to this day many Argentines still gripe that, “We didn’t build our trains, the British did.”

The train system centred around Buenos Aires, with commuter trains playing a key role in the early development of the city’s suburbs. The network was eventually nationalised under the government of Argentina’s famous dictator-turned-president, Juan Perón. Though the results of this move have been much debated, it did allow for long distance passenger service and commuter trains in Buenos Aires to keep running as their counterparts in the rest of Latin America (and, to a large extent, North America, too) were phased out.

The central section of Buenos Aires's extensive rail network. Edited image from Wikimedia Commons.

But this arrangement met its end in the early nineties under the leadership of free market president Carlos Menem, who decided it was time for the railroad to be run by the invisible hand of the free market: this, in practice, meant not being run at all. After he pulled the plug on the country’s public ownership of the trains, all but a few long distance passenger lines ended completely. Commuter trains in Buenos Aires continued to run – cutting them would have had political consequences – but the mind numbingly complex public/private management system left little incentive for train companies to update their equipment. The consequences of this were slow to make themselves known, but would ultimately be devastating.

The trouble began in 2001, when an economic crash ate into passenger numbers, and the private concessions who ran the commuter trains to start cutting corners. At first, this merely resulted in ugly, graffiti ridden train cars; but then those cars began to break down. By 2012, the crippling lack of maintenance would result in tragedy, when a train arriving at Once (pronounced own-say), a central train station in Buenos Aires, lost its brakes and slammed into the barriers. The accident killed 51 people, and left hundreds more wounded.

The accident was a wake up call for the national government, and resulted in corruption charges against transport ministers both past and present. But once Florencio Randazzo took over the transport brief, the national government finally got serious about fixing the city’s broken train system.

The government launched a $1.2 billion renovation programme. The plan was to modernise the fleets of all of the commuter rail lines that branch out from Buenos Aires’s urban core, and reconfigure stations with elevated platforms for wheelchair access. The city’s southern Roca Line will be electrified. Formerly disused stations like Cabred and Marcos Paz will be reincorporated into the commuter rail network. There are even plans to reopen key long distance lines as well, though those are admittedly much further off.

The program took effect in early 2014, and so far new trains have entered service on two lines: the San Martin, which connects to Cabred, and the Sarmiento, made infamous by the Once crash. But according to Federico Pallés, editor of the popular Argentinian railroad website Satélite Ferroviario, regular users are starting to take notice. “After the 2001 crisis, many regular commuters stopped using the trains and never came back,” he says. “Today, regular users are the only ones seeing the effects of the new plan. But since taking the train is still faster than driving, some of the people who started driving after 2001 may eventually switch back.”

These improvements have generally been seen as a success, so much so that the federal government has seized on them to brighten up its tarnished image. Though the first years of the government under current president Cristina Kirchner showed promising signs of economic growth and social development, the government was soon mired in corruption scandals and inflation rates spiralling out of control. And though the current debt default the country is suffering through is more the fault of greedy Wall Street speculators than the government itself, the fact that Kirchner goes around spouting CIA conspiracy theories isn’t exactly helping her case.

In the midst of this political quagmire, Randazzo has emerged as one of the few faces of the government doing things right, thanks in large part to his work renovating the trains. And he’s taking full advantage of this image by launching a campaign for president in 2015, when Kirchner is termed out. Though lagging in the polls, his train improvements may give him a boost. They mainly serve suburban Buenos Aires, which unlike the city proper is a key swing vote for the entire country.

Naturally, Randazzo is doing his part to mobilise this bloc, and he’s not above whipping up nationalistic fervour to do so: his new trains all come emblazoned with the bluntly patriotic logo “Argentinian trains”. He’s also got one more important thing going for him: a campaign jingle written as a “cumbia”, a style popular with country’s working class who dominate the Buenos Aires suburbs. The song may not get very far among those with serious musical tastes, but it’s at least good for a few laughs.

However, some of Randazzo’s nationalistic rhetoric may be misplaced. Made completely in China by the state-owned consortium CSR, the trains were installed in Argentina by hundreds of Chinese employees, working out of a specially constructed workshop. And it’s not the only game China’s railway consortiums have going in the region. They’re also working with Brazil to build a freight train line that connects the country’s Atlantic coast with Peru.

Nonetheless, these improvements will be a big improvement for regular commuters in Buenos Aires, even if the jobs it creates don’t all go to locals. The city boasts the largest commuter train network in Latin America and one of the largest in the world: these improvements mean it will no longer be going to waste.

They may even reshape the entire urban area, helping to alleviate demand on the overcrowded housing market in central Buenos Aires. Perhaps in some distant future, the gauchos of Cabred will find it more convenient to commute to desk jobs in the city centre rather than herd cattle.


City of Ruin: On Resident Evil’s Raccoon City

Photo: Wikipedia via Creative Commons

With the release of Capcom’s remake of Resident Evil 2 on Friday 25 January, gamers will return to the terrifying streets of one of the most iconic cities in video games: the zombie-infested Raccoon City.

Despite first being mentioned in 1997’s original Resident Evil, that game took place entirely in a mansion outside the city and it wasn’t until the 1998 sequel that we actually got to explore Raccoon City itself.

Since then, it’s become a recurring location in the games series and various spin-off media, even though – and this is an unavoidable spoiler, so abandon this article now if you’re planning to go into the remake completely cold – Resident Evil 2 ends with the city being comprehensively nuked by the US government.

In fact, the series returned to Raccoon City a year later in 1999’s Resident Evil 3, an asset-reusing fill-in instalment that cleverly loops around the events and locations of Resident Evil 2 and gives the player another, more detailed look at the city’s final destruction.

Raccoon City RIP, from Resident Evil 3. The author of this piece was not allowed to have the piano theme from the credits as music at his wedding.

Since then, the 1998 fall of Raccoon City has been revisited in the two Resident Evil Outbreak titles, in the Umbrella Chronicles and Darkside Chronicles light gun Wii games, and in the shockingly mediocre online shooter Operation Raccoon City, as well as the Milla Jovovich-starring live action film series.

Although the plot line of the main game series has moved on to new locales and time periods from 2005’s Resident Evil 4 onwards, the franchise clearly left a part of itself on the streets of Raccoon City in 1998, and can’t help but repeatedly return. But why?

To answer that we need to look at what kind of games the Resident Evil series are, their genre roots and the continuity that’s built up within the games themselves – and how these elements have created an eccentric idea of an average American city.

The original Resident Evil had horror game precedents in titles like Alone in the Dark and the film adaptation, Sweet Home – even sharing a developer, Capcom, and a director, Shinji Mikami, with the latter – but it twisted these influences and precedents to create a new sub-genre: survival horror.

The survival horror genre is distinguished by the cautious, steady exploration of a contained environment, facing off against horrific creatures that constantly threaten to overpower the player, who must conserve scarce resources like ammo and health top-ups. As opposed to game genres where environments are dashed through while shooting wildly, survival horror games, and their steady pace, demand locations that reward attention.

The live action introduction to the characters in the original Resident Evil. Mysteriously this technique hasn’t been used in the series since.

The first game, called Biohazard in its native Japanese but renamed Resident Evil in English, opened with a ridiculous live-action video in which an elite team of cops – as seen in the video above – wind up in the creepy Spencer Mansion located in the Arklay Mountains near Raccoon City. There, our heroes, part of the elite and very coolly acronymic STARS team, face off against zombies and other genetically engineered monsters created as weapons by the evil Umbrella Corporation.

Player characters, Chris or Jill, move from room to room in the mansion, fighting off monsters and making progress by solving baroque puzzles where rooms are locked by mysterious keys and booby trap devices. As the plot unfolds Chris and Jill realise that they’ve been set up, acting as experimental subjects to provide data about the combat efficiency of Umbrella’s Bio-Organic Weapons, or BOWs for short.

Gameplay from the original Resident Evil. NSFW due to gore and terrible voice acting.

Although we don’t go near Raccoon City in the first game, it sets several precedents that shape the urban space encountered in the sequel. The game relies on confined spaces and environments in which the player struggles to escape a looming zombie, with doorways to pass through to move from one small area to another. As well as building tension this is a technical issue – the dramatic fixed camera angles allow the backdrops to each screen to essentially be pre-rendered still images on which animated characters and interactive items move, allowing in turn for a much higher resolution in the backgrounds than was possible for moving 3D environments at the time – which lends the world of the game a distinct, atmospheric feel, the sense of a real, detailed place.

The fiction of the game justifies the Spencer Mansion’s weird layout and complex locks partially through its use by the Umbrella Corporation as a secret laboratory and testing facility, and partially through the story of the Mansion’s eccentric architect, George Trevor, who installed all these traps and puzzles on the orders of Umbrella’s founder, Ozwell Spencer. These narratives are told through documents found around the Mansion and its grounds.

The final element here is one of genre. If you’re a Resident Evil newcomer, you may well have read the past few paragraphs and thought “this makes absolutely no sodding sense whatsoever”, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The most obvious genre precedents for the series are the zombie films of filmmaker George A Romero, but the series also takes influence from the considerably less coherent European knock offs Romero inspired, all through a lens of Japanese horror, which is far more prone to abstraction and nightmare logic as well as post-Hiroshima concerns about mutation.

These overlapping influences shaped Raccoon City itself – a city in the mid-western United States, created by Japanese game developers in the mid to late 1990s taking influence from zombie films of the 1970s and 1980s, some of which were shot in Europe. Factor in the technical and gameplay requirements, and you end up with a uniquely skewed vision of an American cityscape.

The original Resident Evil 2 opens with the zombie outbreak well underway, and protagonists Leon and Claire stranded in a Downtown area overrrun with the undead. The narrow streets are rendered narrower by crashed cars and barricades, evidence of the carnage that has occurred and failed defensive efforts. The opening scenes of the game are a hectic dash through cluttered streets and a crashed bus to get to a gun shop and the game’s first major environment, the Raccoon Police Department. Resident Evil 3 revisits Downtown and the RPD, filling in restaraunts, shopping streets, an area under construction, an electricty substation, the City Hall, a gas station and a tram station.

The unusually narrow streets of Raccoon City as seen in Resident Evil 3.

Resident Evil 3 also adds the adjacent Uptown area with warehouses, sales offices, bars and residential streets that border on tenements in their density and narrow alleys. Between the two games the ruined city is a beautiful example of stage-managed desolation, with distant screams and evidence of horrors past strewn across the cluttered chaos. It’s also ridiculous, a toytown version of a city where industrial, residential and commercial activities are piled upon each other. The George Trevor school of architectural madness is also in full effect, with the RPD building being a converted art gallery complete with doors that are opened by manipulating statues, and gates to City Hall that unlock when a clock outside is completed.

An eccentric approach to architecture and city planning is one hand wave explanation for why Raccoon City doesn’t make much sense, another within the fiction is that it’s an Umbrella Corporation company town, with their labs and facilities scattered across the city. Every business and facility can hide a lab or storage area for Umbrella. In Resident Evil 2, the sewers and a cable car trip lead to a dead factory hiding a lab facility in the Raccoon City outskirts, an underground lab revisited (or pre-visited?) in Resident Evil Zero and the Outbreak games.

In Resident Evil 3 a disastrous jaunt in a tram leads to the city hospital which hides a lab full of reptilian monstrosities, then on through the park, across a dam and into another dead factory hiding another laboratory. 

As much as anything makes sense in Raccoon City, there’s a sort of logic to seeing the city as a giant laboratory in which the local population are bred as guinea pigs, who can be snatched up and experimented upon in the individual facilities across the city. It’s a groteseque but not entirely inaccurate caricature of urban space where the masses live and die at the whim of the corporate forces who shape the city for their own purposes. The cramped urban spaces of Raccoon City, where industrial, residential, and commercial areas pile up on each other in a mass of twisty, narrow streets that are barely more than corridors, add a level of dream logic to this scenario, making for an evocative urban nightmare.

The boring, sensibly proportioned streets of Operation: Raccoon City

While the Outbreak games added new areas to Raccoon City – a zoo, a university by the sea – their adherence to the oppressively warped architecture and geography of the series made these additions of a piece with their predecessors. Other adaptations have been less successful: the Chronicles and Operation Raccoon City games turned the streets into open boxes for less contained, run-and-gun-type play, completely losing the rich detail and claustrophobia that made Raccoon City such a unique place and turning it into... well, something resembling a real city, with streets wide enough for cars and buildings with sensibly broad corridors. That nightmarish quality was entirely lost.

Hopefully the Resident Evil 2 remake released this week will, amongst all its high definition upgraded gore, retain Raccoon City’s convoluted, unrealistic geography. The story of an apocalyptic event reducing an American city, the supposed apex of Western civilisation, to carnage and despair will always have a certain perverse appeal, and the fall of Raccoon City, in all its nightmarish eccentricity, is one of the greatest iterations of that story. Long may we keep being allowed to revisit it.

Resident Evil 2 is released for PS4, XBox One and Microsoft Windows on 25 January 2019.