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.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.