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.


The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.

“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.