May 19, 2013
Trains Begging Answers
The Trenes de Buenos Aires (TBA) suburban railway concession has now shared the fate of Spanish Repsol’s majority shareholding in YPF but without any promise of shale oil wealth on the horizon — no wonder, then, that the removal of the concession was announced on Thursday by Federal Planning Minister Julio De Vido instead of an admittedly flu-stricken President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and no wonder that the state is not assuming any responsibility even now. Instead the Sarmiento and Mitre lines previously run by the Cirigliano brothers now pass to fellow-concessionaires Metrovías (blasted by De Vido only eight days previously over its management of the metropolitan subway) and Ferrovías. The reason for preferring the latter to TBA is obviously the 51-death Once train crash of February 22 befalling the Sarmiento line — but why take over three months to react?
While the government stands to gain economically (if in a very long term) from assuming responsibility for YPF, the TBA situation is the opposite — the gains are purely political and lie in eluding responsibility. Yet state responsibility cannot simply be dumped on the privatization of the railway system 18 years ago — this current government also needs to explain its decision to invest 13 billion pesos in subsidies between 2004 and 2011 to keep rail fares so low instead of in the maintenance and improvement of rolling stock, infrastructure and railway services in general, thus removing deficiencies which contributed to the Once disaster. The state’s watchdog role also seems to have been entirely abdicated until the Once tragedy despite several formal warnings from the Auditor-General and trade unions, not to mention infinitely more numerous informal complaints from hapless commuters transported like cattle. The Cirigliano brothers were beneficiaries of this populist policy rather than its author. Even if Ricardo Jaime — transport secretary for 74 months between 2003 and 2009 — were entirely innocent of the numerous corruption charges against him (emails or no emails), he would still have plenty to answer for.
Given that the state basically funds the system and pays the wages apart from defining the pricing, a renationalization of the railways would seem to be the most logical outcome were it not for the evident government reluctance to assume responsibility (apart from growing fiscal constraints). But rather than following up its initiatives with either YPF or TBA, it is distinctly more probable that the CFK administration will move onto some other sector.