April 23, 2014

In Buenos Aires

Sunday, December 8, 2013

End of the line?

By Matt Chesterton
For the Herald

The Tren de la Costa is a service worth saving, and not just for hosting the Sabe la tierra organic market at San Fernando station.

Once upon a time as a child I rode a roller coaster, a searing experience for my soul and stomach which, in accordance with the rather sharp advice of my puke-glazed fellow passengers that day, was never to be repeated. So I took up ghost trains, which keep you upright, at normal gravitational duress and in pitch darkness, so that any fear-induced incontinence can be executed in private. And jolly frightening they were too, with something horrible popping out at every switchback, from plastic skeletons to plastic vampires to another kind of plastic skeleton.

I hadn’t thought about ghost trains for 30 years. Then, a few Saturdays ago, I rode with my family on the Tren de la Costa, the once-proud tourist service that links Maipú station in Vicente López with Tigre.

And it all came flooding back.

The fear sets in early and doesn’t let up. Like the fictional platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross, the terminal is tucked away and hard to find, as if the Tren were an embarrassing anomaly within Buenos Aires’ otherwise stellar overland railway network. We passed along dark corridors lined with empty antique stores, down broken escalators and through a milling dark mass that turned out to be a Magic: the Gathering convention. A kind woman perched on a stool by the platform tore our tickets from a book, fairground style.

It was a daytripper’s dream of a day, bright and warm: and all of twelve people joined us on the platform. Once aboard the graffitied (no, not in a trendy way) train and gliding north, I pressed my nose to the window and let the ghosts leap out at me: boarded-up cafés, station houses become squats, yellowing timetables, litter, disrepair and a pervasive sense of decay. Often when a public service ceases to exist, people recoil in surprise. If (and right now it feels like “when”) the Tren de la Costa dies, the very few people who will notice will say they saw it coming.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Inaugurated in 1995, this light rail service promised not only to resurrect a legendary stretch of track — the 15.5-km Ramal II de Tigre, on which trains ran between 1891 and 1961 — but to usher in a new age of “first world” public transport in and around metropolitan Buenos Aires.

But despite carrying some 100,000 passengers per weekend in its early years, the Tren de la Costa never made a profit for its operator, Sociedad Comercial del Plata (SCP) — and recent years have seen the Tren struggle to attract 50,000 passengers per month. In June, the government revoked SCP’s concession and nationalized the service.

The decline in the Tren de la Costa's popularity would be easier to comprehend were it one of many such services, or had it been superseded by sleeker, more efficient alternatives. But it isn’t, and it hasn’t. On and off, but with greater frequency since acquiring a train-loopy daughter, I've been using the service for over a decade and even in its current parlous state, I find more things to love about it than I do to hate. I love hopping off at Anchorena for a stroll along the grassy riverbank, from where you can look back south for the best views of the Buenos Aires skyline, half obscured on windy days by a psychedelic swarm of kites. I love getting a beer or a steak at one of the many river-facing bars and parrillas between Las Barrancas and San Isidro. Bleeding-edge hipster that I am, I love shopping for artisanal mango chutney and goat’s cheese at the Sabe la tierra organic weekend market (see photo), whose stalls have been brightening the corners of San Fernando station for years now. And excluding Parque de la Costa, with its four terrifying and unnecessary roller coasters, I love Tigre too.

But as the data shows, I am one among few. The Tren de la Costa has been caught up for some time in a classic vicious cycle, one that is well known to social scientists and glaringly obvious to anyone who uses public services. Faced with decreasing demand, operators will cut corners and hold back investment, reducing the quality of the service and triggering a further drop in demand. And now that the government has moved the Tren de la Costa onto its books, you can bet that this death spiral will not be allowed to continue indefinitely. Unless people start using it again, arresting the vicious cycle and turning it virtuous, the Tren de la Costa doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance.

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