When city budgets are cut, public transportation is often on the chopping block. And routes and lines serving those who need the service most, can be the first to go. But from New York to Portland and San Francisco to Argentina, an emerging ‘transportation justice’ movement is standing up for people’s right to ride.
Thanks to contributing producers Jennifer Kemp, Eric Klein, Eilis O’Neill, Britta Conroy-Randall and to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation for partial support of this show.
Nick Persky, San Francisco Youth Commission member; Paolo Acosta, Balboa High School student; David Campos and John Avalos, San Francisco supervisors; Romeo Edmead, blind advocate in New York City; Lester Marks, Lighthouse International Government Affairs director; Laura Rodríguez, train rider; Edgardo Reynoso, Sarmiento Line Trainworkers’ Union organizer; Olga Vicente, Transportation planner; Adrián Lutvak, Student activist; Juan Carlos Cena, National Movement for the Recovery of Argentina’s Trains president; Julián Rebón, Universidad de Buenos Aires sociology professor; Suzy Thurston, Derek Espinoza, TriMet riders; Cameron Johnson, OPAL member; Neal McFarlane, TriMet CEO, Khan Pham, former OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon communications director; and Jared Franz, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon transportation policy assistant.
Read the transcript below:
How NYC’s Public Transit Serves the Blind
In many ways, how we view public transportation reflects how we see our societies. Do we value shared resources, or prefer private ownership? Will vital services be available to all, or just a few? How accessible is it to those who are dependent on public transport to go about their daily lives? We went to New York City, where Reporter Britta Conroy-Randall took a trip with blind advocate Romeo Edmead to find out how easy it is for him get around town.
Does Portland Oregon’s TriMet Unfairly Cut Service for the Poor?
When you think of modern, green, public transportation, a city that likely comes to mind is Portland, Oregon. Portland has built a reputation worldwide, and for many people, it’s deserved. But as reporters Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein found out, that world class public transit, doesn’t serve all members of the public equally.
Should Buenos Aires’ trains be Re-Nationalized?
The trains of Greater Buenos Aires, Argentina are falling apart. Every weekday, their carriages are filled with commuters on their way to the city. Despite irregular service, it’s still the fastest and cheapest way to get to work. But the cars are old; the rails are worn; the wooden covers on the electric third rail are often rotten or missing entirely. So how did it get this way? Well a group of train workers and student activists says the problem is that private companies have been put in charge of this public transit system, and aren’t giving it the attention it needs. The only solution, they say, would be to put the trains back under state control. And they’re organizing to do just that. From Buenos Aires, Eilís O’Neill has more.
For More Information:
POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights)
Free MUNI for Youth Program
OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon
National Movement for the Recovery of Argentina’s Trains
Sarmiento Line Trainworkers’ Union
Urban Habitat’s Transportation Justice Program
What’s driving privatization of public transit?
NYC Metropolitan Transit Agency
National Federation of the Blind
American Foundation for the Blind
Busdriver, “Imaginary Places”
2Pac, “I Get Around”
Listen to panelists at December 2012 community event celebrating the work of POWER, Data Center and Urban Habitat on a joint report: Next Stop: Justice / Próxima Parada: Justicia The report analyses public transit in San Francisco, with a vision for a transit policy that puts race and the environment at the center.
Part 1 Sintia Henriquez and Alicia Garza from POWER, welcoming remarks
Part 2 Miho Kim from the Data Center and Paulo Acosta from POWER, on Equity & Transit Racism
Part 3 Sunyoung Yang from the Labor/Community Strategy Center and Manuela Esteva from POWER, on the Environmental Importance of Public Transit
Part 4 Bob Allen from Urban Habitat and Howard Nelson, a Muni driver & member of the Transit Workers Union, Local 250A, speaking on how Transit connects to Economic Opportunity & Jobs
This week on Making Contact:
BLBRD: “There have been jobs that I couldn’t take because the bus simply wouldn’t be able to get me there in time to start,”
Steltzer: For many, public transportation isn’t a choice. It’s a necessity.
BLBRD: “It means liberation. It means unlimited access, it means equal opportunity. The most difficult aspect of being blind is lack of independence with traveling.”
Steltzer: When city budgets are cut, public transportation is often on the chopping block. And routes and lines serving those who need the service most, can be the first to go. But an emerging Transportation Justice movement is standing up for people’s right to ride.
CHANT TRT: “When I say Free, you say MUNI. Free! MUNI! FREE! MUNI!”
Steltzer: On this edition. From New York to Argentina, people organizing in the name of transportation for all.
Steltzer: I’m Andrew Stelzer, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.
CHANT: “Did we win this fight? YEAH! Was it a long fight? YEAH!! Was it a hard fight? YEAH…
Steltzer: It’s a school day, but hundreds of kids are out on the streets in San Francisco’s Mission District celebrating. This week marks the beginning of a free MUNI pass program—in which low and moderate income students can ride public transit for free—24 hours a day. The campaign for free MUNI took 2 years, and it wasn’t easy but…
Nick Persky: “The civic engagement of youth in the Free MUNI for youth campaign is something that we’ve barely ever seen before.“
Steltzer: 17 year old Nick Persky is a member of the San Francisco Youth Commission.
Persky: “…the number of youth coming into city hall, flooding city hall for various MTA meetings, various board of supervisor meetings, has been insane. We’ve never seen this many youth come into city hall before, and its really something special to see.”
Steltzer: Hundreds of high school students spent two years lobbying the Municipal Transportation Agency and Metropolitan Transportation Commission to lay out more than 6 million dollars for the pilot program. Balboa high senior Paolo Acosta was one of them.
Acosta: “Just coming back over and over and over and over and over…the more and more networking and marketing we did about this campaign, we actually tired out the MTA and got them to approve it.”
Steltzer: But San Francisco’s youth didn’t do it alone.
Avalos: “Because you had the pressure from the grassroots, we were able to make this happen.”
Steltzer: John Avalos is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Avalos: “it was an amazing inside outside strategy. We knew, that if it wasn’t the people who were most impacted by the policies of MUNI, who didn’t raise their voices, we wouldn’t be able to make it happen on the inside.”
Steltzer: Youth whose families make less than the Bay Area Median Income are eligible for the free pass—that’s over forty thousand students. Not being able to afford the bus keeps some of those students from attending school, or participating in afterschool activities. Allowing kids to travel free also helps them explore different parts of their city…and makes them more likely to become adults who use public transit. Getting more people onto buses, trains and trolleys means fewer cars on San Francisco’s busy roads and cleaner air for everyone..
Campos: “We always believed that this effort was not just about satisfying the economic needs of these students, but it was about how we as a city look at transportation.
Steltzer: City Supervisor David Campos helped lead the Free MUNI for youth campaign.
Campos:“Other cities in other parts of the bay area are looking at this pilot as an example of what they can do for their families…We are investing in the future generation of riders and San Francisco is leading the way.”
CHANT: “Spread the word, spread the truth. Free MUNI for all our youth!”
Steltzer: In many ways, how we view public transportation reflects how we see our societies. Do we value shared resources, or prefer private ownership? Will vital services be available to all, or just a few? Low income youth, like those San Francisco school kids, are one example, but there are others who are even more dependent on public transport to go about their daily lives.
We went to New York City, where reporter Britta Conroy-Randall took a trip with blind advocate Romeo Edmead to find out how easy to is for him gets around town.
Britta Conroy-Randall: The New York City Subway system has four hundred and sixty eight stations – it’s the largest of any city in the world. There’s twenty one lines, running twenty four hours a day on three hundred and thirty miles of track. So there are times when even sighted people get confused. But Romeo Edmead (Ah-Mead), who’s been blind since he was two years old, knows his way around pretty well.
Edmead: You go up those stairs in the back, you go through a turnstile, when you go through a turnstile you make a right. You go up the first set of stairs you make a left, you go up another set, then you’re on the street.
Britta Conroy-Randall: Like most other New Yorkers, Romeo uses subways and buses to get to work, visit family and meet up with friends. He also walks – a lot. He says he relies heavily on his other senses to make his way around safely.
Edmead: Once the train pulls away I stop for a second and start listening for sounds. What I’m listening for is like turnstiles, metrocard machines, I’m listening for traffic. Also if it’s the winter time, I’m feeling too – not with my hands but I’m paying attention to what I feel. Why? Because wherever the cold air is coming from will also be an indication of where the exit of the subway is.
Britta Conroy-Randall: In a city where around seven million people use mass transit every day, you can’t go far without hearing a complaint: regular service interruptions, inconsistent schedules, ongoing renovations… But these things don’t bother Romeo too much.
Edmead: What I would say to that is welcome to New York you know? (Laughing)
Britta Conroy-Randall: To him, public transport means a lot more than just getting from point A to point B.
Edmead: It means liberation. It means unlimited access, it means equal opportunity. The most difficult aspect of being blind is lack of independence with traveling. If you’re somebody that has to rely on rides, you’re not at liberty as much as somebody who can just jump on a train or a bus at any moment and go do what they want to do.
Britta Conroy-Randall: Despite the obvious hurdles of life in America’s busiest city, the American Foundation for the Blind named New York as one of the country’s most livable – chosen partly for it’s public transit system that quote “allows blind residents to take full advantage of local cultural and social opportunities”. But despite the city’s high rating on issues of accessibility, there’re a number of advocacy groups working on improving the city for blind residents – especially when it comes to transportation. Lester Marks, the Director of Government Affairs at Lighthouse International, says one of the major issues is accessible announcements.
Britta Conroy-Randall: This is a Manhattan five express train. The next stop is Beverly Road, stand clear of the closing doors, please.
Britta Conroy-Randall: Lester says they’ve been introduced into many subway lines over the past few years, but are still missing from buses.
Lester Marks: You want to know what stop you’re in, and you also maybe want to know the next stop you’re arriving into or how far along your stop is.
Britta Conroy-Randall: Romeo agrees – it’s a problem he encounters every time he takes a bus.
Edmead: Things can be tricky sometimes because unlike a train the bus doesn’t stop at the same stops every time you’re on it. If somebody’s not getting on or getting off at a particular stop then it will just pass by. So you can’t count.
Britta Conroy-Randall: Romeo says audible announcements can help with route changes or detours, too.
Edmead: About two weeks ago I was at a bus stop for an hour waiting for a bus and it turns out there was a sign there saying that the bus was detoured and you have to go a block down to catch the bus. It was like twenty degrees that night – I just froze, like unbelievable! And if I could see, that wouldn’t have happened.
Britta Conroy-Randall: There’s a similar problem with hybrid and electric cars. Their almost silent engines pose a threat to blind people walking the city streets.
Edmead: So obviously if you’re using your ears to cross streets and you’re listening to where cars are and things, if you can’t hear them, you know, they can run you over.
Britta Conroy-Randall: Romeo has worked alongside advocacy groups like Lighthouse and the National Federation of the Blind to lobby Washington, and they got a bill passed establishing minimum sound requirements for new hybrid and electric vehicles. Now, they’re hoping their lobbying efforts can affect a similar change on city buses. The MTA’s annual performance review flags accessibility for the disabled as one of its key goals – but they don’t mention accessible announcements. Lester Marks says people need to maintain the pressure if they want to see needed improvements.
Edmead: If we as the blind community don’t continually remind them or let them know about how somebody who’s blind or somebody with a visual impairment travels, then of course they’re not going to think about it as much.
Britta Conroy-Randall: Romeo says public transport has been a lifeline for him and many others in the blind community.
Edmead: You see you have to understand when you’re talking to someone like me, that just presents unlimited freedom. Some people are mentally free but they’re not physically free. And when you get the chance to have both simultanously that’s where you want to be.
Britta Conroy-Randall: And he plans to keep working to make sure New York’s transit system meets the needs of everyone in the city, regardless of their ability to see. For Making Contact, I’m Britta Conroy-Randall.
Steltzer: So we know New York City has the biggest subway system. But when you think of modern, green, public transportation, a city that likely comes to mind is Portland, Oregon. Portland has built a reputation worldwide, and for many people, it’s deserved. But as reporters Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein found out, that world class public transit, doesn’t serve all members of the public equally.
Did Portland, Oregon’s TriMet Unfairly Cut Service for the Poor?
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: We took the bus all over town talking to people about their commutes and asking what they thought about the transportation system.
Q: I go everywhere on the bus.
JD: Portland’s public transit is amazing compared to what I had.
Q: This is the best transportation system of uh uh all the of all the different cities that I’ve been in.
E: I think it’s a great bus actually and my son loves taking the bus.
V: I’m very satisfied, it’s always on time, you know, at least around rush hour it is.
V: the bus system in Philly is significantly worse – its infrequent, it’s dirtier – it’s cheaper though. The public transit in Philidelphia is some of the worst I’ve ever ridden and Portland is great for public transit.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Portland’s public transportation works well for people that live close to the center of town. They have a number of different buses and trains to choose from, wait times are pretty short, and the price of bus fare is definitely cheaper than paying for car payments, gasoline, and insurance. But the farther away from downtown people live, the less satisfied they are with the bus system, and the less they feel like they’re are getting their money’s worth.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Suzy Thurston lives in southeast, but works all the way out in north Portland. The #75 bus is her lifeline, but she also has to transfer to the #72. Suzy usually passes the time reading.
Thurston: When I go to work it takes me an hour each way. So if I ever didn’t have a book I would go nutty.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: The buses she takes to work are very dependable. The problem comes when she tries to go from her neighborhood to her doctor’s appointments across town. That bus line was cut in 2012.
Thurston: there’s really no buses now that I know of that go to northwest. Except for the 77 which doesn’t even stop downtown and runs every half an hour.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: The cuts came because the city’s transit agency, Trimet, isrunning on a tight budget. Thurston says she understands the economic pressures, but the agency risks losing passengers.
Thurston: if buses run too infrequently, then it’s just not convenient for people to take them.
Portland State University student Derek Espinoza lives in Hillsboro, a city southwest of Portland where he says getting around by bus or light rail is a real challenge.
Espinoza: There seems to be more delays now, they’re getting trains backed up. The buses are more expensive, and they’re cutting routes. It’s not as much noticeable here in Portland, but in Hillsboro they’ve actually cut routes that I’ve used to take to places, so it’s harder to get to where I need to go, when I’m not going to school.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: He also finds himself with extremely long waits, making it difficult to get anything done.
Espinoza: Now the wait for the bus that I need to take is about an hour, uh, if I were to go anywhere I needed to go in Hillsboro. …Now I’m more asking friends for rides, or sometimes even just taking a taxi over there in Hillsboro.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: And not everyone has the option of asking friends for a ride. Cameron Johnson is what you’d call ‘transit dependent’. Because he’s autistic, he makes frequent trips to the pharmacy. And Cameron lives in outer southeast Portland, where bus service is less reliable.
Johnson: I actually am bi-polar and autistic so relying on the bus is something that both helps my mental wellness and helps me get medication that I need to maintain that. So technically I qualify for an honored citizens’ card because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford the bus and I would be homebound.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Johnson says relying on the bus has affected his job opportunities.
Johnson: there have been jobs that I couldn’t take because the bus simply wouldn’t be able to get me there in time to start.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: He says a temp agency found him a job in Beaverton, a city west of Portland, but the bus he would need to take to get there started running at 6:30 a.m.
Johnson: they wanted me to start at 6:00 so there’d be no way I could feasibly make it in time without leaving at 4:00 and getting there twenty minutes late.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Cameron isn’t just a transit dependent rider though, he’s also deeply involved in transit activism. He’s an active member of the transit justice group OPAL Organizing People Activating Leaders- volunteering to organize bus riders into a collective force to influence TriMet’s policies.
Johnson: we started working on making the service better for transit dependent people – like myself – and I realized that a lot of what is going on isn’t just unfair – it’s a lot of B.S. going on there.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: TriMet, who didnt make anyone available to be interviewed for this story uses fare increases and service cuts as a way to balance their budget, which has had persistent shortfalls since 2009 because of the faltering economy.
Here’s TriMet CEO Neal McFarlane speaking on Oregon Public Broadcasting in February 2012 February about what he calls a “budget crisis’ projected for 2013:
McFarlane: Over the last 4 years we’ve actually reduced our budget trajectory by 60 million dollars – that was through the Great Recession – so we’ve had to make some reductions of both bus and MAX service over those last 4 years and I think people are generally telling us enough is enough related to service cuts. But they did tell us that there is some tolerance for increased fares. So our recomendations rely more heavily on fare increases than service reductions.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: But TriMet also predicted a budget crisis the year before. Khan Pham, who is now working towards her doctorate in Urban Planning at PSU, was the Communications Director of OPAL last year. A disclaimer–she also worked for this radio program before moving to Portland. Pham says Tri-Met was caught bluffing in 2012.
Pham: the budget crisis that they projected, never materialized, they were basing it on projections that didn’t turn out to be true. And those super conservative projections, ended up being the, ended up having to be born by the most vulnerable people, by the people who couldn’t afford the fare cuts, it turned out we didn’t need.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: And the 2014 budget, which came out in early March, shows that TriMet received $28 million dollars more in revenue than they had predicted in 2012. And even though TriMet management told the public that they were in the middle of a three year pay freeze, TriMet executives are receiving pay raises totaling almost a million dollars. On the positive side, there wont be any new service cuts, but service will not be returned to pre-2012 levels.
Johnson: throughout my work at OPAL I have become both very jaded to what TriMet does and very empowered to what the people can do.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: OPAL brings bus riders like Cameron Johnson together in their transit justice program, Bus Riders Unite, to protest fare hikes and service cuts. They reach out to poor people and people of color, who are most likely to be affected by service changes.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Last June OPAL had dozens of members testify in front of the TriMet Board to demand it reject planned cuts to service. Jared Franz is the transportation policy assistant with OPAL.
Franz: “In talking to bus riders and members of the community, not only do people have a hard time getting where they’re going, on a single ticket, especially people like single mothers who have to make a multiple stop, maybe they’re taking uh having to drop off a child at day care before getting back on the bus to go to work, but TriMet has been cutting bus service for years. Since 2004 they’ve cut over 170 thousand hours of bus service, so its getting harder and harder for people to make their connections.”
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Franz says Tri-met has raised fares 70 percent over the same time period as they’ve made all those cuts to the service. A trip to the grocery store by bus that takes longer than two hours now costs 5 dollars.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: OPAL had proposed their own alternative budget for Tri-Met, which would leave bus service at 2012 levels. Although it was rejected, they’re now working to retain a city wide program giving Portland Public School students free bus passes to get to and from class, which is in jeopardy of being cut. They’re campaigning to get transfer times extended from two hours to three. And they’re trying to re-invest in outer southeast Portland.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Again, OPAL activist and transit dependent bus rider, Cameron Johnson:
Johnson: People need transit, people need to have reliable transit and people need to stop having to have worse transit because TriMet knows that they’re a captive audience. They know that they can cut bus service and people will just be forced to stick around and that’s something that I’m not ever ok with and I’m not ok with people misunderstanding. I think Transit dependant people need a voice and TriMet needs to recognize that and everyone needs to recognize that.
For Making Contact, with Eric Klein, I’m Jennifer Kemp, in Portland, Oregon.
Should Buenos Aires’ trains be Re-Nationalized?
Steltzer: The trains of Greater Buenos Aires, Argentina are falling apart. Every weekday, their carriages are filled with commuters on their way to the city. Despite irregular service, it’s still the fastest and cheapest way to get to work. But the cars are old; the rails are worn; the wooden covers on the electric third rail are often rotten or missing entirely. So how did it get this way? Well a group of trainworkers and student activists says the problem is that private companies have been put in charge of this public transit system, and aren’t giving it the attention it needs. The only solution, they say, would be to put the trains back under state control. And they’re organizing to do just that. From Buenos Aires, Eilís O’Neill has more.
O’Neill: Every day, three million people from Greater Buenos Aires enter the city to go to work. Hundreds of thousands of them get there by train. In the south and west of the city, many of the people that ride the trains are poor or working class, and the trains they take are in terrible shape. For years, video game tester Laura Rodríguez rode one of these lines every day.
Laura Rodríguez: Hasta que no lo tenés que tomar todos los días en hora pico, realmente no llegás a entender lo horrible que es viajar ahí. Cuando llega el tren lleno, está tan lleno que hay gente en la puerta y no podés entrar. Cuando tenés que llegar a tu laburo, a horario, tenés que empujar, y es re violento. Es re feo. A mí me han arrancado la ropa. Una vez, una nena se cayó entre la andén y el tren. Se cayó ahí porque la gente estaba empujando para entrar. Y la nena lloraba, y la gente le pasaba por al lado. A mí lo que se me ocurrió hacer fue hacer como un muro con mis brazos para que no la tocara y para que la puedan levantar tranquilamente. Y putean mucho.
Until you have to take the train every day at rush hour, you don’t really understand how horrible they are. When the train is full, it’s so full that there are people in the doors and you can’t get on. When you have to get to work on time, you have to push, and it’s really violent. It’s horrible. I’ve had my clothes ripped off me. Once, a little girl fell between the platform and the train. She fell there because people were pushing to get on. And the girl was crying, and the people just walked by. What occurred to me to do was to make a wall with my arms so that her mother could lift her out. And people swore at me.
O’Neill: In the 1990s, under neoliberal president Carlos Menem, Argentina underwent a wave of privatization. The government granted the operation of the trains of greater Buenos Aires to private companies. The state still owns the rails and the cars, and it controls the ticket prices and gives subsidies to the concessionary companies that operate the lines. But Edgardo Reynoso, a third generation train-worker and an organizer of the Sarmiento Line Trainworkers’ Union, says those subsidies aren’t always used to maintain the transit system.
Edgardo Reynoso: Lejos de invertir en el sistema ferroviario, desviaron esos fondos—los fondos públicos—hacia sus cuentas personales. Nosotros hemos hecho investigaciones en que hemos encontrado a concesionarios depósitos en paraísos fiscales.
Far from investing in the trains, the people that manage the trains deposited the public money in their personal accounts. We’ve done investigations in which we’ve found the CEOs of concessionary companies with deposits in tax havens.
O’Neill: The drain on public resources and the poor state of the trains went on for years…until February of 2012. On the Sarmiento Line, in western Buenos Aires, an accident brought attention to the disrepair. A train’s brakes failed as it was coming into the station. Unlike newer cars, which slide on top of each other during accidents, the first two cars smashed together. Fifty-one passengers were killed and hundreds more were wounded. Laura Rodríguez was on that train.
Laura Rodríguez: Tratamos de levantar a la gente pero pesaban como una tonelada cada uno. Tratamos de organizarnos para que los que estaban heridos se quedaran adentro del tren, y cuando venían los médicos, que los revisaran ahí. Fuimos caminando para adelante para salir. Y cuando llegamos a ver el primer y el segundo vagón, estaban incrustados el uno con el otro. No parecían dos vagones: parecía uno. Y mucha sangre negra. Eso me dio mucha impresión. Era negra la sangre—re densa.
We tried to pick up the people that had fallen but each one weighed a ton. We tried to organize ourselves so that the wounded could stay inside the train, so the medics could take care of them there. Then we walked along the platform to leave. And when we got to the first and second cars, they were jammed together. They didn’t look like two cars: they looked like one car. And there was a lot of black blood. That shocked me. The blood was black—really dense.
O’Neill: After the accident, the government intervened in the Sarmiento Line and now operates it in conjunction with two private transportation companies. For more than half a year, there have been no trains at night or on Sundays and holidays, so that workers can repair the tracks.
Reynoso, who started organizing the workers of the Sarmiento Line in the late 1990s, says his union has always asked for more maintenance of the trains and tracks and that, as a result of last year’s accident, the government is finally listening.
Edgardo Reynoso: Bueno, acá estamos en Once. Es inconcebible pensar que en este lugar de tanto tráfico de trenes—estamos hablando de 350.000 personas al día—haya estado tan deteriorado. Ahí estás viendo una cantidad de rieles que se están amontonando. En este sector falta todavía cambiar los rieles. Si, por ahí, si deslizás un poquito más la mirada, vas a ver aquellos rieles bastante desgastados.
Here we are in the Once Station. It’s inconceivable to think that this site of so much traffic—we’re talking about 350,000 people every day—was so dilapidated. There you can see the new rails in a pile; in this part they still need to change the rails. If you look that way, you’ll see the worn-out rails.
O’Neill: Not all passengers feel reassured by the repairs. After the accident, Laura Rodríguez started taking the bus to work, even though it cost five times as much as the train and took half an hour longer. Transportation planner Olga Vicente says the loss of train passengers is going to put the entire transportation system of greater Buenos Aires in crisis.
Olga Vicente: Hay una pérdida notable de pasajeros en las vías ferroviarias en los últimos tres años. Creo que entre los automóviles, los chárteres, y los colectivos, han llevado los pasajeros que fue desgranando el tren.
There has been a notable loss of passengers in the train lines during the last three years. The passengers that left the trains now commute in personal cars, shuttle buses, and regular buses.
O’Neill: A group of trainworkers and student activists has come together to demand the renationalization of the trains. They say doing so would not only improve conditions for those who currently ride but could also tempt former passengers back out of their cars and buses and onto the rails. Student activist Adrián Lutvak says putting the trains under state control would create the possibility for central planning and greater transparency.
Adrián Lutvak: No es que ponga expectativas máximas ni en este gobierno ni en el estado en particular. Lo que yo creo es que cuando el estado es el que ejerce esa potestad sobre ese servicio, hay mucha mayor posibilidad de control, de disputa.
It’s not that I have high expectations either for this government or for the state in general. What I believe is that when the state controls the trains, it’s much easier to control and dispute decisions.
Lutvak isn’t alone in the struggle to renationalize the trains. Juan Carlos Cena was a trainworker for forty-four years and is now the president of the National Movement for the Recovery of Argentina’s Trains. He says Argentina should look at Spain’s overhaul of its trains, begun in the 1990s, for a model of how far a national railroad system can come in a short time.
Juan Carlos Cena: Cuando España tuvo que modificar los ferrocarriles, toda esta estructura, porque entraba en el Mercado Común Europeo, Felipe González estructuró todos los ferrocarriles; cambió el ancho de las vías; electrificó todo, todo, todo. Capacitó al personal. No te imaginás cómo trabajaron los sindicatos. Trabajó todo el mundo. Y hoy, los ferrocarriles españoles están fabricando trenes de alta velocidad.
When Spain had to change its railroads, all that infrastructure, because it was entering the European Common Market, then-prime minister Felipe González restructured all the railroads, changed the width of the rails, and made everything electric. He trained the employees. You can’t imagine how hard the unions worked—how hard everyone worked. And, today, the Spanish railroads are making high-speed trains.
O’Neill: Cena says Spain’s ability to overhaul its trains shows how the government has the resources, the planning capability, and the long-term and national-level vision required to overhaul a transportation system.
Juan Carlos Cena: Es decir, que el desarrollo tecnológico y las grandes inversiones para ese desarrollo tecnológico y la conservación la conoce el estado. El privado el único que busca es la ganancia, nada más.
Only the state can manage big-scale technological development and the huge investments necessary for that technological development. Private companies only want profits, nothing else.
O’Neill: The profits that the transportation companies of greater Buenos Aires are reaping come from government subsidies, not ticket sales. Many passengers, especially those on the Sarmiento Line, say they pay only occasionally—or never.
Sergio: No one pays, nowadays. After the accident, no one has ever paid. They stopped asking for the tickets.
Julián Rebón: Eso tiene que ver precisamente con bajar los niveles de disconformidad. Y hay, en la lógica de la población: “Bueno, si no pagás, no tenés derecho de quejarte, ¿no? Bueno, viajás gratis”. ¿No?
This has to do with lowering passenger dissatisfaction. There is, in people’s logic: “Well, if you don’t pay, you don’t have the right to complain, right? Well, at least you commute for free.”
O’Neill: But sociology professor Julián Rebón says the better way to lower passenger dissatisfaction is the more expensive way: to improve service and prevent accidents. And he adds that the whole idea that the trains of greater Buenos Aires could or should bring monetary profits is faulty.
Julián Rebón: La ganancia de un sistema de transporte como el ferroviario es precisamente en los aspectos sociales positivos que genera, ¿no? Genera como un sector de población se puede trasladar hace su lugar de trabajo. Genera menos contaminación. Genera menos embotellamiento. Genera menos hechos de violencia. Genera un montón de cosas, ¿no?
The profits from a transportation system like the trains lie in their positive social effects. The trains make it so people can get to work. They cut down on pollution. They cut down on traffic. They reduce violence. They have a lot of positive effects.
O’Neill: A number of legislators agree that the trains are a necessary public good that needs to be renationalized, and they’ve written bills to that effect. One of those bills, written by Victoria Donda, a leftist opposition member of the Chamber of Deputies, would nationalize not only the trains of greater Buenos Aires but the railroads of the entire country. The federal company created to run these trains would be directed by one representative from the executive, one from the provincial railroads, one from the workers, one from the passengers, and one from the cargo train users. Juan Carlos Cena, of the National Movement for the Recovery of Argentina’s Trains, says right now there’s not the political will that would be necessary to renationalize the trains—but that there will be.
Juan Carlos Cena: El tren vuelve. El tren vuelve como volvió en todos los países del mundo.
The train comes back, says Cena. It will come back as it did all over the world.
For Making Contact, I’m Eilís O’Neill in Buenos Aires, Argentina.