Friday, 24 February 2012

Disaster on El Sarmiento

With fifty fatalities, over six hundred injured and at the time of writing, the recent re-emergence of two of the three unaccounted for passengers more than 48 hours after the accident, the crashing of the Sarmiento train at Once station in Buenos Aires is the worst train accident in Argentina since the 1979 head on collision of two trains near Benavidez station when over 140 people lost their lives.

The dramatic and distressing images of carnage and trapped passengers that were broadcast live over Argentine television were sometimes hard to watch as the severity of the incident became more and more paramount with the increasing numbers of official dead.

The Sarmiento train is the one that I use most weekends in Buenos Aires to visit my wife’s family who live in Moreno and we have many friends who use the service to commute to Capital for work. We therefore spent a number of hours confirming that no one with whom we were acquainted was involved in the accident. But as my wife’s sister said on her Facebook page shortly afterwards, ‘it could have been any of us who use the Sarmiento on that train. May this serve once and for all to end the negligence.’

Her comment was a good one. Anyone who travels on the Sarmiento, and many of the other train lines in Buenos Aires, will testify that this was one of many accidents just waiting to happen.

The Sarmiento has long been a dangerous ride. And we’re not talking about the insecurity and crime that, yes, does happen on a regular basis; accept it or not having your mobile stolen by a fellow passenger, your handbag grabbed off your lap through the window by a young boy or girl cruising the platforms, or putting up with the constant marijuana aroma floating through the train from the bike carriage, are all things that one has to put up with when using the Sarmiento. And neither are we talking about the dirty and run down interiors with beaten up and missing seats, the smashed windows or broken doors which open and close incessantly at stations. Nor are we talking about the crammed carriages and the feeling of travelling like a herd of cows. All that is something one gets used to whether you were born in Zona Oeste and have no alternative but to use the Sarmiento, or whether you have come from the other side of the world and now require the service to get the countryside for Sunday asados. We are instead talking about a total and utter disregard for safety which as my wife’s sister stated, is pure and utter negligence on the part of political officials and the private company TBA which operates the Sarmiento. 

It is still not clear why the train didn’t stop in time when it arrived in Once, colliding with the stop barriers. Whether it was human error on the part of the driver or a technical fault with the brakes is being investigated. A representative from the transport union, Rubren Sobrero, says the train had come out of the yard a day earlier and there were no signs of faulty brakes, ‘it braked without problem at previous stations,’ he said.

But are we to trust these maintenance records when the evidence of negligence of maintenance is all around us?

Take for example the state of the tracks. Those who have travelled on Buenos Aires trains will note that they bump a lot. This can be due to low joints or waterlogged tracks and can be very dangerous. I spoke with a civil engineer who has more than forty years experience with the maintenance of railway tracks in the United Kingdom. When he saw the state of the tracks in Buenos Aires he was astounded. The ballast, he explained to me, is the rock that the sleepers lie on; it filters away water and spreads the weight of the train. Due to a lack of proper care the ballasts can get contaminated with dust and dirt and will eventually cease to do their job correctly. This is known as a contaminated ballast and will lead to water logging. When this happens he explained, a wet bed forms (see photo) and the wooden sleepers begin to disintegrate. They then also fail to do their job properly and this leads to movement in the fittings and hence the bumping when the train runs over that spot.

A wet bed on the Sarmiento line
It is easy to say that comparing Buenos Aires railways with British ones is unfair because the country just doesn’t have the financial resources that the UK has, but let’s not kid ourselves. There was enough money around to fund the proposed Bullet train venture linking Buenos Aires to Cordoba and the lack of maintenance on Buenos Aires commuter railways is due to a systematic failure and disregard for those who are not wealthy enough to drive to the city.

The tracks in Buenos Aires are absolutely infiltrated by wet beds. When a wet bed is spotted in the United Kingdom, it is reported, and depending on the severity, trains are either slowed down or completely stopped while the wet bed is dug out and the ballast replaced, possibly within hours of the sighting. In extreme cases the line is closed while the sleepers and ballast are taken up and replaced. In Buenos Aires it is clear that these wet beds are ignored over long periods of time and the bumping, which is at times very extreme, is tolerated.

To make things worse, the tracks in Buenos Aires are at least thirty years out of date. They are the jointed tracks which were the norm when the Argentine railway was constructed in the middle of the nineteenth century. Jointed tracks are those that are made up of separate lengths of rail joined together by what are known as fish plates. In the United Kingdom jointed tracks have been replaced over the last twenty to thirty years by CWR (Continuous Welded Rail). There is nothing all that wrong with jointed tracks so long as all fittings are maintained on a regular basis. On the Buenos Aires system there should be six bolts in the fish plates but it’s often the case here that two or three are missing. Poor maintenance can cause the joints to dip and this can lead to further wear and tear on the end of the rail, called rail end batter. The passenger will feel bumping and with all the banging down of the train on the rails, the bolts and the fish plates come under stress and the worst case scenario is the breaking of the fish plates or the breaking of the end of the rail and possible derailment. A fatal disaster waiting to happen but yet ignored.

Grass on the Mitre line at Lisandro de la Torre
Station is an obvious sign of wet beds. Where
there's no water there's no grass.
If the track is so neglected then we can safely assume that the same goes for the trains themselves. Drivers have often complained to their bosses of faulty equipment on board but they too have been ignored.

Argentina’s Auditor-General Leandro Despouy has stated that years of failed safety tests and other problems made this accident foreseeable and preventable. In 2008, Argentina’s General audit (AGN) revealed that the TBA company (which holds the concessions to operate the Sarmiento and Mitre lines) demonstrated high levels of failure to comply with orders and procedures and had been failing safety tests since 2002.

‘Back in 2008 we had verification of dramatic and alarming brake problems," Despouy said and he recommend that the government end the concession to TBA.

TBA took over the running of the Sarmiento when it was privatised in 1995 in what many suggest was a rushed and bunged deal which did not do enough to stipulate how much of TBA’s future income would have to be invested in maintenance and safety measures.

The company blames the lack of investment on government price controls suggesting that the low ticket price of $1.35(35 US cents) from Once to Moreno is not enough to fund improvements.

Roque Cirigliano, TBA's trains director, who also happens to be a cousin of the company's owners, has stated that the Sarmiento trains are safe, and said TBA ‘has spent more on maintenance than other Argentine railroad companies.’  The company highlights on its website that because the government keeps prices low to benefit working-class Argentines, TBA struggles to cover operating costs, provide higher quality service, and attract private financing to fund improvements.

Whether the lack of investment is due to company greed or the politics of the government, that old word corruption as always plays a part. The former transport secretary Ricardo Jaime is still awaiting trial for allegedly accepting free holidays and other gifts from executives of TBA in exchange for favourable treatment.

The current situation of Argentina’s railway all seems a long way from its beginnings. The building of the railway system in Argentina was begun by the British in 1855 and by 1914 it was the tenth biggest system in the world and the envy of South America. The system has gone through nationalisation in 1946 and then reprivatisation between 1992 and 1995 and has deteriorated massively over the years. This is the outcome of decades of mismanagement and political ineptitude. One can only hope that the fifty who perished in the accident at Once station did not die in vain, but as my wife’s sister said, serve to end the negligence of the train companies and the government once and for all, and to highlight that Argentines deserve to travel with more dignity on far far safer trains.

Further reading
Commuter trains in Buenos Aires - Downbound or upbound


  1. A terrible tragedy. A thoughtful and useful article though with an interesting technical perspective from your source - however did you manage to obtain that?!

  2. Its true the sarmiento is a disaster during a long time. Did you travel on la linea Roca?

  3. Have used the Roca a few times to go to Longchamps but in my experience the Sarmiento is worse.