Argentine trains still perilous a year after crash

  • Article by: JESSICA WEISS
  • Associated Press
  • February 21, 2013 - 8:30 PM

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - The bustling "Once de Septiembre" station in the heart of Buenos Aires looks much the same as it did nearly a year ago, when Argentina's worst train accident in 40 years shook this ornate building.

Except for a new coat of paint and a few renovated platforms, the same decades-old trains shuttle in and out, moving tens of thousands of passengers every day between this city's center and its working class outskirts.

Revisiting the echoing terminal on a recent afternoon, Maria Lujan Rey said there's one more thing that hasn't changed since Feb. 22, 2012: The trains are still unsafe.

She lost her 20-year-old son, Lucas Menghini, last year at Once, as the station is popularly known, when the lead car of a packed commuter train hit a shock-absorbing barrier and sent the next car crunching into it. The crash killed 51 people and injured 800 others, unleashing national outrage at the sorry state of the country's once-proud rail system. Lucas was the last victim to be found, 60 hours after the crash.

Like other victims' relatives as well as passengers, Lujan Rey said the government's response so far has been cosmetic at best, and has exposed what they say is systemic, deadly corruption at the highest levels.

"What you see here are the same cars that caused the tragedy," Lujan Rey told reporters in the station while gripping the hand of Graciela Bottega, the mother of 24-year-old train crash victim Tatiana Pontiroli. "They've improved the tracks that were rusted and at least 60 years old. But we're running the risk of this happening again, because (the government) has not taken charge of what happened, and this is something we could have avoided."

"It's hard for me to come here," Lujan Rey said, "but I come to seek justice."

President Cristina Fernandez has certainly tried to show her country that she too is seeking justice and is fixing the problems.

An appeals court investigation has produced criminal charges against 28 people, including two former transportation secretaries and two executives, Claudio and Mario Cirigliano, who prosecutors say made a fortune on transportation subsidies intended for trains. The conductor, Marcos Cordoba, who narrowly survived the crash, has also been charged. A trial is expected to start by early next year.

Fernandez promised this month that her government will invest $3.5 billion to repair train cars, rail lines and stations. She said that by next year trains using the Sarmiento and Mitre lines, which run through the Once station, would be replaced with more than 400 Chinese-made cars equipped with "televisions and air conditioning."

In that 45-minute speech, however, she made no mention of the train disaster. And on Thursday night's eve of the crash anniversary, she likewise declined to apologize or take responsibility for any systemic failures during the 10 years in which she and her husband, the late President Nestor Kirchner, have run the country.

"I want to pay homage to the victims of the Once tragedy," she said. "I know that the loss of a loved one is irreparable, but there is the justice system, to determine responsibilities." In a move more symbolic than anything, train operators no longer charge passengers to travel to Once on the line where the crash happened.

"What we have to do is transform the Sarmiento line," Florencio Randazzo, minister of the interior and transportation, said in January. "The best way to honor those who lost their lives on the line is to have a better line."

Those who ride the rails to work every day said they have yet to see the improvements. All the old dangers still plague the system, they said, with passengers enduring cars packed so tightly that they must hang their arms out the windows, and cars operating without their full complement of brakes due to shortages of spare parts.

In a modern rail system, most of the deaths might have been avoided because the train cars wouldn't have crumpled so easily. At the time of the crash, the cars were traveling only 12 mph, but the trains used in much of Argentina aren't built to withstand hard stops after hitting a shock-absorbing barrier, which functioned correctly in the Once case.

Car insurance company manager Daniela Suarez, 38, said all the government talk has so far produced no changes.

"They haven't improved anything since the crash, nothing," Suarez said. "The only thing that's been done is to stop charging for the ticket. But that obviously doesn't fix anything."

At the heart of the criticism is a privatized rail system that critics say offers generous public subsidies to contractors with little government oversight. Regulators have since taken over the company Trenes de Buenos Aires that ran the line involved in the crash.

Since 2003, when Kirchner took office, the federal government has invested $4 billion in rail infrastructure and invested hundreds of millions of dollars a year in subsidies to keep ticket prices low.

Unhappiness with the rail system has nonetheless grown. Many people's suspicions about the arrangement were confirmed when the Cirigliano brothers, co-owners of Trenes de Buenos Aires, were charged with fraudulent mismanagement of state funds. In a damning finding, the appeals court wrote that "the progressive deterioration of the trains, and with it, the increase of risks" plagued the system and said the disaster resulted from the "breaking of the ... obligations of the concession contract."

The Ciriglianos' defenders said the vast majority of the subsidies were exhausted paying ever-higher salaries, and blamed the government for granting pay raises without increasing other train investments in inflationary Argentina. But Judge Claudio Bonadio also found the contractors practiced a "regular and growing abandonment of the primary maintenance tasks."

The interior minister, Randazzo, accused the Ciriglianos of "a lack of commitment," while acknowledging that the government's contract with them has been an embarrassment.

The court charged the two former transportation secretaries, Ricardo Jaime and Juan Pablo Sciavi, with failing to fulfill their public duties, fraud, unintentional damage of property, illicit association and rail attack. The train driver has been charged with entering the station at high speed.

All 28 defendants charged in connection to the accident are banned from leaving the country and cannot be away from their residences for more than 24 hours.

The Ciriglianos' company blamed the driver for the accident; he said the brakes had failed. A recent poll by the firm CK Consultores found that 46 percent of Argentines believe the federal government was ultimately responsible.

A year later, the crash remains a potent political threat for Fernandez, particularly since the Sarmiento line serves hundreds of thousands of people in the working-class neighborhoods that are key to her political base. Families plan a series of memorials on Friday, including a mass protest outside the presidential palace.

Angel Cerricio, who lost his son Matias and daughter-in-law Natalia in the crash, said he's ready for action, and not more promises of new Chinese-made train cars and other fixes.

"When someone promises something and they don't comply, that to me is a lie," Cerricio said. "I am tired of these lies from the president."


Associated Press writer Debora Rey contributed to this report.

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