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Off and on Argentina’s rail system

To travel hopefully, it is said, is better than to arrive. When it comes to rail travel in Argentina – a country whose vast expanses are criss-crossed with tens of thousands of kilometres of track, mostly unused since privatisation in the early 1990s – the hopefulness can evaporate before the travelling has even begun: my determination to travel entirely by surface transport during our stay having already been sorely tested by the suspension of services on the Tren Patágonico from December 2008 to March 2009 (though happily this is back in service), news and travellers’ blog reports about the terrible state of the track and well-publicised delays and cancellations.

Retro cafe at Retiro Station

Retro cafe at Retiro Station

Arriving at Retiro station in Buenos Aires for our trip to Tucumán and the north-western provinces, all appeared well as we settled down for a coffee in the smart café, redolent of old-style railway stations before some bright spark decided there weren’t enough shopping centres in the world and decided to turn stations into retail opportunities, all bright lights and fast food.

Appearances turned out to be deceptive however, and five hours later the view was of a spot only a few short kilometres down the track:

The train, it turned out, was not running today. There would, instead, be a replacement bus service. Not that this information was being made readily available: it took persistent questioning (along the lines of so where is the actual train then) to get Ferrocentral to admit that, actually, there wasn’t one and even more to tell us that the bus service was to be exclusively in the “semi-cama” (half-bed) class: while that mightn”t sound too bad Argentina is not immune to the kind of name inflation that sees first and second class replaced by premier and standard (the train has four classes of travel of which “first” class is the second-lowest) and semi-cama is just a fancy name for a seat that reclines slightly and is a long way from the wide, comfortable, flat beds offered by some bus companies on long distance routes. We declined the offer of 24 hours in a sitting position, unable to read or work, and regretfully headed for the airport. Refusing to let experience triumph over hope I did book my return trip from Tucumán: they must run sometimes!

So it was that some five days later I once again travelled hopefully to the railway station, this time in Tucumán. Rather more austere than its counterpart in Buenos Aires, this station has no smart café, nor did it have left luggage lockers (though happily I found a hotel on the other side of the square that minded my rucksack for a couple of hours so I could wander round the town) but it did, almost unbelievably, have a train. A very popular one too, with the queues snaking out and round the block, while street vendors made sure everyone was well provided for with water, choripan (sausage in a bun) and other travel essentials.

Tucumán station

Passengers converge on Tucumán Station

It’s one of the ironies of the crumbling rail network that the few trains that do run are hugely popular, and significantly cheaper than the buses despite a 30% fare increase (on this route anyway) at the beginning of May. Hopefully the extra funds will be used to improve the track, and possibly expand the service.

The train turned out to be modern and comfortable. My sleeping compartment was narrow but pleasant enough, with a sink which, with the lid closed, doubled as a small table and – joy of joys – a power point for my laptop. Laptop, camera, various books, my mate – the tea-like drink everybody carries around with them – and the scenery sliding slowly past outside: what more could one ask for?

The train’s comfort was in sharp contrast to the urban Argentina unrolling outside the window as we left Tucumán: railways rarely travel through the best suburbs and here I was seeing a part of Argentina that for the most part remains hidden most of the time.

The track is lined with children coming out, as children do everywhere, to wave the train on its way as it passes very nearly through their living space – “house” would be altogether too grand a word. A wide variety of makeshift structures are visible, from the small but immaculately maintained to some that are only recognisable as a place where someone lives because of the washing-line outside.

Horses, dogs and even pigs wander through the settlements, some of which also seem to double as municipal tips. These are the people that service the cities, recycle the cardboard and plastic bottles and sell small items on the streets largely ignored by the wealthier parts of the population and indeed the entire political system.

Leaving the city though, the outlook improved steadily. The sun sank below the cordillera de los Andes, lighting the western sky with a spectacular orange glow, as if there was a huge ball of fire behind the mountains – which, of course, there was.

Meanwhile, urban slum gave way to small, rural, chacras or smallholdings that, while sometimes build from much the same selection of available materials were much neater, better maintained and generally with an air of greater prosperity.

As darkness fell, I headed for the restaurant car. If I were Paul Theroux or Eric Newby, I would have fascinating tales to tell of my fellow travellers who would have been queueing up to tell me their life-stories. Even Bill Bryson would have had the odd anecdote about a child picking their nose as he ate his soup. Sadly though, the restaurant car was empty apart from me and one young man with his nose buried in a book: clearly this wasn’t going to be one of those moments around which an entire book could be woven. The food though was good, if heavy on the red meat – the vegetarian option is “bring sandwiches”.

The morning brought an altogether different type of scenery: the flat plains and farmland of the province of Santa Fé. The restaurant car was livelier, though the breakfast seemed designed to make sure you’d be really starving by lunch and no-one seemed that inclined to strike up a conversation with the dishevelled looking bearded old man in the corner.

The little family group – a dad and his daughters who may or may not have been twins – shows the benefit of the train: the ability to move around and to sit and chat at a table, rather than trying to eat your breakfast while staring at the back of your neighbour’s seat and trying to keep your elbows out of the way of the person next to you.

And so the day continued, passing through vast plains, some small towns and the city of Rosario on the way back finally to Buenos Aires where the train disgorged us into an unseasonal heatwave. There’s no question in my mind: if it runs, the route is even open and the timetable permits – three big ifs – the train is the way to go.

Distance is relative.

Argentina's rail network superimposed on Europe: thanks Wikipedia

It is difficult for Europeans to appreciate the distances involved in travel in South America: wikipedia has this nice map superimposing the old railway network on a map of Europe.

My trip, Tucumán to Buenos Aires, translates roughly as the equivalent distance between Carlisle and Berne – a journey which even with our high-speed rail networks takes (according to a minimum of about 18 hours, so maybe Argentines shouldn’t beat themselves up too much over the 25 hour journey time.

More by this author on his own blog.

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