Last Wednesday, an eight-car commuter train headed into a station named Once in Buenos Aires at the normal speed of 21 kilometers per hour (about 16 miles per hour). The track ahead dead-ended past the platform, so it was even more important than usual that the train slow down and stop at the right place. On a CCTV recording, you can see that the train simply keeps moving at the same speed until the lead car hits the buffers at the end of the track. A cloud of brownish dust flies up to obscure what becomes all too clear seconds later: the second car telescopes inside the first car, killing a total of 51 people, and injuring about 700—about half of all the people on the train. Saturday, after relatives of a man who was not officially listed as missing kept up intense pressure on rescue workers, the man’s body—the 51st victim—was finally pulled from the wreckage, touching off riots in Buenos Aires.
Railway fatalities have nearly as long a history as railways. One of the first successful steam locomotives, George Stephenson’s Rocket, was responsible in 1830 for the death of William Hoskisson, a well-known member of Parliament who failed to notice the approaching train until it was too late and fell on the tracks. Stephenson himself drove the train carrying the dying Hoskisson to hospital, but to no avail. Ironically, Hoskisson’s death was so widely reported that it served to draw worldwide attention to the beneficial aspects of the new railway technology as well as its dangers.
An investigation will be needed before all the essential facts are known about the Argentine disaster. But the driver survived and told reporters that the brakes failed, and that he had tried to contact supervisors by radio earlier about brake problems but was told to “carry on.” Earlier accidents have happened in the same area, and poor maintenance has been cited as a contributory factor in the past. Recordings, inspection of equipment, and other evidence will either confirm or contradict the driver’s claims. But a lot can be learned already from the way the Buenos Aires commuter rail transportation system is operated.
Privately owned companies contract with the government for the privilege of operating the trains, but apparently they are restricted by regulations governing fares and fare increases. It is often useful in engineering-ethics situations to list the interested and affected parties in the case. In this situation the major players are: (1) the commuting public, which has only indirect control of the system through their elected representatives’ regulations, but has to use and pay for the system; (2) the railway workers, including operating and maintenance personnel; (3) the management and owners of the private firms that run the railway concessions; (4) the Argentine government agencies and officials who regulate, deal with, inspect, and investigate railways and incidents such as this accident; and (5) the general Argentine public which does not ride the Buenos Aires commuter-rail system, but which elects government officials, pays taxes, and shares in such national tragedies as railway accidents of this kind.
Worldwide, rail-based public transportation systems are rarely profitable on a strictly private-enterprise basis, despite the superficial attractiveness of monopoly status and large customer bases. Despite economies of scale, the personnel, maintenance, and upkeep costs of rail systems would price them out of the market they are intended to serve—namely, the poorer populace who can’t afford cars—if they charged enough to both make a reasonable profit and reinvest sufficiently to allow for depreciation of equipment and so on. This is why, after a disastrous experiment with private ownership of subways in New York City around the turn of the 20th century, the city government took over all of them and now operates the subways with a deficit made up with general tax revenues.
The Buenos Aires system went the other way a decade or so ago: the national railway system was largely privatized. Faced with a situation where raising fares is not an option, a private firm compelled to make a profit is going to cut costs by deferring maintenance and improvements. But you can only do that so far until something dreadful happens such as the accident of last week.
The particular question of what immediately caused this accident will very likely be cleared up in a matter of months, if not weeks. But that leaves the larger problem of how to make sure that accidents like this don’t happen again. For every major accident with a mechanical cause, there are usually dozens of near-miss incidents that serve as warnings to perceptive engineers and operators, unless their hands are tied by lack of resources. It looks like major changes will be needed in the economics and management of Argentine commuter rail lines if we can hope to avoid another such disaster in the future.
Sources: I used several articles on the accident, specifically these: from the BBC news services at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-17169315 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-17149814, Britain’s Daily Mirror at http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/buenos-aires-train-crash-violence-743309, and Yahoo News at http://news.yahoo.com/argentine-train-crash-kills-49-people-hurts-600-162519779.html.