BUENOS AIRES - The train works. And almost every time it leaves from Constitution Station in Buenos Aires, it reaches its destination, Mar del Plata, 410 Kilometers to the south. It works, which means that it functions in the most basic sense of the word: it moves.
It repeats the trip every day of the year, which is why the service is called ‘daily.’ On the way to Mar del Plata, the six hour and 20 minute train is more accurately described as ‘nightly.’ It works. The train rocks brusquely from side to side, in a disconcerting movement that imitates an earthquake simulator. Every once and a while the movement is vertical and the passengers’ rear ends are momentarily unstuck from their seats, like when are airplane hits an air pocket. The train runs along the tracks, although the sound it makes is more like a metallic groan of being dragged along.
The formation moves. And then it stops suddenly, for no particular reason. The passengers are used to the windows broken by stones, the bathrooms without water or paper, the defeated and torn seats. They travel and live with the ample evidence of years, possibly decades, of abandon and neglect.
At Buenos Aires’ Constitution Station, 180 people get on the train, filling the six wagons more than halfway, and the train lurches towards its destination on the Atlantic coast right on time, at 11:05 pm. It is a Wednesday, and most of the passengers are headed to Mar del Plata for work.
Most of the people sleep huddled up in the seats of the ‘single class,’ which cost 78 pesos ($17), with no heat and a restroom equipped with an endless toilet bowl through which one can watch the tracks go by. The single class wagons all resemble each other: hooded figures in a fetal position, or wrapped in all sorts of blankets or embracing themselves to combat the cold and dream of a more pleasant voyage, which have the added advantage of making the time pass more quickly.
The insomniacs gather between wagons to warm up, smoking different kinds of cigarettes, some legal, others not. Some drink mate or fill plastic cups with red wine - everything serves to chase the wet, cold air out of the body. Others let themselves shiver in silence. Almost nobody complains.
In the ‘Pullman class’ wagons, which cost 108 pesos ($23), it is the opposite: the heat is so overpowering that people can’t sleep. In the middle of the night, a woman comes out of a Pullman wagon, dressed in a sweat suit. She can’t stand the heat and is afraid that when she steps out into the cold when we arrive, she’ll get sick. She freshens up in the sink in the bathroom, but looks for the mirror only to find its shape drawn on the wall with the glue that at one point held it up.
Some people blame the company for the neglect. For others, like the woman in the sweat suit, it’s the passengers who “don’t take care of anything and break everything.” At least during our trip, there are no security personnel to prevent passengers from damaging things.
Ghosts of glory days past
From the train’s glory days, when it took half as long as the bus and was as shiny as in the photos on the train company’s brochure - it’s not clear if those photos exist to trick customers or as a tribute to better days - the only thing left is the restaurant car. Tonight it’s serving buns with ham and cheese or Wiener schnitzel. Almost nobody is eating.
A man with a white mustache sits down to have a beer. He’s alone, and he doesn’t talk. He drinks a sip and smokes a Marlboro. He repeats the sequence until the ashtray is filled up with five crushed cigarette butts and the can is empty. Every once in a while he glances at the clock, while the pink curtains sway with the movement, opaque with dust that has probably been accumulating since the wagon was last renovated, in 1994. A woman murmurs to her companion “This train was marvelous 30 years ago. Now they don’t even wash the curtains.”
When the train arrives at Mar del Plata, at 5:20 am, a woman named Tatiana confesses that she was afraid that the train would derail, like it did a couple of days ago. “With those little jumps I thought we would go flying off. The train is super old, but it gets there.”
Later, a mechanic from Ferrobaires, the State-owned company that runs the train service, tells me that there is essentially no maintenance on the trains or tracks. “The tracks are not in optimal conditions. But that isn’t to say that the train can’t use them. The thing is that no one is maintaining anything, and what is done is done poorly.” On the condition of anonymity, he added, “It’s a very cheap train. The people who travel with it can’t afford anything else so they get used to it.”
In the end, habit triumphs over indignation. Thursday morning’s traveling companion was a thick sense of resignation, which paradoxically, translated into dignity. “It’s ugly, but it’s what we can afford. Otherwise we would take the high-speed train or the bus, which cost twice as much,” said Mario, a clothing salesperson. The train started to slow down. And between shadows, under a maroon sky, the architecture of Mar del Plata’s train station appeared in front of us. On one side, there are modern buses, and on the other, an old white train announcing it’s arrival with a loud screech, a mechanical wail that repeats itself every day.