December 13, 2013
Even the most ardent champion of a free market economy could not fail to see the nationalization of the Sarmiento suburban railway line as anything more than coming to terms with reality — if the state had not only long been footing the line’s wage and other bills but also funding most of its market in the form of transport subsidies, who could deny it the right to ownership? In fact the main obstacle to nationalization had been mostly the state itself or rather the government — so deeply embedded is the formula of control without responsibility in the Kirchnerite management approach to public utilities that even the horrific 51-death Once rail crash 20 months ago failed to break the pattern with merely a change of private operator (from the Ciriglianos to the Roggios). Even without producing any fatalities, last weekend’s derailment was clearly one accident too many on the Sarmiento line and has provoked this significant change of paradigm — the state is now taking responsibility along with control and will now have nobody but itself to blame for the future conditions of suburban commuting.
Previous nationalizations were invariably in a pro-worker spirit and even where job protection was not the avowed aim, employees were always assured a softer deal than in the tougher world of the private sector — the Sarmiento line takeover is a rare case of a nationalization unfolding in bitter confrontation with the trade union involved, especially since Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo is so keen to point the finger for the accidents at the engine-drivers (not without grounds). The potential for conflict with the unions is all the greater because with dummy private management now banished from the scene on this line at least, the government will have nowhere else to deflect the blame should it have second thoughts about assuming responsibility.
Nationalization of the Sarmiento line is not the only or most important change facing the railway system — whether state takeover now or the same dog with a different collar as after last year’s deadly crash, it changes much less than central issue of a subsidy mountain which is no longer sustainable. Investing the transport budget into humanizing commuter travel instead of dirt-cheap fares (paid by less than seven percent of passengers according to the CNRT state transport watchdog) will mark a huge transformation — a transformation which could be starting as early as next week after this Sunday’s voting.