THIS year marks an important anniversary for Buenos Aires, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its metro system. Line A of the metro, or Subte as it is known locally, was the first railway of its kind in South America, and as the port city boomed in the early years of the 20th century it quickly grew into a network. Three lines opened in the 1930s, but the pace of expansion slowed considerably in subsequent decades, and Line E was not completed until 1966. The most recent addition is Line H, which was inaugurated in 1997.

Today, after decades of underinvestment in Subte, buses are the backbone of the public transport system in Buenos Aires, accounting for around 70% of all public transport journeys in the city.

"Instead of a system where you can move around the city by Subte, we have an extensive network of buses, but these are very inefficient, quite chaotic, and not very responsive to demand," says Mr Juan Pablo Piccardo, president of metro construction authority Subterráneos de Buenos Aires (Sbase).

buenos-airesIn addition to investment in existing infrastructure, driving up metro ridership will require expansion of the network, which is run under concession by private operator Metrovías. The current network encompasses six lines and 78 stations, covering a total route length of 47km, and carries around 950,000 passengers per day. Around 15.6 million people live in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area.

Asked how the existing network will be enhanced and expanded in the coming years, Piccardo offers a few examples.

First, ageing rolling stock will be replaced and the fleet size increased by around 200 vehicles. Secondly, improvements will be made to signalling to reduce headways and improve safety and reliability. Thirdly, work will begin later this year on improving access and passenger flow around the interchange under the Obelisco (a famous Buenos Aires monument) which is used by 300,000 people per day and links the three busiest lines. Taken together, it is estimated these measures will boost capacity by 30-40%.

In addition, Sbase is overseeing the extension of lines A, B and H, which will expand the network to serve some of the most densely-populated areas of the city. On busy streets, the new stations are being excavated below ground at a depth of 20-25m, rather than by cut-and-cover, allowing city life to continue with less disruption.

"We try to leave space for other traffic - we close half of the street and we leave the other half open. People support the works because they understand we are working and we are making an investment in the future," says Piccardo.

On lines A and B, work has been completed on two western extensions, both of which are around 2km long. Line B will be extended to J Manuel de Rosas in the first half of next year, while on Line A trains will reach San Pedrito in the second half of 2014.

Work is also in progress on northern and southern extensions of Line H totalling 4km with six new stations, while a further new station on the existing line at Hospitales will open later this year. Currently the shortest line in the network and the line with the lowest ridership, Line H will become much more strategically important in future as it will connect with the commuter rail network, four of the Subte lines, and other transport nodes. According to Piccardo, ridership on Line H is expected to increase dramatically from 40,000 passengers per day at present to 245,000 per day by 2015.

Line E is also being extended northwards with three new stations to connect with Line C and suburban rail services at Retiro. Local media reports suggest the project is progressing slowly and services are not expected to begin until next year at the earliest. Construction of this extension is being managed by the Argentine government rather than Sbase.

Future lines

In the longer-term, three completely new lines (F, G, and I) are planned to augment the existing network and bring an estimated 70% of the population within 400m of a metro station. The top priority is Line F, which will run for 10.8km from California to Plaza Italia with 16 stations.

The 12.5km Line G will connect Retiro station in the city centre and Villa del Parque with 15 new stations, while the 12.6km Line I will run from E Mitre to Ciudad Universitaria with 18 new stations.

Piccardo says planning is already well advanced on these projects, but securing funds for construction will be a major challenge due to the tense relationship between the national government of president Mrs Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her political rivals in the municipal administration.

In 2011 the national government withdrew the subsidy it previously provided to Subte, handing over responsibility to the cash-strapped city government. Sbase is institutionally aligned with the city government. "Our relationship with the national government is not very good," Piccardo concedes.

Conscious of this, Sbase is exploring alternative funding methods for the construction of new lines. These include seeking finance through international institutions such as the World Bank, but Piccardo says the national government could veto the application. This means Buenos Aires may have to wait years before it sees work begin on any of the three planned lines.

Improving services

The lack of investment in recent years has had a knock-on effect on performance, and service levels have declined. Despite strong growth over the last 20 years, passenger numbers plunged by 20% between 2011 and 2012.

Fare increases are partly to blame for the decline, as buses provide passengers with a much cheaper alternative for most journeys. In March, a single journey on Subte using the contactless multi-mode Sube card cost Pesos 3.50 ($US 0.69), more than double the Pesos 1.50 fare for the equivalent bus journey. Nonetheless, both fares and subsidy levels in Buenos Aires are low by international standards, and may need to rise again due to the rate of inflation, which according to analysts and unions is as high as 25%.

"Even after the increase to Pesos 3.50 fares only cover about 55% of costs, and the rest needs to be covered by the city government," says Piccardo "The fares are not set high enough."

However, Piccardo remains convinced that passengers will be willing to pay a premium to use Subte if service levels improve. "The passenger was forgotten in the last 10 years," he says. "There was a tendency towards 'cheap and bad', instead of 'expensive and good'. We believe you can have a reasonable [higher] fare that people are able to pay if you offer service improvements as a trade-off." He adds the speed of Subte is a huge advantage over buses because "people hate losing time in traffic."

One closely-watched test case for future service improvements will be Line A, which was recently closed for maintenance as its 100-year-old Belgian-made wooden-bodied trains were taken out of service. Over two months, stations were cleaned up and the first 45 new Chinese trains were brought into service. Tendering is currently underway for an additional 105 vehicles for Line A.

The new trains feature air-conditioning which Piccardo describes as one of the 'soft' service improvements that will draw passengers back to Subte, along with more frequent trains, cleaner stations, better passenger information, and improvements in passenger facilities, such as Wi-Fi in stations.

Piccardo says passengers have responded positively to the changes on Line A, although it is too early to judge the impact on ridership as the line only reopened in March.

"We are convinced that service is the key," he concludes. "All of us - the unions, the operators and the state - must work together to improve the service."

Reviving the Buenos Aires suburban network

SUBURBAN rail has an 18% share of the public transport market in Buenos Aires, and the city has the second largest commuter network in the Americas after New York City.

However, the 800km system has been suffering from a long period of decline and underinvestment, which was brought into sharp focus on February 22 2012, when an eight-car emu crashed into the buffer stops at Once station, killing 51 passengers and injuring more than 700.

Since then, the national government has revoked the license of Buenos Aires Trains (TBA), the private operator which had hitherto operated both the Mitre and Sarmiento lines. The contractor was axed because of its poor maintenance record and performance on these lines.

La-Plata-stationIn May 2012, daily operation was handed over to Ugoms, an entity formed by Subte operator Metrovías and private train operator Ferrovías. Employees from TBA have their salaries paid by the national government, whose transport and interior ministries are now in charge of future planning for the suburban network.

Reflecting concern that poor maintenance of the fleet played a decisive role in the crash on the Sarmiento Line, the state has made fleet renewal and maintenance of the existing trains a priority.

In January the government announced it had placed an order with China Southern Rolling Stock (CSR) subsidiary CSR Qingdao Sifang for 25 nine-car emus for the Sarmiento Line along with 30 six-car sets for the Mitre Line. The first vehicles from the $US 506m order are due to arrive in Argentina in February 2014 and deliveries will be completed by November 2015.

In July 2012 a project was announced to put a 17km section of the Sarmiento Line between Haedo and Caballito underground. The tunnel will eliminate the many level crossings on this section of the line, allowing frequencies to be increased to three-minute intervals. The six new underground stations are expected to open in 2015.

Tunnel boring machine Argentina, which was last used to build a tunnel in Madrid, is on site waiting for work to begin. The machine, which cost €40m, is the largest in Latin America, and will excavate and line a 10.4m-diameter tunnel at a rate of 20m per day, operated by 60 technicians. At its peak the project is expected to create 2000 jobs directly.

Local media reports suggest work on the tunnel will not begin until later this year as final agreements around financing need to be put in place between the national government and a consortium of Iecsa, Odebrecht, Comsa and Ghella, which is implementing the project.

Modernisation is also planned on the 25kV ac General Roca network. The Argentine government announced recently that it has placed a $US 327m order with CSR for 300 new emu cars, which will be delivered between June and December 2014.

Last month the Argentine government announced that electrification and re-signalling work will begin next year on the 60km direct commuter line from Buenos Aires Plaza Constitución to La Plata via Quilmes.

Detailed planning work for the project is now underway, funded by the transport ministry, and the total budget will be around $US 350m, which includes the cost of new trains. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is expected to provide loans worth $US 300m, with the remaining funds coming from the Argentine government.