fb-pixelIn Buenos Aires, a city riven by economic and political turmoil, the subway shows up every three minutes. Yeah, that’s different from Boston. - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

In Buenos Aires, a city riven by economic and political turmoil, the subway shows up every three minutes. Yeah, that’s different from Boston.

Passengers rode Line B of the subway in Buenos Aires on Sept. 27.Anita Pouchard Serra for The Boston Globe

BUENOS AIRES — Adriana Logioia sprinted to catch the subway here on a recent weekday morning, but the doors snapped shut just as she got to the train.

“I’ll wait for the next one,” Logioia, 62, calmly said.

She’d barely had time to sit down when the next train arrived — right on time, just three minutes later.

This is the capital city of Argentina, where 80 percent inflation and fierce political division haven’t gotten in the way of a subway system that works. Buenos Aires’ 108-year-old subway opened just 16 years after Boston’s, making both systems among the oldest undergrounds in the world. But Buenos Aires has been able to achieve what Boston hasn’t: well-maintained infrastructure where trains show up frequently.

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Parque Patricios Subway Station on Line H in Buenos Aires on Sept. 27. The system transports almost three times the number of passengers daily as the Boston-area subway does.Anita Pouchard Serra for The Boston Globe

Here in Buenos Aires, a city roughly the size of the MBTA’s subway service area, there are no noticeable subway slow zones, no recent serious safety incidents, and no profound service cuts. Working for the subway is still a sought-after job. Rush-hour trains come as often as every three minutes. Their version of the commuter rail comes about every 15.

The Argentine capital offers a window into an alternate universe from the public transportation system in Boston, one in which preventative subway maintenance was embraced, a powerful union averted cuts and the city aggressively took street space away from cars for buses and bikes, and one where a deadly train crash led to profound reforms and expansive improvements.

In Boston, the capital city of a state with a massive budget surplus and a comparatively tame political landscape, the subway system is in crisis after a year of safety failures. A scathing report from federal inspectors this summer found a “combination of overworked staff and aging assets has resulted in the organization being overwhelmed, chronic fatigue for key positions in the agency, lack of resources for training and supervision, and leadership priorities that emphasize meeting capital project demands above passenger operations, preventive maintenance, and even safety.”

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Buenos Aires knows the consequences of failing to maintain public transportation better than most: 51 people died in a commuter rail crash in 2012, partially caused by deteriorated equipment. Though the subway here was not neglected to the same degree, the tragedy in 2012 served as a wake-up call for the federal government, which controls the commuter rail, and the city, which controls the subway.

“It marked a before and after,” said Buenos Aires Secretary of Transportation and Public Works Manuela López Menéndez. “People realized, and we also realized, we said, the focus has to be on safety.”

Buenos Aires doesn’t have some of the challenges Boston faces: It hasn’t snowed here since 2007, there is far less red tape, and there is now hard-won resident support for improving public transportation.

But it does share some of the same shortcomings: transit expansions promised decades ago have been repeatedly postponed, some cars on the subway tracks are well past their useful life, and public transportation in the city’s wealthy neighborhoods is noticeably better than in its poorest. Buenos Aires’ subway had about 901,000 average weekday trips in August, compared to around 307,000 on the T’s subway.

Still, even though Buenos Aires is hardly the global gold standard of subway systems, it manages similar aging infrastructure as Boston but with a foundation of safety and reliability. Part of a host of recent subway upgrades included ordering 105 cars from the same Chinese firm making the new Orange and Red Line cars for the T.

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Except: Buenos Aires’ cars arrived on schedule.

* * *

Riders exited a commuter rail train at the Constitución Station in Buenos Aires on Sept. 29.Anita Pouchard Serra for The Boston Globe

Situated on a river just in from the Atlantic Ocean, Buenos Aires is home to around 3 million residents, a bit more than Chicago.

On a recent October afternoon near several subway stops, downtown café goers at sidewalk tables wore light jackets to ward off a cooling breeze — spring in the southern hemisphere, after all, had just started.

In early evening near a main avenue, people young and old enjoyed coffees and buttery pastries, staples of the third meal of the day here called merienda, the key to surviving until dinner at around 9:30 p.m. One coffee and two medialunas at Café Paulin, a traditional downtown restaurant with a popular lunch counter, cost 490 pesos, or around $3.25 at the official exchange rate.

Most Argentines live in Buenos Aires or the surrounding province, home to the largest public universities, which are free to attend, and hospitals, also free. Despite its social benefits, around 37 percent of Argentines live below the poverty line.

The country suffered through repeated military coups, and a brutal dictatorship until 1983, in which the military kidnapped, tortured, and murdered thousands of citizens. Argentina’s finances have also struggled under the weight of massive debt throughout the 20th century, which contributed to a deep economic crisis in 2001.

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Construction in La Boca neighborhood is part of an effort to expand the bus-only network in Buenos Aires.Anita Pouchard Serra for The Boston Globe

Always elevated, inflation is now astronomical. Grocery prices are about 80 percent higher than a year earlier.

And yet, amidst the turmoil, the transportation system in Buenos Aires looks very different than in Boston.

On an avenue in the south of the city near the transportation department on a recent weekday, construction crews used a forklift to dig up the asphalt and create an extension to one of eight bus-only corridors. Nearby, cyclists crossed a busy intersection every few minutes to continue on the protected bike lanes. Commuter rail trains that charge lower fares than the subway run between the suburbs and downtown several times every hour on electrified or soon-to-be electrified systems.

The subway, inaugurated in 1913 as the first in Latin America, now has six underground lines stretching around 35 miles and one above-ground light rail section just over four miles long. The MBTA has around 38 miles of heavy rail (Red, Orange, and Blue Lines) and around 27 miles of light rail (Green Line and Mattapan Trolley). The Buenos Aires subway has recovered around 70 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership, far surpassing the T, which has recovered around 44 percent.

The subway system of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, is roughly the size of the MBTA's subway service area. The two networks are among the oldest underground systems in the world. Sources: Mass.gov, BA Data, The University of Texas at Austin. John Hancock

On a recent Sunday evening at 6 p.m., still considered the afternoon here, there was standing-room only on a northbound train from the downtown terminus on one popular subway line. Subway fares recently increased to 42 pesos, or 28 US cents.

Onboard, most riders were looking down at their phones, one worked on a crossword puzzle. A few were wearing shirts supporting their local soccer teams. One had the team’s logo tattooed on his calf. In the next car over, a man playing harmonica and guitar sang an Argentine rock song. When he finished, passengers set down their phones and applauded.

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During a morning rush-hour ride on the above-ground light rail line known for the worst service in the system, children wearing white smocks, the traditional public school uniform, stood sleepy-eyed, bracing each other as the train jerked back and forth, crawling across tracks and stopping for car traffic. As the train passed a cemetery, several passengers crossed themselves.

Reina Santos, 46, said she has been taking the line for 22 years. Despite the old cars and slow pace, she said, the subway is dependable.

“A lot of people use it,” she said. “It comes often, it’s comfortable.”

Line H in Buenos Aires on Sept. 27.Anita Pouchard Serra for The Boston Globe

When subway riders in Buenos Aires hear about the MBTA’s troubles, the long string of safety failures, and wait times for trains, many are shocked to learn their system compares favorably.

The most common complaints here are about the need for more subway lines and new cars and about the hours of service. The subway closes around 11:30 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays and around 10:30 p.m. on Sundays and holidays. Logioia, the woman who missed her train, said she wishes she could take the subway home after going out to dinner or seeing a show.

“It closes too early,” she said.

Matías Kielak, director of operations at Subterráneos de Buenos Aires Sociedad del Estado, the city agency in charge of the subway, credits constant risk assessment for the generally uneventful subway service.

The agency oversees a private company, Emova, that operates the system and is in charge of maintenance.

“There’s a saying in Argentina. What kind of train is the safest train? The one that doesn’t move,” said Kielak. “The tracks, condition of the rolling stock, maintenance process, failure analysis, all of that will provide more reliable service. The first is safety.”

To be sure, no transit system is failure free. Even with the strictest checks, safety incidents still happen. Recent incidents on the Buenos Aires subway include a collision of out of service trains and an electricity outage.

Workers performed maintenance at an underground subway facility, part of Line H, in Buenos Aires.Anita Pouchard Serra for The Boston Globe

But the focus on preventative maintenance was on display at an underground facility for the newest subway line completed in 2018. Located below a park, it’s an enormous tunnel with two elevated tracks. On a recent weekday, a train that had accumulated about 4,300 miles of service was being cleaned, tested, and retooled by a crew of about 14 workers. They’ll spend as much as five days, Kielak said, before sending the train back to carrying passengers.

Not all lines and maintenance facilities look like the newest one, cautioned Beto Pianelli, the president of the powerful subway workers’ union. Since the subway system privatized in the mid-1990s, the union has successfully fought against cuts it argued would jeopardize safety, Pianelli said, such as eliminating second operators on trains or subcontracting maintenance. It also achieved a six-hour work day for all subway employees, making these underground jobs more attractive. The MBTA, for its part, stopped using two operators on its subway lines in 2012. More recently, the T’s labor shortage became so acute that earlier this year its dispatchers were working shifts as long as 20 hours.

“If you undermine working conditions, you’re going to undermine maintenance; it’s inevitable,” Pianelli said.

Something similar happened on the railroads here in the early 2000s.

Between 2003 and 2010, the commuter rail system overseen by the federal government in and around Buenos Aires needed around $450 million per year just to replace worn parts, according to a recent report from the World Bank, but investment only reached around $50 million annually. The list of deferred maintenance items grew.

At around 8:30 a.m. in the morning on Feb. 22, 2012, a commuter rail train crashed into a platform at its terminus in Buenos Aires. The first few cars, full of passengers, were crushed. Fifty-one people died.

Rescue workers extracted a passenger from a commuter train that crashed into the Once Station at rush hour in Buenos Aires on Feb. 22, 2012. ENRIQUE MARCARIAN

The federal secretary of transportation, the train driver, and executives of the private company that operated the rail line, among others, served prison time.

The crash, analysts said, highlighted the consequences of failing to adequately invest in rail infrastructure for the city, which took over financial control of the subway from the national government the same year, making the system more accountable to its riders.

Shortly after, investment in the subway increased — and ridership soared. The city ordered new subway cars in 2013 to replace some of its oldest ones that had been in service since the subway opened. The Chinese firm, now CRRC, delivered them to Buenos Aires by mid-2017.

Buenos Aires’ agreement with the company did not require the trains to be assembled locally, as the MBTA’s does. The T recently announced the delivery of hundreds of new cars could be delayed again.

* * *

Still, whatever troubles the Buenos Aires subway does have seem to burden its poorest passengers most.

Buenos Aires’ city government’s slogan, “The transformation doesn’t stop,” is plastered on signs all over subway cars and stations throughout the city. But on the above-ground light rail line, which serves some of the city’s most destitute residents, the slogan is nowhere to be found.

There, passengers have the least reliable service in the system, with longer wait times for trains and frequent delays.

Meanwhile, public transportation fares have remained cheap, with a lower fare for low-income residents in place since 2012.

The regular subway fare in Buenos Aires is around 15.4 percent of the hourly minimum wage, similar to Boston, where the MBTA subway fare is 16.8 percent of the hourly minimum wage in Massachusetts. Buenos Aires’ subway is the most expensive public transportation mode, followed by commuter rail and bus.

Before the pandemic, Buenos Aires subway fare revenue covered about 40 percent of the operating cost. MBTA subway fare revenue covered about 60 percent of its operations costs for heavy rail and light rail before the pandemic, federal transit data show. Today, Buenos Aires subway fares pay for just 14 percent of the operating cost, now around $223 million annually. The rest comes from the city’s general fund and taxes on items such as license plates and tolls.

Labor costs make up more than half of operating expenses of both transit systems, though the MBTA is in charge of commuter rail, bus, ferry, and paratransit, too.

Rafael Skiadaressis, a transportation economist in Buenos Aires, estimates the subway’s capital investments this year to be around $56 million and are focused on new signal systems and station renovations.

As in every city, there’s not enough money for everything and officials have to triage. Twenty-five percent of the subway’s fleet does not have air conditioning yet, and some cars have been in service since the 1960s.

Transit agencies usually borrow money to fund large improvements and expansions, but given Argentina’s economic environment, that’s not always an option. López Menéndez, the secretary of transportation and public works, said the city’s limited budget, especially during the pandemic, has forced tough decisions about where to spend, with a focus on lines that have the highest ridership.

“The truth is that mass transit systems require a lot of investments, and you can decide to keep expanding the network or you can decide that the network you have gets more modern,” she said. “Obviously the ideal is to be able to do both things at the same time, but when it’s one or the other, we always choose public safety and improving service.”

* * *

The trains may run on time in Buenos Aires, but most public transit riders take the bus.

Buses on 92 routes that were stuck in car traffic a decade ago now cruise past the gridlock in bus-only lanes on eight main avenues, stretching some 38 miles in total. Bus stops on these corridors, called Metrobus, have roofs, lighting, seating, and sometimes countdown clocks, and the bus lanes are separated from car traffic with barriers.

The highest mass transit ridership is on buses such as one at 9 de Julio Avenue in Buenos Aires.Anita Pouchard Serra for The Boston Globe

The bus trip between two popular train terminals in the city used to take as long as an hour. Now it takes 30 minutes tops.

Boston, for its part, opened its first similar center-running bus lanes last year.

On many Buenos Aires’ streets, bike lanes are separated from the traffic by yellow bumpers. Its extensive network, too, appeared seemingly overnight throughout the city.

In 2010, the city launched 21 miles of protected bike lanes, many of them bidirectional, and its first three bike share stations, according to city data. Now there are 178 miles of bike lanes and 320 bike share stations that provide free 30-minute rides to residents on weekdays, the city said. As the city added more bike lanes and more bike share stations, more people felt comfortable commuting by bike. Between 2013 and 2020, the estimated number of daily trips by bike more than doubled, reaching more than 405,000.

Boston, about two thirds of the geographic size of Buenos Aires, has constructed 17.5 miles of protected bike lanes.

The quick makeover of the city’s streets was made possible in part because the community engagement process in Buenos Aires is weak. Wide avenues with six or more lanes proliferate in Buenos Aires, substantially lowering the political cost of taking space away from cars and giving it to buses and bikes here. By building quickly, the city was able to prove the changes could work, limiting resistance, said López Menéndez.

A cyclist used a bike lane across Corrientes Avenue. Ridership has more than doubled in the city since 2013.Anita Pouchard Serra for The Boston Globe

“Obviously talking to the neighbors is important, understanding that the neighbor, in general, is going to tell you no because the primary thing they want is to maintain what they already know,” López Menéndez said. “It’s a constant effort to convince them. A lot of them, you don’t convince. You do it anyway.”

Both Boston and Buenos Aires have pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, requiring more people to use public transportation and bikes instead of cars. Despite all of the bus and bike investments in Buenos Aires, car traffic remains a problem worsened by the pandemic. Both López Menéndez, in charge of public transportation in the city, and Mauro Alabuenas, president of the city agency that oversees the subway, drive to work from outside the city, they said.

Around 12 percent of current car and motorcycle users in Buenos Aires and surrounding municipalities today used to ride public transportation before the pandemic, according to the recent World Bank report. Car use is higher now, while public transportation ridership still lags.

In the next few years, López Menéndez said, more changes may be coming to city streets.

Underground, Alabuenas said, residents can expect the city to move forward with plans for a new subway line in the next few years and to replace old trains.

And the city isn’t settling for three minute wait times, Alabuenas said. It’s working on installing an updated subway signal system throughout the network. That could allow for trains to arrive every 90 seconds.


Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her @taydolven.