If you’re staying downtown chances are you’ll never find the need to use the train. But trains in Buenos Aires do exist. Several lines head in and out of the city, the carriages packed with commuters and workers living in greater Buenos Aires. The Sarmiento line from Once to Moreno is always too busy, too much of a hassle and marred by tragedy, but I harbour a secret affection for the San Martin line (Retiro to Pilar). Secret? Because no one likes the train here: liking the San Martin would make me look weird. But there it is – I wouldn’t go as far as saying it is the highlight of my day, but taking this train makes me a little happier.
The San Martin line takes me partway back to England. Not literally (at around 0.16 GBP that would be one cheap way to visit family) but perhaps not surprisingly since the line was constructed by a British-owned firm. The train passes stations with wooden waiting rooms turned into cafes, green wooden benches and sloping roofs edged in that familiar forest-green cut-out pattern that looks like Christmas decorations or the eaves of an Alpine chalet. Shuddering past these neat, brightly lit buildings, I could be passing through Streatham, or Stowmarket. The railway towns like Hurlingham have British-style two-storey houses with gables and hedges. We pass an old, white shutterboard signal box and I think of my grandad.
The engines on the San Martin line thunder through the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the carriages floating high above the tracks reached by three steep metal steps. Inside is wide and spacious – at this time, going into town when everyone else is coming out, I always get a seat. The doors close manually then randomly bang open and stay open until someone gets fed up of the draught, or the guard in grey with a sharp-brimmed hat sees to it.
When the cars wait patiently at the level crossings; this reminds me of England. But people riding the trains by sitting on the steps outside of the carriage is not particularly English. The trains going the other way from downtown to the west are packed at rush hour so space is at a premium and some guys get their seat by holding on to the other side of the doors. It’s a strange sight. Here I am, chatting on my cell phone (“what? No, I can’t hear you, I’m on the outside of the train“), reading the newspaper, the wind in my hair…
It happens a lot: the strangest things remind me of England while everything else remains decidedly Argentinean.