On how railway towns managed to survive after the closure of railway branch lines

How did railway towns adapted to the loss of this transport system? Which were the State policies behind the closure of railway branch lines?

Estación Ensenada (Buenos Aires), at the end of the twentieth century. Photo: courtesy Archivo General de la Nación.

At the end of the twentieth century the dismantling of the railway system in Argentina progressed steadily. The first railway routes devoted to freight and passengers transportation expanded during the first half of the century, but during the second half closed little by little until they were usually confined to small urban and interurban nodes. Goods transportation throughout the country migrated from the railways to the motorway and that model was consolidated, with only some exceptions.

In the book ‘Sociología, historia y memoria de los pueblos ferroviarios’ [Sociology, history and memory of railway towns], ten authors explain the changes that took place in these urban centres between 1961 and 1990. Cases from seven provinces were studied: Buenos Aires, Córdoba, San Luis, San Juan, Mendoza and La Pampa. The researchers analysed in each case the different mechanisms used to deal with the loss of the train.

Joaquín Aldao, CONICET doctoral fellow at the Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata [National University of Mar del Plata], and Nicolás Damin, CONICET postdoctoral fellow at the Centro de Estudios e Investigaciones Laborales (CEIL) [Centre for Labour Studies and Research], are the compilers of this book, which is available for free at the website of the CEIL.

“In the book we analyze this issue from a sociological point of view, that is to say, not only from a railway perspective linked to goods and people transportation, but also from the level of integration of those trains and the identity developed through trade union movements and production”, Damin explains.


Did you conduct your studies taking particularly one town as a model?

The province of Buenos Aires was the first focus of the research. We were carrying out a fieldwork in the town of Patricios, district of 9 de Julio, a typical railway town with a history that repeats in these type of towns all over the country. These places were created 100 years ago with the expansion of the railway network in order to incorporate all the territory the national State had acquired and to provide support to that expanding agricultural frontier. Wherever productive fields were found, a railway station was founded, an estate agent’s would divide the land into plots and then some families would settle there. That small town we began to study recovered a mould of settlement of the Argentine state that took place in the early twentieth century.


You mentioned that 9 de Julio was a typical railway town. What defines it in that way?

They are enclaves that were founded after the expansion of the railways and provided support to the train that needed intermediate stations to replenish water, coal, wood and load products to make the system viable and take products to the port. Patricios was founded as the terminal station of a train that connected a large part of the province of Buenos Aires, which was funded by the French and nationalized later on. As it was a railway settlement, the main characteristic was that there were many railway employees in that place and a large part of the village life was structured around them. For instance, the farmers and all the people whose job was related to agricultural production used that train to move their loads or in the case of the shopkeepers to buy their products. Besides, as the railway employees had always had higher wages, they founded clubs, movie theaters, schools, trade unions, libraries that promoted intense cultural life that continues until today.


Why did the cultural aspect revolve around them?

Most of them were members of the socialist party, which had a strong cultural policy aimed at founding schools and popular libraries to teach how to read and write. We refer to a context in which there was illiteracy in our country, which received large numbers of immigrants who did not speak Spanish. Railway schools were great driving forces of nationalization of immigrants in Argentina because they were generally located in towns founded by the expansion of the borders and where the immigrants arrived at.


Is it possible to find communities in these urban centres?

Railway workers carried out the first mass strikes and managed to make the state and the companies recognize that the new railway employees would be chosen within their families and communities. This makes a particular and close family model: railway workers, unlike many other people, have relatives who are also railway workers. We discovered that when migrants arrived to Argentina, they came with the letter of recommendation given by a railway worker who was from the same home village abroad. We found that railway companies hired people who had the letter of recommendation, what showed solidarity and trust.


Is the concept of railway family still present?

The typical railway family, which was generated in the first half of the twentieth century, suffered great changes between the 60s and the 2000s, as the railway population declined because the railway tracks decreased. The State redefined its form of transport, which prioritized motor transport so railway companies not only did not hire new personnel but fired many employees. At that point, working in the railway was not an interesting option and railway families experienced structural social mobility as a great part of the Argentine society. Railway worker’s children are lawyers or school directors in almost all the towns we visited. This means that they went beyond the world of railway workers and have professions more related to middle class, mainly university courses, because there is a strong culture of education in the railway sector.


How did the railway model restructure in the second half of the twentieth century? You said there was a turning point in 1961. Why?

On that year, the Larkin plan for railway reorganization was adopted. The State decided to reduce railway transportation to a third, concentrate it in the most profitable sections and urban transport, mainly in the metropolitan area. This matrix was consolidated in dictatorial or semidemocratic contexts and it finished at the beginning of the nineties when the last branch lines were closed and dismantled. But it was not only at that moment because in the book we found that lines were also closed during the sixties. Even the last dictatorship dismantled several branch lines between 1975 and 1978, so we refer to a national state policy of 40 years that dismantled several towns. Some of them managed to reorganize its production using other means of transport such as trucks, but many places were reduced and suffered the migration of people to other urban centres, or remained as residential towns where only children and old people lived because the active population had to work in other places.


Were these towns able to adapt to those changes?

There were several strategies that were used to face dismantling. These were the strikes, the great resistance attempts to prevent the closure of the railways and other methods resulting from the fact that the system was going down. For instance, many people occupied the railway stations and they are now bars, restaurants, food enterprises, tourist offices or museums, and in several cases those places are returned to the State when the railway issue becomes a key topic. So there were many strategies, but the “railway identity” was so strong in these towns that in spite of not having a train any more, the identity that has been developed throughout one hundred years is present and central to understand what happens in those places.


Which was the best moment of the Argentine railway system’s history?
It is hard to choose specific moments because it is linked to the history of the country. In my opinion, the railway system was a main factor that promoted integration in the 40s and 50s, when the railway companies served as means of social integration and they aimed to expand the State, boost the development of the society, and provided possibilities to places that without a strong state support would not have the chance to compete in a challenging global market.


And which was the darkest?

Undoubtedly most people involved in the railway system agree that the darkest period goes from the 60s to the end of the century, except for some moments during the government of president Alfonsín, president Illia or the third government of Perón. All military governments openly attacked the railway system, dismantled the rails, intervened trade unions and arrested their members. Furthermore, that kind of government promoted other means of transport that despite being efficient in certain contexts and distances, managed to disrupt and disintegrate the transport model, which is not only the railway.


Why did military governments attack the railway system?

I think they have always wanted to reorganize the society in a military way. That reorganization was mainly economic so as to destabilize the social structures that have been developed. The “Argentine Revolution”, as they called it, dismantled the railway system, banned not only its employees but also port and sugar workers. The dictatorship went beyond; it intervened the General Confederation of Labour of Argentina (CGT, Confederación General del Trabajo in Spanish), trade unions, and dismantled the rails without providing those communities a chance to reorganize.


‘Sociología, historia y memoria de los pueblos ferroviarios’ is available to be downloaded in the following website.


Authors of‘Sociología, historia y memoria de los pueblos ferroviarios’
-Nicolás Damin, CONICET postdoctoral fellow at the Centro de Estudios e Investigaciones Laborales (CEIL) [Centre for Labour Studies and Research]
-Joaquín Aldao, CONICET doctoral fellow at the Facultad de Humanidades de Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata [National University of Mar del Plata]
-Mercedes Blanco Navarro, FSOC-UBA.
-Santiago Dematine, FSOC-UBA.
-Daiana Gerschfeld, FSOC-UBA.
-Federico Ghelfi, FSOC-UBA.
-Estefanía Goren, FSOC-UBA.
-Sergio Kaminker, CONICET doctoral fellow at the Patagonian National Research Center (CENPAT).
-María Luz Larghero, FSOC-UBA.
-Vicente Russo, FSOC-UBA.

By Ana Belluscio.