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Buenos Aires: Brand new pre-Metro line

Barry Cross examines little known light rail in South America

The last of the first generation of tram cars disappeared from the streets of Buenos Aires in 1962, replaced, inevitably by buses. However, with an extensive, but ageing metro, the city still retained an effective form of mass public transport.

As new suburbs of Buenos Aires were built, it was thought expedient to link them to the burgeoning metro network. The General Savio district is a good example of this: as the tower blocks began to go up, it was decreed that some form of fixed public transport link must be built to permit commuters fast and easy access to the city centre. In May 1986, line E of the Subte underground railway reached its present terminus at Plaza de los Virreyes, from where it was proposed to build a three line pre-metro to serve nearby residential areas. This was seen as much cheaper than building a fully fledged metro link.

In February 1985, civil engineering contracts were awarded for the construction of the first of these lines, and civil works in Avenida La Fuente started on 11 June 1986. Staggeringly, the first 2-km section between Plaza de los Virreyes and Ana Maria Llaner opened as early as 28 April 1987, followed by an extension to Villa Soldati in June and to General Savio on August 25. The official inauguration took place on 27 August 1987 in the presence of the minister of Public Works and Public Services, Pedro Trucco, the Mayor, Facundo Suàárez Lastra, and the then President of Subte, José, María García Arecha, who all bordered a four car train for the inaugural journey. The cost of building and fitting out the line was also impressive, amounting to a mere USD 5.4 million.

An additional USD 4.6 million was allocated to the acquisition of a fleet of 25 pre-metro cars, although it should be pointed out that this fleet was eventually to have served a second line planned for 1990 and not solely the General Savio line. However, as civil engineering work continued at pace, it quickly became apparent that the new pre-metro cars would not be ready on time for the official inauguration of the pre-metro service, so it was decided to convert three 1913 Belgian-built metro cars for use on the surface line.

A local company, Sciponi S.A., was contracted to carry out the conversion work, using new metal bodies manufactured in Buenos Aires by EMEPA. These were then mounted on the original 1913 underframes. The new design featured large windows and interior walls finished in plastic panelling. The original wooden seats did not survive the transformation, being replaced by new plastic ones, while modern fluorescent lighting was also installed.

Initially only three cars (92, 102 and 112) were rebuilt, with proving trials involving the first of the remodelled cars undertaken on 19 December 1986. A fourth car, 82, was also later rebuilt from ex-metro stock and a "preoperativo" service using this very small fleet beginning the following year. To each car was affixed a plate declaring: 1913 car reconditioned to test the pre-metro system while each was out-shopped in an all over green livery. Despite their age, the 1913 rebuilt cars could cover the 6.5-km line in a credible 24 minutes. A further four cars were also added to the fleet, built using spare parts and frames in Subte's workshops.

The Argentinean company Fabrica de Material Ferroviario (MATERFER) of Córdoba won the order for the 25 bogie cars for the pre-metro, for which Siemens was subcontracted to supply the electrical equipment. The first batch of four, which were of an entirely Argentinean design, arrived in early 1988 and entered service on 14 October. It seems that in fact only 17 of these cars were built.

The new cars are 15.5m long, 2.5m wide, and 3.6m high. Seating is provided for 24 passengers, while there is standing room for an additional 116, at 6 pass/m². Three doors are provided per side, with the cars being bidirectional, although no couplers are provided so multiple operation is not possible.

A possible maximum speed of 70 km/h is claimed by the manufacturers, with the cars drawing power from a 75OV de overhead via a single arm pantograph. Siemens installed its Sitrac control package, with a small cabin based computer automatically selecting both the desired speed and acceleration. Service braking is a combination of electrodynamic and electro-hydraulic, while an electromagnetic track brake has also been fitted for emergencies. Resilient wheels also ensure that noise is reduced to an absolute minimum. The cars have an attractive front end design, made possible by the use of plastic reinforced by glass fibre, and carry a white livery off-set by a red stripe.

Under normal conditions, only six to eight cars are required, although the entire fleet is used in rotation to avoid degeneration brought about by non use. Service is from 0700 until 2200, this being the same time as the metro, and headways of 5-10 minutes are operated, tailored to demand. At night, the cars are stored at the metro transfer station, where there is also a maintenance pit.

Indeed, the double track pre-metro line begins at the metro interchange station of Intendente Julio C. Saguier in Plaza de los Virreyes, which is to be found at the junction of Trabajo and La Fuente avenues. Passengers arriving on heavy metro service can buy an add on ticket on the station platform to enable them to continue their journey by pre-metro.

The initial section along Avenida La Fuente is on street tracking, moving on to central reservation in Avenida Mariano Acosta, and Avenida Francisco Fernández de la Cruz, from where cars go up to Larrazabal, then along Coronel Roca before terminating at the intersection of Soldado de la Frontera. There is an interchange with the suburban services of the former FC Belgrano railway at P.Illian, while at Armada Argentinai a pointsman is on duty to switch cars on to the single track branch line to Centro Civico. In all, there are two intermediate stops and three termini.

The proposed loop at General Savio was never built, but a railway bridge was built to allow the construction of the proposed E3 route along Avenida Dellespiane, while El would be a service running beyond General Savio to Lisandro de la Torre. Another proposed line would link the metro transfer station to Puente la Noria, running on central reservation. However the current administration has focused its attention on extension and modernisation of the metro system, leaving the light rail somewhat neglected.

There are a total of ten intermediate stops, two termini (Centro Civico and General Savio) and two transfer stations. Most stops have but a simple shelter. Apart from transfer tickets on sale at the metro interchange station, all other tickets are sold on board the vehicles. Around 3 million passengers a year are carried.

picture as caption
One of the Siemens LRVs for Buenos Aires light rail line E2 runs along the reserved track near the outer end of the line.
Jack May

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