Margaret Thatcher and the Argentine Dictators: Enemies with Similar Views on Train Travel

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And so it is: Margaret Thatcher, the great Iron Lady of 10 Downing Street, has finally rusted out and been sent to the great scrap heap in the sky. For some, she will be missed; for others such as pop singer Morrissey, not so much. With her funeral today, the news media has naturally responded with a flood of historical recaps of her legacy, and one of the obvious highlight of that legacy was her brutal (and politically fruitful) war against Argentina. But despite the feud between the two countries over possession of the Falkland Islands, their respective governments – the Thatcher administration in Britain and the military government in Argentina – shared an amazingly similar outlook on transportation, particularly long distance train travel. What’s more, the privatisation process of the train system in the 80s and 90s in England is almost a mirror image of how privatisation played out during that time in Argentina.

Margaret Thatcher’s views on transportation can be summed up by a quote attributed to her: “Any man who finds himself on a bus over the age of 30 can consider himself a failure in life.” Though some dispute whether or not she actually said this, she certainly took this advice to heart in her transportation policy. Early on in her administration, she deregulated bus service, reducing levels of service and making a few people rich (not from the bus service itself so much as the property acquired in the deal). With the rail network, she basically wanted to do the same thing; although there is some debate as to whether she took to the idea of rail privatisation with the same zeal as privatising buses, her transport secretary went on record as saying, “The question now is not about whether we should privatise [the train system], but how and when.”

Nevertheless, doing so was a slow process that actually began before her administration with the service cuts recommended by Richard Beeching. Thatcher’s main addition to this process was the selling of certain key subsidiaries of the British national railroad company, British Rail, to private owners; these included cargo company Sealink Limited and engineering firm British Rail Engineering Limited. In addition, though she was unable to privatize it, she cut government funding to British Rail. However, full privatisation didn’t come until right after she left office. In 1993, new conservative PM John Major oversaw the passage of the Railways Act, which split the operation of British Rail between over 100 companies overall, dividing services such as track ownership, passenger train owners, freight train owners, and maintenance.

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Meanwhile in Argentina, a bloodier version of the very same “neoliberal revolution” was playing out. The infamous dictatorship that ran that country began with a coup in 1976, which brought military leader Jorge Videla to power, and with him, economic advisor José Alfredo Martinez de Hoz (who appropriately enough died just a month before Thatcher), putting in place a sweep of neoliberal reforms in the country. During this time, train service via the national train system Ferrocarriles Argentinos was reduced by 560 stations, and over 5,000 km (3,000 mi) of track was abandoned. Seven years later, The dictatorship was brought to an end, largely by its failure to defeat Thatcher in the Falklands war. But the same economic policy, as well as outlook on train service, remained in place. The final blow was dealt to the national train system under the administration of president Carlos Menem in 1991, definitively splitting up Ferrocarriles Argentinos into several small groups, with similar distributions of services as seen in Britain.

How did these plans work out? In general, not very well. After privatisation in Britain, passengers reported drastic inconveniences in customer service; railroad employees couldn’t answer questions about service on competing lines. A report in 2012 by The Guardian shows that British train fares are the highest in the world, double those paid by passengers of the French national system SNCF. In addition, there are reports that privatizing the British trains has made them less safe, in addition to creating added levels of bureaucracy with little reduction in necessity for public spending.

But despite all of these issues, there have been significant positive signs in Britain, most notably a jump in ridership (though this may be due to external factors such as fuel prices and the direct connection via the Chunnel to mainland Europe, bringing with it increased rail travel). In addition, though service was often reduced, Britain was largely able to avoid cutting entire routes post-Thatcher despite privatisation.

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An abandoned train station in La Quiaca, Argentina, on the Bolivian border.

In Argentina, train privatisation brought all the negatives of Britain and none of the positives. After privatisation, entire routes were cut, leaving parts of the country that had been accustomed to having the option of train travel entirely dependent on buses or private cars. Prices spiked, although trains in Argentina remain cheaper than buses where they are available. Service is dismal; trains run only once a week on key routes, passenger cars are poorly maintained, and trains are constantly hours late, often due to poor track maintenance.

The only good thing to say about the privatisation of trains in Argentina is that at least it didn’t destroy rail travel completely. Argentina still has the largest long distance passenger rail network in all of Latin America, and rail connections remain in place to all of the country’s largest cities (Buenos Aires, Rosario, and Cordoba). However, the steep reduction in rail service has led to a vicious cycle of decay; train service is not seen as a legitimate form of transportation, thus funding is cut, which leads to even worse service, then more funding cuts, and so on. Time will tell if Argentina’s train system can someday return to its glory days, but if it does, it will take a long time to do so.

After Margaret Thatcher died, a newspaper in Argentina ran a column whose headline was, “Thatcher, our former dictators are waiting for you in hell.” If that is in fact the case, they’re finally getting a taste of what citizens of their countries have to go through while using the train systems they left behind.

Drew Reed is an online media producer and community activist specializing in sustainable transportation. He lives in Buenos Aires.

  • Philip Reed

    Linking these leaders is a very interesting perspective. Is this proof that rail systems cannot be privatized and still provide good service? The ending quote about Thatcher meeting the former dictators in hell is hilarious.My hope is that they are both there now.