On this date in 1913 the first line of the Buenos Aires Subte (Metro) was officially opened. Amazingly, the original Belgian-made rolling stock survived for a full 100 years, when it was finally replaced in 2013 with more up-to-date cars. A great shame in my humble opinion. The subte (Subterráneo de Buenos Aires), is an incredibly successful, but hopelessly overcrowded, mass transit system, with most lines these days carrying between 300,000 and 400,000 riders per day !! There’s a trick to getting a seat which it took me over a year to completely figure out. It involves knowing what stations to use, what times to travel, and a fair amount of pushing and shoving. Even so, most of the time I had to simply grit my teeth and endure 20 minutes or so of liver-crushing purgatory. It’s very cheap (2 pesos flat fare), and efficient. City buses are cheaper, but slower, more uncomfortable, and no less crowded.
When the first section of the subte (Plaza de Mayo-Plaza Miserere) opened in 1913, it was the first underground railway in Latin America, the Southern Hemisphere and the Spanish speaking world, with the Madrid Metro opening five years later in 1919.
The network expanded rapidly during the early decades of the 20th century, but the pace of expansion fell sharply after the Second World War. In the late 1990s expansion resumed at a quicker pace, and four new lines were planned for the network. Despite this, the rate of expansion has still been largely exceeded by the transportation needs of the city. Currently, the underground network’s six lines comprise 51.4 kilometers (31.9 mi) of route, serving 83 stations.
Discussions on the need to build an underground transportation system in Buenos Aires began in the late 19th century, alongside the tramway system, which was one of the most extensive in the world at the time. The first trams appeared in 1870 but by about 1900 were in crisis because of monopolies opposed to modernizing (especially electrifying) the system because of expense. Over the course of the 20th century the subte entirely replaced trams. All that remains of the trams are a few ghost tracks on old cobbled streets.
The first proposals for building an underground system were made, along with requests for government grants: first, in 1886, and several more in 1889, but the Ministry of Interior (Ministerio del Interior) denied the city administration the power to license building in the subsoil of the City. For this reason, subsequent drafts were submitted directly to this ministry. When in 1894 it was decided to construct the Congress building in its present location, the underground idea was revived, as it might shorten the travel time between Casa Rosada (site of the executive branch of government) and Congreso (the legislature). Miguel Cané, former Mayor of Buenos Aires (1892–1893), also proposed in 1896, a more general idea of an underground railway system similar to the one in London.
The first line was built by the Anglo-Argentine Tramways Company (Compañía de Tranvías Anglo-Argentina), which had been given permission to build in 1909. That line linked the current stations of Plaza de Mayo and Plaza Miserere. As can be seen from contemporary photographs, the technology used was the same as that used to build London’s Metropolitan line. Trenches were dug in the avenues, tracks laid, then the trenches were roofed over, and repaved as roads. Once the subte expanded around the city, this technology had to be replaced with tunneling techniques.
Nowadays the subte is an artistic marvel with the stations of each line being distinctively tiled. Here is an album of photos I took over the course of 2 days riding each of the lines.
Ironically, stations on the first (line A) and most recent (line H) lines are the least ornamented. Tiling in stations built in the 1920’s to 1940’s is extraordinary.
Because of overcrowding, you don’t see too many people eating on the trains themselves, but there are plenty of kiosks and cafes at the stations serving the Argentine version of fast food, such as panchos (hot dogs), facturas (pastries), and empanadas. My sisters fondly recall getting a submarino at Retiro station on family trips from our barrio, Villa del Parque, to Centro. This is basically a mug of very hot milk and a slender chocolate bar which you dip into the milk until it dissolves. Very popular even now, but not to my taste. In fact, I’m not inclined to eat whilst commuting in general. That’s typical of Argentinos in general. Fast-food items are called minutas, and even though they are quick to prepare, they are rarely eaten on the run.
A favorite minuta is lomito, a steak sandwich with a fried egg, and pretty much whatever else you want. It is usually served open faced on a plate, but you can get it as a regular sandwich to go if you like. The main ingredient is a painfully thin cutlet of Argentine beef grilled to perfection. No other steak will do – sorry. It has to be fresh, juicy, and ever so tender. A fried egg is also essential – runny yolk. Melted cheese over the steak is also popular. Most people add lettuce, onions and tomatoes (the trinity of Argentine salads). You can also eat the salad on the side. If so, sprinkle it with olive oil.