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At the end of the 19th century, rapid economic development during the Belle Epoque (Beautiful Age) transformed several countries in Latin America, most notably Mexico and Argentina. Cities were expanded, infrastructure built, economies modernized, and the “civilizing rails” snaked out across the landscape connecting people and places in new and exciting ways. Argentina especially benefited from British investment in railroad technologies, with approximately 30,000 miles of track covering the country by the 1950s. The railway from Buenos Aires, the national capital, had reached the Andean city of Mendoza in 1885, and an extension westward across the Andes to Chile began operation in 1910. Unfortunately, road and air transport expansion in the region, coupled with poor management of the railroad network and myriad economic crises from the 1960s to the 1980s, led to the eventual abandonment of the Trans-Andean line in 1984. By 1992, passenger rail service from Mendoza eastward also had been eliminated as part of the neoliberal economic policies of former president Carlos Menem, who privatized many of Argentina's public services, including the railroads, in the early 1990s.

When I photographed this scene in Mendoza in June 2010, looking south along Belgrano Avenue with the old Central Station complex behind me, the tracks from the broad-gauge railroad had been removed, although the signal gantry remained across the right-of-way (Figure 1). The station buildings and platforms had fallen into disrepair over the years, blighting the neighborhood of Las Heras. Although various schemes were put forward during the first few years of the new millennium to rehabilitate the line to Chile and restore rail service in metropolitan Mendoza, little progress occurred. City planners and business leaders talked regularly about enhancing accessibility and mobility across the region to serve a growing population of nearly one million people, and eventually a meaningful plan for a light-rail network in Mendoza emerged.

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Figure 1. The Original Railroad Right-of-Way in Downtown Mendoza, Argentina.

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Mendoza is located in the eastern foothills of the Andes, some 660 miles west of Buenos Aires. Founded in 1561, Mendoza occupies a strategic location as the gateway to the Uspallata Pass, a major route across the mountains between Argentina and Chile. It has also been designated a strategic link in the Brazil-Uruguay-Argentina-Chile MERCOSUR-Chile hub by the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA). Building transportation infrastructure within and between member countries of the Southern Cone Common Market (MERCOSUR) is a major goal of IIRSA, as it aims to improve regional integration and develop greater capacity for international commerce. As Mendoza sits at the center of Argentina's international wine trade, efficient transport links to external markets are important for the region's economic growth. Within the metropolitan area, enhancing local accessibility and mobility is equally important for economic development, as the region also generates significant revenue and employment from mining, apiculture, petroleum refining, tourism, and supporting services.

The inexorable growth of mid-sized urban areas and megacities in recent decades has presented new challenges to planners and managers in facilitating accessibility and mobility. With the majority of the planet's human population now considered urban (about 52%), demands for transport infrastructure have increased exponentially, particularly as cities have sprawled ever further out from their historic cores. In Mendoza, urban growth over the past several decades has pushed the city's boundaries outward to encompass an area of over 200 square kilometers today. Suburban gated residential communities, modern wineries, hypermarkets, and other development projects require good access to the historic business core and to external connecting routes. The metropolitan area boasts several four- and six-laned freeways leading east and west, as well as an inner loop formed by two freeways. A fairly comprehensive bus network covers much of the city, utilizing both diesel and electric trolley buses. However, with the abandonment of the railroad in the 1990s, Mendoza no longer had a passenger rail system serving the region, and significant gaps emerged in the metropolitan transport network.

Plans to replace the broad-gauge rail system with a standard-gauge light rail network, called Metrotranvia locally, were debated at the end of the millennium and emerged as a viable project in the early 2000s. Construction began in 2009 utilizing the original broad-gauge right-of-way corridor but with standard-gauge track (1435 mm) and overhead electrification. Four main stations and 12 stops along the 12.5 kilometer route link Gutiérrez in the southeastern suburb of Maipú with Las Heras in central Mendoza. Eleven German-built railcars were purchased secondhand from the San Diego Trolley system in the U.S. and shipped to Argentina in time for the network's inauguration in early 2012. Based on the early success of the light-rail system, Mendoza's transportation planners have discussed extending the network to other corners of the metropolitan region. Line B would connect the central terminus to the southern suburb of Luján de Cuyo, Line C would link the airport to the central city, Line D is planned as an extension of Line A from Gutiérrez to Plaza Maipú, and Line E would run southwest from Benegas on Line B to Paso de los Andes (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Existing and Proposed Metrotranvia routes (Cartography by Kevin Cary, Department of Geography and Geology, Western Kentucky University).

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From a geographer's perspective, conducting research means to go back and look again at the landscape (to re-search) in order to observe and analyze change over space and time. Visiting cities like Mendoza at regular intervals allows us to contextualize these changes and to gain a deeper understanding of how accessibility and mobility needs are met as communities develop and expand. In Mendoza, external political and economic decisions altered local transportation relationships, which in turn encouraged a reevaluation of connectivity within the metropolitan region. The picture featured in this essay highlights how changes in land use are shaped by myriad forces, both external and local, that can have profound and long-lasting implications. After sitting abandoned for two decades, the railroad corridor featured here has undergone a metamorphosis, with the newly inaugurated Metrotranvia providing a level of accessibility and mobility previously unknown by the residents of the neighborhoods through which the trolleys pass.