Feb 23rd 2012, 16:33 by D.S. | BUENOS AIRES
ON FEBRUARY 22nd a passenger train whose brakes had reportedly failed crashed into the platform at the end of its route in one of the principal rail stations in Buenos Aires. So far, 50 people have been confirmed dead, and nearly 700 more are injured. The accident is one of the deadliest in Argentine history. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president, declared two days of national mourning and suspended an event in response to the news.
As soon as word of the tragedy spread, the country’s political opposition sprung into action to blame it on faulty government policies. Argentina’s railroads, built mostly by the British at the end of the 19th century, were privatised during the government of Carlos Menem in the 1990s, and accusations of underinvestment and corruption have been rife ever since.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president, could pay an especially high political price, since she draws much of her support from the industrial belt served by the kind of train involved in the crash. Whereas the trains that serve the city’s rich northern suburbs are generally air-conditioned with windows in one piece and cushioned seats, the carriages that bring passengers from the poorer western and southern regions are little more than metal shells with broken windows, poor seating and criminal gangs prowling the over-crowded aisles. “We’re not talking about mechanical problems or human error here,” said Juan Pablo Tunessi, a congressman for the opposition Radical Party, “but a model of management that holds captive the most vulnerable sectors of society, that after eight years of economic growth and pilfering from the state coffers, they’re still travelling worse than cattle.”
It is still too early to tell whether the crash was an unpredictable freak accident or the product of systemic negligence. Last year 23 people died and more than 300 were injured in a series of smaller accidents, in a rail system that transports 400m passengers a year. But Juan Pablo Schiavi, the transport secretary, sought to deflect the torrent of criticism by noting that “this kind of accident happens all over the world,” mentioning similar disasters in Italy, Spain, Germany, Ukraine and the United States.