On Rust

By Stephanie McCallum, University of California, Santa Cruz §

Recent scholarship in anthropology has addressed infrastructure not in its fully functioning capabilities, but as it falls apart (e.g. Chu 2014). In a similar vein, here I attend to rust as a manifestation of infrastructural deterioration. Based on 13 months of ethnographic fieldwork (September 2013 – October 2014) with railway workers, commuters, activists, and train enthusiasts on the social and material life of trains in Buenos Aires, I show that rust is not only a physical process, but also indexical and allegorical. In Argentina, people have come to see rust as an index of the decay of infrastructure, and rusting railways as an allegory of the decay of the nation.

Rust is ubiquitous in railway landscapes in urban and suburban Buenos Aires, where fungal-like constellations of burnt orange, speckled greyish-white and ochre, lace rails and discarded train carcasses, and even surface on new rolling stock.[1] It corrodes the layers of paint aimed at modernizing so-called monster trains (formaciones engendro, the rolling stock sutured from spare parts and prone to breakdown that resulted from the particular maintenance practices of railway concession companies), and it spreads over signaling equipment and electrified third rails like a bad case of metallic eczema.

Figure 1: Toshiba train cars lying outside a railway workshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Stephanie McCallum.

Rust expresses a particular relationship between iron (or its alloys), oxygen, and moisture — the ferruginous hue and texture of metallic decay. As such, it points to the intimate enmeshing of infrastructures and environments, to the coupling of metal and air. For while it might be commonplace to note that infrastructures shape environments, rust reminds us that environments also give infrastructures their particular affordances.

Railway infrastructure requires the domestication of terrain: earthworks to ensure a proper foundation for track beds and adequate drainage, the construction of bridges and tunnels to ensure the movement of people and goods through unwieldy terrain. Through these material networks, railway infrastructures stitch together particular configurations of the nation-state, connecting certain places and disavowing others (Gordillo 2014). Yet environments, in turn, render material infrastructures lively and precarious in specific ways. In coastal areas and in the proximities of lime quarries, rail corrosion is compounded by salinity and lime – what some Argentine railway enthusiasts engaged in rail restoration projects call “chemical attack.” (Different materials, of course, engage with the surrounding environment in different ways: concrete crossties or sleepers, currently used in some railway branches undergoing renovation in Argentina, are less vulnerable to corrosion and wear than the wooden crossties they replace.) These geographies of infrastructural decay force us to reckon with the “ecology of memory” (DeSilvey 2006; emphasis added) and the ways in which non-human agents, be these insects, chemicals, or other, partake in the decomposition of matter.

Figure 2: Interior of a Toshiba train car lying outside a railway workshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Stephanie McCallum.

But why, and how, does rust matter? Argentine railway workers have a saying, one I learned from Claudio, a workshop supervisor: “Metals have memory” (“Los fierros tienen memoria”). Railway histories (in terms of the political and economic histories of railway privatization and renationalization, but also in terms of the history of a train’s movements, the friction of its wheels against the rails, the maintenance or lack thereof that train and rails have undergone), workers claim, are inscribed in tracks and rolling stock. If infrastructures can be read as a kind of archive, as I argue, then rust is one of the forms in which these processes and histories are registered in metallic surfaces and rendered visible (other forms of memory-inscription in railway infrastructure being, for instance, the physical traces of friction and use left on rolling stock and rails).

Far from being perceived as a “natural” phenomenon, rust has become a matter of political concern for railway workers, ferroaficionados (railway enthusiasts), and commuter-activists in Argentina: it is seen as a sign of ferricidio (ferricide, the killing of the national railway system) and as bearing witness to desidia (neglect).[2] Images of rolling stock abandoned to rust, often partially concealed by weeds, abound on railway enthusiasts’ Facebook pages and blogs, and have come to index processes of deindustrialization and rural-to-urban flight (see also DeSilvey and Edensor 2013).

Figure 3: Train car lying near Retiro station in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Stephanie McCallum.

Rust has also been invoked as a major factor explaining the scale, if not the cause, of the largest train crash in recent Argentine history, an event known as la Tragedia de Once (“the Once Tragedy,” in reference to the Once de Septiembre terminal station, where on February 22, 2012, during morning rush hour, a commuter train collided against the buffers at the end of the tracks, resulting in at least 52 deaths and over 700 injured passengers). Juan, an architect and commuter-activist, asserts that the deteriorated state of the train’s body prevented it from properly withstanding the force of the impact, as train car walls contorted, floors rose, and hand-rails and luggage racks sprung loose, such that human bodies became hard to extricate from the train’s mangled interior. In YouTube video images of the crash, a reddish dust can be seen suspended in the air; this, he assured me, is rust from the train’s decaying body.[3]

Rust is thus indexical of things to come, presaging future tragedy, and commuter-activists like Juan strive to document its presence and spread — not least among the sleek bodies of new trains recently purchased from China as part of the national government’s “railway revolution” in the aftermath of the Tragedia de Once. During “diagnostic trips” to audit passenger trains and their infrastructure, commuter-activist groups such as Autoconvocados X los Trenes (loosely translated as “Self-Summoned for Trains,” or “Independent [Users] for Trains”) photograph and take note of rust and other signs of decay.

Figure 4: Boarding the train in Lobos station, province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. “TBA”  refers to Trenes de Buenos Aires (Trains of Buenos Aires), the concession company that managed the railway line in which the Once Tragedy took place. This photograph, taken nearly two years after the crash (and after TBA had lost its concession) on a different railway branch, reflects the recycling and rerouting of rolling stock. Photo by Stephanie McCallum.

Their concern is not with the abandoned train cars that can be found lining tracks (Figure 3) and workshops (Figures 1 and 2), nor with the visual aesthetics of postindustrial dystopic landscapes, but rather with rusting train cars that are still in use (Figure 4). In their conversations and reports, rust figures as a sign of improper or absent maintenance, of faulty materialities, and of potential malfunctioning. Alongside state-led efforts at renovation, rust and other forms of railway decay are at the center of alternative forms of engagement and repair; groups of ferroaficionados gather during the weekend to restore steam locomotives and discarded rails, erasing the signs of corrosion, and artist-activists intervene dilapidated stations.

Rust, in short, sheds light on the rhythms of decay as they haunt and subvert infrastructural projects of progress. As a proxy for the intertwining of infrastructures and environments, it reminds us of the liveliness and obduracy of materials. As the accretion (Anand 2015) of deterioration and its traces is always embedded in historical contexts –in particular forms of engaging with the material–, ethnographic engagements with infrastructure need to attend to the politico-social worlds in which materials are enmeshed and reworked.


[1] “Rolling stock” refers to trains themselves, as opposed to railway infrastructure. The term encompasses diesel locomotives and their passenger cars and/or freight wagons, as well as electric trains.

[2] Whenever I asked my interlocutors about the origins of the so-called railway crisis, their answers varied, but tended to fall into one, or more, of the following camps: the railroad system was flawed from the beginning because it was a technology of empire, built largely by the British (but also with French and national capital) to extract natural resources rather than promote national development; the system built by the British lost its efficiency after Perón nationalized it in 1948, when it became a political/populist tool; the railroad system began to be purposefully dismantled in the 1960s by President Frondizi and his rationalization plans, particularly the Larkin Plan (penned by the American general of that name), in favor of automobiles and trucks; and/or the railroad system was destroyed by President Menem’s privatization schemes of the 1990s, which entailed the dismemberment of Ferrocarriles Argentinos (the national railway company created by Perón), the spoils of which were granted to profit-mongering concession companies. Rather than attempting to gauge the “truthfulness” in these accounts, I became interested in how stories of railroad decay (often entwined in narratives around cultural and national decay) were coded and told.

[3] Juan is not alone in his view on the role played by deterioration in the Tragedia: in ensuing court hearings, the case prosecutor emphasized material fatigue as both a sign of the concession company’s improper maintenance practices and as an aggravating factor in the scale of the crash.

Works Cited:
Anand, Nikhil. 2015. “Accretion.” Fieldsights Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology Online, September 24. http://culanth.org/fieldsights/715accretion
Chu, Julie Y. 2014. When Infrastructures Attack: The Workings of Disrepair in China. American Ethnologist 41(2): 351-367.
DeSilvey, Caitlin. 2006. Observed Decay: Telling Stories with Mutable Things. Journal of Material Culture 11(3): 318-338.
DeSilvey, Caitlin and Tim Edensor. 2013. Reckoning With Ruins. Progress in Human Geography 37(4): 465-485.
Gordillo, Gastón. 2014. Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Durham: Duke University Press.

Stephanie McCallum is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her dissertation research, supported by the Social Science Research Council, explored progress and decay in Argentina through an ethnography of the social and material life of trains. She is currently writing her dissertation with the support of a Wadsworth International Fellowship from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

This post is part of our thematic series: The Nature of Infrastructure