The winding cobblestone streets of Rio de Janeiro’s most bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa are aligned with historic colonial homes, intimate cafes and bars, funky restaurants, and quaint artisanal shops. A hilltop district, it offers sweeping views of both the city center and the Sugarloaf Mountain. Adding to the neighbourhood’s charm was a yellow tram, known locally as the bonde, and originally inspired by the tramway system in Lisbon, Portugal.
Electric streetcar usage commenced in 1896 in Rio, thereby making it one of the oldest tram systems in Latin America. In 1988, the tram system was even awarded landmark status. Until 2011, it was well-used by residents and tourists alike to connect to Rio’s downtown core, running from Largo da Carioca in Centro, passing atop the iconic Lapa Arches, and winding up to the top of Santa Teresa. However, an accident on August 27, 2011 led to its demise.
The derailment of one streetcar claimed the lives of six, while injuring fifty-six others. The crash was a combined result of a reported twenty-three faults including poor maintenance to the streetcars and tracks, along with bad handiwork and faulty mechanisms causing the break system’s failure. Additionally, due to the “hop on, hop off” nature of its use, the streetcar was above its capacity limit. Service was suspended immediately.
The state government’s Chief Secretary of Staff, Regis Fichtner, eventually stated, in late 2011. that with a set budget of R$100 million, a fleet of fourteen new trams would again be operational by March 2014, in time for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. An extension line is even planned between Silvestre and Corcovado, the mountain holding the famous Christ the Redeemer Statue. The Portuguese urban transport company Carris was hired to carry out the project, and this time around, there is a renewed emphasis on safety. People will no longer be able to travel outside of the open air tram, but rather be seated inside.
One of the many worries of residents is a rise of the fare prices when the new system is finally installed. The bonde is a very practical way for people to reach the city center from the hilly neighbourhood, and is a viable alternative to taking a combi van or motor taxi. Another worry would be an overflow of tourists, leaving less room for residential commuters, particularly if standing is no longer allowed. Former Governor Sérgio Cabral said there will be two types of trams in Santa Teresa: one geared towards tourists, and a cheaper one for commuters. Yet this all remains to be seen.
Similar to many works being attended to at the moment in Rio, construction progress is slow and incomplete. Presently, roads are dug up as tracks are still being laid and it appears unlikely that the new tram system will be up and running in time for the World Cup in June. Many residents lament the suspension of their beloved streetcar, the feeling portrayed throughout the city with the image of the teardrop yellow tram, and they desperately want it back. Yet new technology and modernisation is nothing without proper upkeep and maintenance. If Brazilian engineers and workers can routinely manage their streetcar network, only then will the system succeed.
Are there any outstanding public works in your city? What historic transportation methods remain in your city?
Credits: Images by Caitlin Dixon. Data linked to sources.