Like the Santa Teresa tramway in the 1870s,
Rio's "super tram" line of the 1970s was built atop an aqueduct
that brought drinking water from the mountains into town.

Rio de Janeiro ran its last standard-gauge streetcar in 1967 (the narrow-gauge Santa Teresa system survived and still operates today) and announced a transport master plan in 1968. New highways would crisscross the city and a metro system, with long trains that collect power from third rail, would connect Copacabana with Tijuca and Maria da Graça. A light rail or "pré-metrô" line using overhead wire [see introduction] would be built along Av. Automóvel Clube between Maria da Graça and Pavuna [see map]. As traffic increased the line would be upgraded to full metro. That avenue follows the abandoned Rio d'Ouro Railway which was built in the 1870s to lay pipelines that bring water to the city. The pipes are still under it today. Metro construction began in the 1970s and in 1977 Metrô Rio ordered 68 articulated "VLTs" with pantographs from a consortium led by BN of Belgium and Cobrasma of Brazil [see introduction]. BN published the illustrations below to show its new South American model:

The Brazilian VLT has controls at one end only so the cars always run back-to-back, in pairs. Note also that the doors in the drawing and the photo are designed for low platforms. The doors were rebuilt in Brazil. Despite the Rio Metrô logo by its entrance, this car never ran in this form in Brazil.

The first two VLTs, built by BN in Belgium, arrived in Rio de Janeiro in January 1979 [photo above]. Six more cars came from Belgium that year and Cobrasma assembled 18 at its factory in São Paulo between 1980 and 1982. The first section of Rio's "heavy" metro line 1 opened in 1979 and part of metro line 2, from Estácio to Maracanã stadium, opened in 1981 [see map]. But the heavy metro cars, built by Mafersa in São Paulo, were needed on line 1 so Metrô Rio modified several of its VLTs. Doorwells were rebuilt for high platforms, without steps, and the pantographs were replaced by third rail shoes. A group of modified VLTs went into service on line 2 on 18 May 1982. This was the first use of the "light rail" cars in Brazil - although they were running as heavy rail cars for high platforms and third rail. I photographed a train near São Cristóvão station in January 1983. Note the little extensions at the doors, which have been raised from 65 cm (25.6 in) to a meter (39.4 in) above the rail. Maracanã stadium looms in the distance.

On 12 March 1983 line 2 was extended from Maracanã to Irajá in two sections - with third rail from Maracanã to Maria da Graça and with overhead wire beyond [see map]. All the stations had high platforms. A group of VLTs with third rail shoes ran from Estácio to Maria da Graça, and another group of VLTs with pantographs ran from Maria da Graça to Irajá. This was the first time that these cars had run under wire, but they loaded from high platforms and Rio's "pré-metrô" plan had clearly lost its way. My Carioca colleague Pedro Souza took the two photographs below in April 1984:

Residents disliked the walled-in railway that cut their neighborhoods in two. They hated the stairs they had to climb to reach it and the hot, un-air-conditioned VLTs. (They were accustomed to open-air trams and had ridden the air-conditioned cars on metro line 1.) They had to change trains twice, at Maria da Graça and again at Estácio, to reach the city center. On the Irajá extension only two intermediate stations were open and trains ran only from 9 to 3! There was no service at all on some days (for example on Friday 26 October 1984 when I tried to photograph the line) and operation stopped altogether after the pipeline broke in November 1985 (according to the company). Rio's "light rail" experiment had lasted 33 months.

Metrô Rio removed the overhead wire and the grade crossings and rebuilt line 2 as 100% heavy metro, with third rail, from Maria da Graça to Irajá. Five more cars arrived from Cobrasma in 1986, completing a fleet of 31, numbered 3001-3031, all remodeled for high platforms and third rail. Line 2 reopened on 24/12/1987 and finally reached Pavuna a decade later, on 31/8/1998 [see map]. The old "VLT" cars have now been air-conditioned and run through from Estácio to Pavuna, a distance of 22 km. Ricardo Koracsony took the following photographs of Line 2 trains in February 2001:

Rio's "pré-metrô" or "VLT" or "light rail" project was never realized. Because the heavy Mafersa cars were needed on line 1, the VLT cars were remodeled with high doors and third rail shoes to serve line 2. As that line developed, more and more cars were modified and the extension to Irajá was built to match. The extension used overhead wire for two years, but apparently Metrô Rio decided it was easier to rebuild the line than maintain two types of equipment (or three, counting the Mafersa cars on line 1).

In 1995 Rio de Janeiro announced a plan for a 25 km "VLT" line from Irajá south to Barra da Tijuca. No action on this project was taken. However, almost two decades later, in 2013, in anticipation of the Olympic Games planned for 2016, Rio announced the construction of an elaborate new VLT system on the streets of the center city. See Rio de Janeiro Light Rail / VLT ...


BIBLIOGRAPHY (in order of publication):

Companhia do Metropolitano do Rio de Janeiro. Projeto Básico Pré-Metrô 1; Relatório-Resumo Julho/1977. Rio de Janeiro, 1977.

"Pre-metro will improve life in Rio's northern suburbs." Railway Gazette International (London), 6/1978, pp. 387-389.

Companhia do Metropolitano do Rio de Janeiro: Assessoria de Comunicação Social. Rede de Pré-Metrô/1979. Brochure with map. Rio de Janeiro, 1979.

"Metro Rio feels the squeeze." International Railway Journal (London), 5/1983, pp. 23-26.

"Figueiredo inaugura novo trecho da Linha 2: Metrô chega ao subúrbio após seis anos de obras." O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), 13/8/1983, p. 24.

"Secretário recebe projeto que amplia atuação do Metrô." O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), 23/2/1985, p. 11.

Companhia do Metropolitano do Rio de Janeiro: Divisão de Estudos e Planejamento da Operação. Características do Sistema. Rio de Janeiro, 1985.

"Metrô sem peças por falta de pagamento." O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), 22/8/1986, p. 14.

"Transportes só terão solução a longo prazo." O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), 13/1/1988, p. 19.

"Expansão do metrô, projeto que depende de Brasília." Jornal do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro), 13/3/1988, p. 12.

"Rio Restarts Line 2." Railway Gazette International: Developing Metros (London), 6/1989, p. 51.

"VLT vai sair das estações amanhã." O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), 25/6/1995, p. 36.

"Expansão das linhas Um e Dois." O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), 22/9/1996, p. 32.