USAIN Bolt, Simone Biles and Jason Kenny might have been some of the stars of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, but there was also a starring role for the city’s new light rail network during the two-week sporting bonanza.

The new 14km line, the first phase of a 28km project serving the Porto Maravilha area of the city, began initial operation on June 5, two months before the Games. Rides were free for the first five weeks as operations were steadily ramped, and by the time the Olympics rolled around, eight LRVs were in service.

As the primary form of transport to Olympic Boulevard, which hosted live music, street artists, big screens showing the sporting action, and nightly firework displays, the light railway carried more than a million passengers during the Olympics, with trams packed with people from the start of daily operations at 06.00 until their conclusion at 00.00.

RioLRAs well as a key project that was delivered in time for the Olympics, the light rail line is a major element of the regeneration of Rio’s Porto Maravilha, a landmark policy of the city’s mayor, Mr Eduardo Paez’s, administration. Demolition of the Elevado da Perimeteral elevated highway in 2013-14 heralded the start of the port’s redevelopment, which as well as new express highways and the light rail line, has included the construction of new office and residential buildings, retail outlets, a new science museum, and leisure areas including bike paths.

The PPP consortium, led by Invepar and CCR, and also including Odebrecht Transport, Riopar, BenittoRoggio Transporte and RATP, was appointed in April 2013 by Rio city hall to implement, operate and maintain the 28km light rail system. The project is budgeted at Reais 1.2bn ($US 351m), with VLT Carioca securing a Reais 746.5m loan from Brazil’s National Bank for Economic Development (BNDES) as well as a Reais 532m grant from the government’s Growth Acceleration Programme (PAC) to meet the cost of construction. The BNDES funding includes Reais 35.3m from its climate fund, with the line expected to avoid emitting 410,000 tonnes of CO2 over the course of the 25-year concession.

Running from Santos Dumont Airport, the line currently terminates at Novo Rio Bus station, or Rodoviário, with the stretch to Praia Formosa used for operational manoeuvres. The rolling stock depot is located at Gamboa. The line has 20 stops and trams operate at headways ranging from eight to 20 minutes depending on the time of day, with the complete journey time falling from 50 minutes at the start of operation to 30 minutes today, an increase in efficiency of 40%. The system is currently carrying 25,000 - 35,000 passengers per day who pay Reais 3.80 to travel on the tram, the same as municipal buses. Interestingly it is an open system, with no turnstiles or ticket collectors on the tram, and passengers are required to validate their ticket once they are onboard.

“It integrates all of the transport modes, starting at the airport and connecting with the metro and suburban lines,” says Mr Michel Boccacio, Alstom’s senior vice-president for Latin America. “All of the large Brazilian companies have offices in Rio, so when people arrive at the airport, they can get straight on the tram and within 15 minutes they can get to their office. It is faster than a taxi and is having a huge impact on mobility in the centre of Rio.”

That the line opened in time for the Games was a major achievement in itself according to Boccacio, who says following the contract award in September 2013 there was a running joke that the Olympics may have to move to accommodate the tram line.

He says that the deadline was particularly strict for Alstom as the rolling stock supplier. The company was required to build 27 of the line’s 32 44m-long seven-section Citadis LRVs in Brazil in order to access Brazilian finance for the project. It subsequently established a new €15m 16,000m2 plant at Taubaté in São Paulo state with the first five vehicles built in La Rochelle, France, and delivered to Brazil in October 2015. Taubaté completed its first vehicle the same month.

Other technical challenges include the deployment of Alstom’s APS ground power supply system on the entire system. This is only the second time that APS, pioneered in Bordeaux, has been used in such a manner after Dubai’s 10.6km Al Sufouh light rail line, which opened in November 2014. As a result, VLT Carioca introduced a vigorous six-month testing programme.

In areas where APS is deemed too difficult to install, such as in turnouts, and sharp curves, Alstom’s Ecopack supercapacitor system is in use. This is described by Alstom as a major innovation of the Rio light rail system as it can provide autonomous energy supply, guaranteeing continuous operations, which is reflected in strong performance figures for the light rail line: in its first five months of operation it achieved availability of more than 95%.

Given the lack of any previous light rail infrastructure in Rio, particularly for dispatchers and drivers, staff training was another major challenge posed by the project, and a particular priority for VLT Carioca, according to its operations director, Mr Augusto Schein. Drivers consequently went through around 2000 hours of intensive training encompassing theoretical, simulation and practical exercises ahead of the start of operations.

The lack of experience extends to Rio’s public. Schein says as the line operates both in mixed traffic and its own dedicated right-of-way, it initially operated at slower speeds and there was an emphasis on educating the public on how to use and, critically, to be aware of the tram when going about their daily business.

“Three months before starting operations, during the testing period, we started a safety campaign on the streets and social media to explain how the VLT will coexist with people, cars and other elements,” Schein says. “The concept, “Keep your sight on VLT,” warned people not only that the tram was circulating, but that it is a silent vehicle, so they have to take particular care when using cell phones, listening to loud music and other things which might distract the attention of pedestrians and drivers.”

The cautious approach to introducing the light rail service is also reflected in the deployment of motorbikes to accompany the tram during operations. Nicknamed “beaters” by locals, the riders operate at the front of the tram and they are there to warn traffic that the vehicle is approaching. The effect again has been reduced speed of operations. However, according to Schein the beaters are now gradually being withdrawn from service, allowing the light rail line to realise its full operating potential.

“This was one of the safety steps to help people get used to the system,” Schein says. “At this moment, we are already operating without them outside of rush hour. However, it probably won’t be until early 2017 until they are no longer operating on the Rodoviária - Santos Dumont line.”

While Schein says the light rail service is operating well in mixed traffic, with no major problems, it is already having a major impact on relieving traffic congestion and improving the quality of life in certain areas previously swamped with cars. This is particularly noticeable along a 600m section of Avendia Rio Branco between Carioca and Cinelândia where cars and buses are now banned and have been replaced with pedestrians and cyclists.


It is hoped these benefits will extend to two subsequent extensions to the project: the 7km Rodoviária - Central do Brasil - Praça XV section, and the 3km Avenida Marechal Floriano extension.

Testing of the main stretch of the Central - Praça XV line from Saara to Praça XV is now well underway. VLT Carioca was expected to open a reduced service to the public as IRJ went to press, and gradually step up operations so they complement the existing section within two to three months. This addition is particularly important as it will cross the Rodoviária - Santos Dumont section and provide a direct link to ferry services. It will also serve important commercial and cultural city centre locations, including Saara and Praça Tirandentes.

Beyond this, the Rodoviária - Central do Brasil section, which includes a tunnel south of Vila Olimpica, and the 3km extension along Avenida Marechal Floriano, are on course to open in early 2017.

“In agreement with Rio’s town hall, we didn’t open too many “fronts” of the network at once due to the potential impact on traffic,” Schein says. “This is a complimentary stretch that will allow us to reduce headways on the Central - Rio Branco section.”

As for additional planned projects beyond the initial first phase of Rio’s light rail network, which could total up to six lines and 52km, and were announced when the project was initially proposed in 2013, Boccacio says that for now these remain on hold.

Indeed, this situation is reflective of the current picture for light rail development in Brazil. While the 2014 football World Cup and the Olympics promised major investments in public transport infrastructure, many of these projects have yet to come to fruition and remain victims of the political turmoil that has swept the country in recent years.

The grim outlook was emphasised further by the announcement in the Brazilian press in November that Alstom is set to close its Taubate plant following the completion of delivery to Rio due to a lack of follow-up orders.

However, speaking to IRJ before the announcement, Boccacio was optimistic that as the new government finds its feet, certain projects will progress in the next two years.

For example, he anticipates movement on further Rio projects in 2018, and is also hopeful that work on Cuiaba’s 22km two-line system will restart. There are also positive signs in Santiago and the company is studying potential developments in Argentina and Peru. After all, cities across the region will continue to demand solutions to their congestion issues, and with Rio and other recent developments in Santos as a benchmark, they could conceivably choose light rail.

“Rio for us is a very important reference for tram projects in Brazil and Latin America, and we hope it will give us a boost in this area,” Boccacio says.