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Subway Rust And Chaos In South America's Biggest City

Do Sao Paulo's public transport woes bode badly for this year's World Cup?

Sao Paulo's "Blue Line"
Sao Paulo's "Blue Line"

-Op-ed-

SÃO PAULO — It would no doubt be more convenient for government leaders if the electrical failures that blocked São Paulo's subway last week were simply the work of vandals. Even as the entire country is affected by recurring power failures, this criminal hypothesis was in fact put forward by the State of São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin and his Metropolitan Transport Secretary Jurandir Fernandes.

So far, there is no evidence to confirm their allegations are actually true.

Much more likely, this official line is nothing more than a new attempt to divert attention from persistent problems in the management of São Paulo. We have already seen such a strategy used many times to justify some of the countless failures that afflict the city's transportation system. South America's largest city, with a population of more than 11 million, São Paulo will be one of the main hosts of this summer's World Cup

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Sao Paulo's aerial metro — Photo: Diego Torres Silvestre

In the latest episodes, a problem with a door in one of the trains on the Line 3 at the central station of Sé caused havoc of immense proportions. After having waited for 25 minutes in the heat of an overcrowded train with virtually no information, users of several other trains of the same line who were stuck in the tunnels — waiting for the situation at Sé to be fixed — pressed the emergency buttons to open the doors, exited the carriages and ended their journey walking along the rails.

For security reason, the power was cut and the circulation on that line was stopped. Metro traffic was paralyzed for five hours. Of the 40 trains that circulated on that line, 19 suffered property damages, with many windows broken.

Two days later, the same door problem happened at the same station, this time affecting Line 1 of the metro. Thankfully, the standstill didn't last as long.

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Sao Paulo's metro — Photo: Gustavo Gomez

20 years of failure

Such occurrences show just how badly the São Paulo metro system is overloaded, and how far behind the upgrade of its infrastructures lags. According to the president of metro union, Altino de Melo Prazeres Júnior, there have already been 16 incidents since the beginning of the year. The figure is a sad indicator that very little has been done to reverse the upward trend of mechanical failures: There were 28 in 2010 and 66 in 2012. Perhaps even more significantly, no figures have even been publicly released for 2013.

Still, aging trains continue to operate, with no sign of any progress being made in security matters, or in how users are dealt with when an incident occurs. On top of that, for the last two decades the metro network that is meant to serve up to 20 million people in the extended metropolitan area has barely been extended at all.

At the same time, according to the Brazilian Public Prosecutor's Office, the pace at which bribes are pouring in is accelerating. It is thought that overpriced contracts have caused the metro operator to lose 800 million reais ($335 million). If the embezzlement allegations are confirmed, we could say one more time that the general population of São Paulo has been robbed again.

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