Bullet trains in Brazil: progress or white elephant?

Brazil’s government knows that if there is a silver bullet to solve the country’s mounting transport infrastructure problem, it is rail. That is why it is pushing with increasing determination a proposal to build not just one but possibly several bullet trains in the country.

The government said this week that if private sector bidders were reluctant to take on the public works for a bullet train it is planning between the cities of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Campinas, it will provide a state guarantee for the project.

The comments came as the government revealed it is also evaluating three other possible high-speed railways – one connecting São Paulo to Curitiba, southern Brazil, another to Belo Horizonte in the southeast, and a third to the Triângulo Mineiro, a wealthy area west in Minas Gerais, the same state as Belo Horizonte, according to local newspaper Valor Econômico.

The first instinct is to decry such ambitious plans, especially given that Brazil is struggling to implement far more modest infrastructure proposals. But the idea is not as crazy as it sounds. Brazil must be the only continental country in the world that does not have passenger train connections between major cities. Foreigners are often shocked to learn that the travel options inside Brazil do not include rail, and even more horrified when they have to pay the exorbitant prices that airlines charge for tickets at short notice or they have to face kilometres of traffic jams deep in the interior.

The US, India, China and Russia – other countries of Brazil’s scale – have national passenger train systems. In Brazil, by contrast, rail was abandoned in the 1970s in favour of the car, with what little remained of the rail network used for cargo transportation.

The problem, of course, is that train services are not cheap to build and high-speed rail, especially in Brazil, is even more precipitously expensive. The bullet train between Rio, São Paulo and Campinas is expected to cost about R$60bn. Critics of the proposal point out this could be better spent in São Paulo, where for half that, the local government is looking to build 27 kilometres of desperately needed metro lines with new 33 stations by the end of next year. A city of 20m people, São Paulo has only 74kms of metro lines, leaving the city locked up with traffic every morning and night.

Yet, there is no single answer. Yes, Brazil needs more metros. But it also needs inter-city passenger railways to provide another form of cost-efficient transportation and avoid depending too heavily on roads and airports. Yes, bullet trains may seem a gold-plated option for a country with so many competing infrastructure needs. But any train between Brazil’s far flung major cities would need to be fast to be competitive with air travel.

The critics are right to press the government on cost because they know corruption and inefficiency will lead to money-wasting. But petty squabbling should not get in the way of vision. If Brazil wants to develop, it needs to think on a scale appropriate to a country of its size.

Related reading:
Investors keen to ride Brazil bullet train, FT
Brazil: Appetite for construction, FT
Brazil promises higher returns, beyondbrics
Brazil’s infrastructure stimulus: investors needed, beyondbrics