Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO – Just last week ANTT, the Brazilian Land Transportation Agency, published the public invitation for bids for the TAV or “Trem de Alta Velocidade”, generally known in English as HSR, short for High-Speed Rail. Designed to hurtle passengers from Galeão to Guarulhos and Viracopos airports at over 250 km per hour, TAV will provide an alternative to those who previously used airplane travel to avoid day-long journeys.
But we digress, for you can read all about current efforts in this week’s Rio Times.
Modern history buffs will recall that, from 1994 to 1998, there was a train running between Rio and São Paulo, called the “Trem de Prata” or the Silver Train. Note that it was not called the Silver Bullet (after the Japanese Shinkansen), nor something funny such as Silver Streak for a very good reason—it took nine hours to cover the 450 kilometers of its route, or fifty kilometers per hour. Ah! But wait! There is always a Silver Lining! In this case, you got to travel overnight!
The Silver Slumbership left every night at 8PM and arrived at 5AM the following morning, chugging sluggishly through countryside you mostly didn’t want to see anyway. Boring, you say? Not at all! It had a restaurant and lounge car, complete with video entertainment. Included in the price were dinner and breakfast, served on china with silverware, flowers and liveried waiters. Best of all, it had Pullman suites, with double beds, closets to hang suits or dresses, showers and other amenities. And you didn’t have to leave the train until 8AM.
What did this mean? First, if you had a fear of flying, you could still get to São Paulo and back comfortably, without rumpling your clothes on the bus. Second, you could get a good night’s sleep, wake up, shower, put on your unwrinkled shirt and jacket and head off to an early morning meeting refreshed, without having had to worry about whether the airport would be socked in with early morning fog.
Better yet, the price for the Pullman suite (for two) was exactly the same as the price of an air ticket (for one) on the Ponte Aérea between Rio and São Paulo—which served neither dinner nor breakfast, let alone offer a lounge car. So, best by far, you could take your wife along—two for the price of one—and the Curmudgeon did, often.
Why did this wonderful train come to a screeching halt? Blame it on CADE, the Brazilian antitrust agency. A CADE Commissioner discovered that all the airlines charged exactly the same prices for the Ponte Aérea, and that they did so because DAC, the then Civil Aviation Board, had prohibited them from granting discounts. The Caped Crusader from CADE told DAC it couldn’t do that, and DAC quietly caved.
In late 1998, the airlines, having been offered the opportunity to compete with each other, did so. The price for the Ponte Aérea fell by fifty percent. Alas, that was the Silver Bullet for the Silver Slumbership. After a few months of almost no passengers it packed up its silverware and shut down. But, by 2016(?) the trains will be back! If so, in the immortal words of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet band: “Roll Me Away!”
The Curmudgeon and his wife, as noted above, had ridden the Silver Slumbership regularly during 1998. Many of the laid-off train porters in Rio went to work at Santos Dumont Airport in 1999. Thereafter, upon disembarking at SDU and heading for the taxi stand, my wife and I and our baggage were frequently greeted by our former train porters, reminiscing with silver tongues about the good old days. Ah, saudades!