Opinion, by Samantha Barthelemy

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – I guess over here you can put the blame on whomever or whatever you want – the key is to not be held responsible, let alone be punished, for anything.

Samantha Barthelemy, Carioca working in education and public security policies.
Samantha Barthelemy, Carioca working in education and public security policies.

Unavoidable accidents do happen – as do avoidable ones. But how a society and its authorities react to it (in no way an inevitable feat of life) says a lot about its character.

Ten days after a bonde (trolley car) running from Santa Teresa to Largo da Carioca in downtown Rio de Janeiro derailed and flipped killing five people and wounding nearly sixty others, victims and their families hear nothing but politicians and businessmen lamenting the “tragedy” and asserting their company, office or party is in no way to blame.

We now know R$14 million were allocated to revamp the century old trams and tracks, but only seven percent of that investment was actually made.

The ICCE (The Carlos Éboli Forensics Institute) and CREA (The Regional Counsel for Engineering and Architecture), called in to investigate the accident, speculated that a combination of poor maintenance and overloading of the vehicle (carrying 62 passengers when its maximum safe limit is 44), were to blame for the accident.

We have seen pictures of parts of the brakes being held together with wires instead of screws. We have heard that this specific tram was sent to get repairs thirteen times over the 22 days prior to the accident.

“It is well known that maintenance on the Santa Teresa trolley cars is slack,” said a member of CREA. “It seems there were management problems,” said our Governor.  Our Secretary of Transport explained there “were other priorities in government and thus the needed investments were not made.”

“It’s the motorist’s fault” – by all means an unfair and easy accusation seeing that he is now dead, and from what we have read he sounds braver than to blame, having stayed in the streetcar until the very last minute, trying to work the brakes and yelling at the passengers to jump out.

“Then it’s the mechanic’s fault….” “It’s the management company’s fault…” It’s everyone’s and nobody’s fault. All we hear are excuses.

It seems that we like to repeat, “The accident was bound to happen,” as if in some twisted logic that were some sort of explanation or justification, or if it made matters “understandable.”

The trams did not simply overload themselves, the investment money did not simply disappear and the streetcars were not simply poorly maintained.

It would be nice, even if according to tradition it seems extremely unlikely, to hear someone (preferably in a position of leadership) take responsibility for what happened and guarantee that everything will be done to investigate the accident and to ensure that it never happens again.

Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be how we do things over here.

First we witness a tragedy, when dozens or hundreds of people fall victim to something that could have been prevented, then we witness a total lack of accountability and disrespect for the life of others, until finally we reach the state of total impunity.

And then the cycle starts all over again.

A Belgian-Brazilian native of Rio de Janeiro and former United Nations journalist, Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree Masters of International Affairs with Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies living in Rio and working in the Schools of Tomorrow Program. samanthabarthelemy.blogspot.com


  1. The Bonde accident was a tragedy and like so many other problems in Rio preventable.
    Clearly it was a problem related to the management culture of the system operator. Using wire instead of screws would never have happened if the management culture clearly enunciated a culture of high standards. The same holds true for overloading. 44 passengers means 44 passengers. Not 45, not 46 and clearly not 62.

    But, in a city where the Cidade da Musica or Engenhao Stadium can be over budget by 200-300% with no convictions for fraud, will it ever be different?

  2. The tragedy lies in the hands of those responsible. It is a crying shame that it happened from carelessness. That tram should have been obsolete years ago.

  3. The tram being “obsolete” had nothing to do with it… I would blame the accident on shoddy “maintenance” of the “historic” tram and the overly worn tracks, along with the tram being overloaded with passengers. Money for the needed maintenance was diverted to other uses. Well maintained historic (not obsolete) trams ply the streets of San Francisco.


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