Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Rush Hour On The CPTM

The CPTM, looking a lot less crowded than it does during rush hour!
It was a hot afternoon in Sao Paulo, and I’d been on the CPTM train for little over five minutes. My journey was from Pinheiros to Morumbi and the train was just a minute or so away from Berrini station, just one stop before I needed to get off. The carriage I was on was packed tightly, so tightly in fact that there were a lot of hot sweaty bodies pressed up against each other, and very little personal space.

It might sound sexual, but trust me…it really wasn't!

I looked around the train and saw a woman’s face dangerously close to some guy’s sweaty armpit as he held onto the handrail. I saw another woman sat down on a seat, trying to stop her baby crying. Its piercing screams were filling the carriage, another sign that this journey was going to be anything but pleasant. There were at least four sets of headphones pumping out different types of music into the train too, including some heavy metal (which is surely every commuters favourite type of music to be listening to through someone else's headphones!)

You're all just gonna LOVE the music I'm listening to today!
Yet this journey on the rush hour CPTM was pretty standard. There would have been nothing remarkable about my journey, had there not been a tall foreign guy in the same carriage, looking very anxious.

Initially I saw him out of the corner of my eye as he attempted to get from his seat to the train doors.

How could I tell he was foreign? It wasn't by his blue eyes, or even by his blonde hair, but by the way he was repeating “excuse me”, in English, to the people he was trying to move around. He then continued in his deep, southern, American accent; “I’m just trying to get past, I need to get off at the next stop”.

Again, in English.

This naturally confused the hell out of the Portuguese speakers he was talking to. Everyone was looking over in his direction, and I’m pretty sure we were all thinking the same thing. ‘Are you shitting me? You’ve left it far too late to get off this train!’

"You're NEVER going to make it!"
With about 30 seconds to go until those doors opened there were still about 15 people he needed to navigate his way around. But people in his way either couldn’t or wouldn’t move to help him. He was screwed. I knew it, the old woman stood next to me (whose saggy tits were now pressed into my back) knew it. The business man who was looking on whilst loosening the knot on his tie, well he knew it too…I’m sure even that screaming baby knew it.

This guy was never going to make it out.

When those doors opened, he was little over a meter away. He’d covered an impressive amount of ground and had come so close….but he was now seconds away from realising that he was, unfortunately, not close enough.

Those doors opened to a stampede of passengers ramming their way in, pushing him further back. Understandably, when the doors closed again with him inside, he looked incredibly frustrated in defeat.

He was going to be on the train for at least one more stop. I felt bad for him because he was obviously a stranger to riding the CPTM during rush hour.

And it is for this reason, being the seasoned CPTM pro that I am, I feel it is now time use this blog as a platform from which to pass on my words of wisdom.

Lenny Henry,
his son was on the X Factor you know!
Rush hour on the CPTM….is an absolute BITCH, and I hope I never again have to see a fellow foreigner in the same situation.

I can just hear the words of Lenny Henry on Comic Relief night in my mind as I am writing right now, “if you can help just one person, it will all have been worth while”. Well Lenny...that's what I hope to do right now!

Rush hour is awful on the CPTM; to be fair it’s awful on most train lines in Sao Paulo (except the new, yellow line. This one has been good to me so far), but the CPTM is especially bad.

So, here is my advice for anyone taking the train from Pinheiros and getting off at Berrini, Morumbi or Granja Julieta.

1. How To Approach Getting On the CPTM

Any time between 10am and 4pm, this train isn’t too bad and you will find that people are generally relaxed. You will see families and friends chatting to each other inside the train, smiling and joking. However some time between four and five o clock this all changes.

As the train rolls into Pinheiros station close to 5pm, the crowds behind you will start pushing forward.

That’s when you know…it’s GAME TIME!

"No, after you...wait, HELL NO!"
Rush hour on one of the other train lines in Sao Paulo
For the first couple of months I used to be very polite, giving people beside me time to get on (I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right…. I'm such a gent!). However I soon realised that this is not how it works here. People won’t thank you for giving them this opportunity to get on comfortably.

From what I've seen nobody seems to worry too much about letting people off the train. Having them struggle to get past you as you push the other way seems to be all part of the rush hour experience.

You are less likely to successfully get on if you're hesitating and even if you do get on, those lost few seconds may have just cost you a prime spot.

2. What To Do When You’re Inside

When your chance comes, you don’t JUST want to get on, you want to get on as close to the train doors as possible, next to the metal hand rails. If you’re getting off before Santo Amaro then don’t even think about going to sit down, because if you do this you will never get out. And make sure you are by these metal handrails, because if you’re stood even a foot away from them you will soon find yourself in trouble. From here, I advise you to stand with your back to the doors. 

The next two stops aren’t going to be too bad. Very few people get on at Hebraica- Reboucas or Cidade Jardim. Enjoy the journey during these two stops, because as soon as the doors open at Vila Olimpia…well this my friends, is where things get ugly.

3. Vila Olimpia- The Smell

In the summer, the first thing that will hit you as these doors open will be a smell of raw sewage. The CPTM runs alongside the polluted Tiete River, and at somewhere around this point sewage must be getting pumped into the water. I have no evidence to back this up, other than this is the point in which the river literally smells like shit. On a hot day, those with sensitive noses might want to cover their airways. I’m really not exaggerating. It can be foul.

I've seen other people with more delicate airways than my own physically gag as this odor fills the carriage. My advice is to cover your nose until the doors close again, the smell isn't nearly as strong at Berrini which is your next station stop.

4. Vila Olimpia- The Crush

The second thing that will probably hit you at the doors open at Vila Olimpia is likely to be an elbow or a handbag. A lot of people will be getting on here. If you've got your back turned to the baying mob desperately trying to get inside, and you’re next to the handrails then you can close your eyes and imagine you’re somewhere else. It’s a bit like being on a roller coaster....you’re safe in the knowledge that you will be ok, because if you just hold on it will all be over soon.

If you don’t have your back to the door, you’re likely to be looking at the crazy faces of people pushing against you to get into the train.  There might not be space for them, but these people don’t care about that. They too have places they need to be, and waiting another 10 minutes for the next train is naturally not something they want to be doing.

"Do you REALLY think I'm not going to get on this train!?!"
What you will generally find is that these people crushing you against the metal rails will be doing it whilst smiling at you. Almost as if to say “Oh! What am I like, I’m squashing your head against the metal pole, aren't I! I'm SO NAUGHTY!”

Naturally, it’s hard not to really feel a strong sense of dislike towards these people….especially if they’re elbowing you in the stomach and giving you breathing problems.

‘The next station is Berrini / Morumbi / Granja Julietta’ the train driver will announce over the knackered, old, tannoy system. You are nearly there, but definitely not out of the woods yet.

5. How You Could Still Fall At The Last Hurdle

Yea sure, open these doors and join us!
Passengers rammed inside the train don’t want to be crushed any further whenever the doors open, so the prospect of having these doors opened again for a lot more people to try their luck isn't inviting. So what people sometimes do is hold the doors together to give the impression to those outside that there is not one more inch of space inside the carriage, and that the crammed bodies have jammed the doors shut.

If you need to get off when they are being held together, you've got problems. Just this week I had to plead with people to stop pushing the doors together to let me out. I was called 'a son of a bitch' and 'an annoying foreigner' (the downside to studying Portuguese is that I can now understand these insults), but I made it out, just! Luckily, this door holding doesn't happen too often.

Once the doors are open, you need to contend with the crowd who will probably be trying to push you back in. If you can get past these then you have just survived rush hour on the CPTM.


If not, Santo Amaro is just a few stops away and this is where the majority of people will be getting off. So you can get off here and try your luck again on a returning train.


  1. I did CPTM Safira line on friday night rush hour...
    My worst human experience ever!
    Luckily my faith in humanity was restore the very same night in a nice Boteco :)

    1. I can imagine an ice cold beer at the end would feel well deserved. Thanks for reading Marion!

  2. PQP... que droga! :) Apparently, SP isn't a lot better than Rio. Stories about overcrowded, badly maintained, suffocating trains are never out of the news here. As long as you don't "have to be somewhere", both Rio and SP are such great places, right? I'm not a big user of the trains. I usually drive myself, mostly on my motorcycle, a Yamaha XT660R, a rather big and heavy bike compared to what the average Brazilian uses, and that is also quite an adventure every time I might add. Splitting the lanes is the only way you're going to get to your destination any time soon and with the way some people drive and vendedores running between the cars, it takes 200% concentration to get through this hectic traffic each time. I only take my car into Rio when I have no other option. I takes on average 1,5 hours longer to reach any destination in a car and another hour to find a parking spot. :)
    Admit it, in a weird way, these things are what make Brazil so much more exiting. At least you got a nice blog post out of it, no? :)

    1. Ha ha! I guess you're right MirantesMT, I do get a kick out of surviving rush hour on that train! Cheers for stopping by to comment, was great to read your perspective on the rush hour rat race!

    2. No problem. How did you enjoy Rio de Janeiro the other day. Sorry we missed each other.
      Raf (@mototoursbrazil)

    3. I really enjoyed it thanks, I took a favela tour and spent a few days relaxing!

  3. This sounds like my worst nightmare. Italians sort of do this when getting on and off trains but I imagine it is not as bad. Nothing like sweaty and smelly people in your face to close out a day!

    1. Hey Suzy, thanks for commenting. The rush hour commute over here certainly keeps things interesting!

  4. I'll be referring to this when I move down in April

  5. Hey Michael, I am sure it will come in useful! Thanks for dropping by to comment. What will you be doing when you move down here?

  6. As a paulistano and former commuter in line 9 just gone abroad this year, it's sad to know things are still the same... In my case, being a college student and carrying a large backpack in those trains meant I had to "actively" make my way out if I wanted to hop off at Morumbi! But still, I guess being crammed in CPTM or Metro is much better than being crammed in a bus, stuck in a traffic jam in Berrini or Av. Santo Amaro, what would make no sense at all considering the latter avenue has a bus corridor!

    About the awful smell around Vila Olímpia, I believe it comes from the pumping plant over the Pinheiros (the Tietê tributary river that runs along the train line). The "Usina Elevatória da Traição" can make the river current go upstream and feed the dams south of the city, and probably much of the trash gets stuck there.

  7. Hey McRosa, thanks for clearing that up! I always wondered why Vila Olimpia smelt so bad. And you're right, no matter how bad it gets on there at least you know the metro is moving...which is definitely not always the case on the bus during rush hour!

    Ah, Sao Paulo traffic!

    Thanks for stopping by to comment!

  8. I think we may occasionally be on the same train as I head down that way to teach in the evenings.

    I've also experienced the rush hour crush. Once, I pushed my way through to the door at Cidade Jardim and two guys asked me if I wanted to get off. When I said yes they held the doors together....

  9. Hey Andy, wow! That's some harsh stuff going on with that door closing! I'll have to start looking out for you during rush hour, we might be able to get the doors open with two of us on the case!

    Cheers for stopping by to comment!

  10. I visited Sao Paulo in February with my (Brazilian) girlfriend. On my first day, I thought that I had dealt with the crushed CPTM experience with a certain amount of nonchalance, blending in effortlessly with the locals. However my girlfriend and her brother were only too happy to perform their very-amusing-thanks impression of the gringo holding onto the ceiling strap with one hand, while the other was wedged deep in pocket, clutching his wallet to dissuade imagined pickpockets... Great city though - I will be coming back!

  11. I hadn't thought too much about it, but I am sure I regularly stand on the train like this! Ha ha! Thanks for the comment!