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The first railway in Brazil was opened in 1845 between Fragoso in the present day township of Magé, near Rio de Janeiro, and Praia da Estrela at the head of Guanabara Bay, a distance of 14.5km. It was built to the unique gauge of 1680mm. Subsequent railway construction was predominantly metre gauge, resulting in an extensive network of lines in the Northeast, Southeast and South regions, with some penetration into the interior. In the 20th century a number of 1600mm gauge lines were opened in the Southeast region, forming a network which was to become the predominant gauge in those states; a few lines were dual metre and 1600mm gauge. 1600mm was chosen as being similar to the gauge used by Brazil’s former colonial ruling country, Portugal.

A number of mining railways, mostly in Minas Gerais, were built to 760mm gauge. A short section of one of these survives as a tourist railway. One isolated railway in Amapá state in the North was built to a gauge of 1440mm (slightly wider than standard gauge). Some new railways are being built to standard (1435mm) gauge, notably various urban light rail projects. A very short section of standard gauge connects a metre gauge freight interchange near the Argentine border with the standard gauge network of Argentina. There are long term proposals for new high speed lines, which would also be standard gauge, and the possibility of converting some or all of the 1600mm gauge lines to standard gauge is being examined.

The original metre gauge and 1600mm gauge networks are largely intact; some sections which had closed have been or are being rehabilitated, and some new lines constructed.

Following privatisation of the national network in the early 21st century, a number of companies operate the railways. The network is now predominantly freight only; passenger services operate mainly in urban areas and on a just a few long distance lines. In 2012, the goverment announced the creation of a new agency to oversee the creation of new freight and high speed passenger lines, which could amount to 10000km of new construction over the next 30 years.

Several major cities have metro systems, operating or under construction. Traditional tram systems, once popular, have with a few exceptions disappeared, but number of new light rail systems are under construction.

Former international rail connections with Bolivia and Paraguay are now out of use. At Uruguiana in Rio Grande do Sul, near the Argentine border, there is a major intermodal container terminal which also permits interchange of traffic between Rumo’s metre gauge network in Brazil and the standard gauge network of Trenes Argentinos in Argentina. A similar arrangement exists at Santana do Livramento for interchange with the standard gauge network of AFE in Uruguay.

Main line railways

Long distance passenger services

Suburban passenger railways

Metros and light rail

Tourist railways, historic trams and funicular

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