Back to the track
© Getty
January 2019

Back to the track

Rail transportation had its heyday in many parts of the world up until the middle of the 20th century but was subsequently neglected in favor of burgeoning road transportation. Today we realize that this was a mistake, for instance in Brazil. The return to the railroad confronts the country with major challenges.

​For the 10th of July 1875, the Brazilian town of Sorocaba had made a special effort of spiffing itself up: palm trees were lining the streets, flags posted, and the houses had fresh coats of paint. Hundreds of people were celebrating to the sound of live music in tents set up in the heart of the city. They were waiting for the train to arrive that would officially open the Sorocabana Railroad – and that was supposed to boost the economic development of the region.

1.62 million km (1.01 million miles)

is the length of the maintenance interval a Schaeffler customer has specified for the FAG tapered roller bearing units in its high-speed trains. This distance equates to circling the Earth 40 times.

And it proved to do so. Now, on the first connection of the new line, it was possible to haul large volumes of cotton from Sorocaba to São Paulo and from there to the nearby port of Santos. The construction of the railroad tracks, bridges, and train stations alone mobilized some 1,500 workers – more than ten percent of the town’s population of 13,000 at the time. Only a year later, the route was extended to the Ipanema Iron Factory, Brazil’s first steel mill.

The end of the line: a ghost station

In the following decades, the network of the Sorocabana Railroad was gradually extended all the way to the states of Paraná and Mato Grosso do Sul. This was the Sorocabana Railroad’s golden age. It created jobs, simplified trade, and so accelerated the economic growth of the region. In 1971, exactly 96 years after it was officially opened, the government in São Paulo integrated the Sorocabana Railroad with FEPASA – a merger of various railroad operators. Investments in the railroad infrastructure severely subsided and between 1996 and 1999, the lines in Brazil were privatized. The train station in Sorocaba was closed back then, too, and today only freight trains pass through it. However, they’re no longer traveling as frequently anymore either as Brazil’s economy would actually need them to.

Back to the track
Schaeffler Brazil helped put the old switcher back on track© Schaeffler
Old loco, new luster

To keep Brazil’s railroad history alive, “MPF-Sorocabana,” the association for the preservation of the railroad, restores old locomotives and railroad cars. Most recently, volunteer engineers and mechanics, with financial support by Schaeffler Brazil, restored the old Whitcomb 3036 traction unit. The last remaining mechanical diesel locomotive of the Sorocabana Railroad was built by the American Whitcomb Locomotive Works in Illinois in 1942 and came to Brazil only in 1956. During its entire lifespan, it was used for switching trains and railroad cars in Brazil, first by the Iperó track welding operation and later by the railroad association FEPASA in Sorocaba. The association aims to open a “Memory Center” in the old train station of Sorocaba and to operate a tourist train, says Eric Mantuan, operations manager of MPF-Sorocabana. “For this purpose, we plan to restore a total of five locomotives and eight passenger railroad cars.” With the Whitcomb 3036, two locomotives are now in good repair again.

Back to the track© Schaeffler

At least, some 37,000 kilometers (23,000 miles) of railroad tracks have been built since the 1950s, albeit a third of them have since been shut down again – a mere third is still being used to capacity. As a result, the world’s fifth-largest country with an area of 8.5 million square kilometers (3.3 million square miles) is heavily dependent on trucks that haul 63 percent of Brazil’s entire freight. The consequences: a lot of traffic on the roads and growing logistics costs which, in the end, might adversely affect the supply of goods to the population.

The course of transportation planning slows down Brazil’s growth and makes it more difficult for the country to develop its economic potential. Obviously, the government in the capital, Brasília, has long recognized this issue and taken on the challenge. However, large-scale projects such as the Transnordestina – 1,728 kilometers (1,074 miles) of new broad gauge tracks from the ports of Suape (near Recife) and Pecém (near Fortaleza) to Eliseu Martins in the state of Piauí – and the 4,500-kilometer (2,800-mile) north-south line that’s intended to connect the mines and farms in Brazil’s interior with the ports on the Amazon River and the São Paulo metropolitan area are still awaiting completion.

A second chance – in freight transportation

The fact that it’s mainly geared to exports of raw materials, and thus freight transportation, is one of the past and present challenges posed to Brazil’s railroad system. For passenger transportation by rail there are hardly any viable prospects: too many stations, lines, and tracks have been shut down and not enough people would use newly built routes in sparsely populated regions. Most people in Brazil live in big cities. There, however, passenger transportation by rail is indispensable: the São Paulo Metro alone hauls 4.7 million people on average per day.

Rail international
Back to the track© Getty

Japan has one of the world’s most closely knit networks (covering 27,311 km/16,970 miles). However, trains by now only play a subordinate role in long-distance freight transportation. From 1965 until today, the proportion of tons hauled per kilometer dropped from 31  to 5 % (coastal shipping currently accounts for 44 %, trucks for 50 %). By contrast, in passenger transportation – which is privately organized like freight transportation – the railroad is the backbone of both urban and interurban service. In 1964, the first route exclusively used by high-speed trains was officially opened between Tokyo and Osaka. Experts regard the Japanese railroad system as the best in the world. The tolerance in the departure time of the Shinkansen high-speed train is exactly five seconds (!), the stopping position at the track in the station is supposed to be reached with an accuracy of one centimeter (0.4 inches).

Back to the track© Getty

In India, the railroad has traditionally been one of the most important means of transportation. In 1832, the first train was operated there. In 1950, the railroad network had grown to an amazing 54,000 km (21,300 miles). Today, it covers some 67,000 km (41,600 miles) – in fourth place in the world ranking behind the United States, China, and Russia. While the railroad network in the past six decades has grown by only 23 % the number of passenger kilometers (due to higher incomes and growing urbanization) has seen a massive increase by 1,624 %. The freight tons have increased tenfold due to growing industrialization. That’s why rail transportation often surpasses the capacity limits, especially in the densely populated north. The government and the state-owned Indian Railway – with 1.3 million workers the country’s biggest employer and eighth-biggest in the world – have recognized the problem and are counteracting it by reshaping this sector and a capital expenditure program of several billion dollars.

Back to the track© Getty

Along with the country’s economic reform and modernization starting at the end of the 1970s rail transportation in China began to experience an upswing as well. Initially, transportation on the existing tracks increased, and from the turn of the millennium on, the network was massively expanded as well – from 50,000 to 150,000 km (31,000 to 93,000 miles) today. For freight transportation, this is still not enough. Many routes are so heavily utilized that in recent years more and more cargo migrated from rail to road. Between 1963 and today, the proportion of rail transportation in long-distance cargo shipping shrunk from 75 to 20 %. That China attaches great importance to rail transportation of freight is also evident in the “New Silk Road” mega infrastructure project with rail connections all the way to Europe. The expansion of the high-speed train network is another large-scale project. Covering a distance of more than 11,000 km (6,800 miles), it’s already longer than that of the entire rest of the world. By 2025, it’s planned to grow to 38,000 km (23,600 miles). Schaeffler benefits from the growth of the railroad sector in China as well: The technology group deployed initial axlebox bearings there as early as in the 1980s. Today, Schaeffler is an important development partner for high-speed, local, and freight rail applications with local development, manufacturing, and service know-how.

Back to the track© Getty

In 1930, an incredible 690,000 km (429,000 miles) of train tracks traversed the United States. Today, it’s 200,000 km (125,280 miles), which still keeps the U.S. at the top of the world’s ranking. More than in other countries, the railroad lost market share to the road and commercial aviation after the Second World War – especially in the passenger transportation sector. In 1910, the railroad accounted for 95 % of the market share in passenger transportation, compared to 1 % today. However, in freight transportation, the railroad has been making up ground again in recent years, now accounting for a remarkable 40 % of the market share, which is twice as much as in the EU. The advantage in the United States is that freight trains can be almost infinitely long due to the low utilization of the tracks by passenger trains. A U.S. train on average hauls 3,000 metric tons (3,300 short tons), ten times more than in the EU. Accordingly, the costs of one ton-kilometer on a U.S. freight train are low, compared with 20 cents on a truck (EU 11/14 cents).

Denis Dilba
Author Denis Dilba
As a child Denis Dilba wanted to become a naturalist and explore the Amazon ­River. But then he decided to study mechatronics. During his research the thought crossed his mind that a job as a railroad engineer in Brazil could have actually combined both interests. Too late, now he’s a journalist specializing in science and technology.