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Train of Serra do Mar

Saturday morning, need to wake up early to drive to Rio Negrinho (Santa Catarina, Brazil) and take the steam train. The non-government organization ABPF keeps several passenger trains, both steam and electric, throughout Brazil, and promotes periodic trips with them.

Figure 1: Steam train in Brazil

The Rio Negrinho (which means "small black river") is perhaps the most well-known of all ABPF offerings (if we take the commercial offerings into consideration, Curitiba-Paranaguá trip is by far the most famous) and they roll the train every month, sometimes twice a month.

It is one of the very few opportunities in the world to ride a steam passenger train (all regular passenger train services have ceased in Brazil).

The train goes from Rio Negrinho to the adjacent city of São Bento do Sul, down to a village called Rio Natal (something like "christmas river"), which was initially populated by Polish immigrants. It is a short trip in straight line, but there is one important twist: the heavy descent grade of Serra do Mar mountain range.

Due do this, there are incredibly beautiful green landscapes to be seen, as well as the buildings of the São Francisco railroad itself. This railroad goes from São Francisco port up to Mafra city, where it meets other railroads.

Figure 2: Steam train in Brazil

This trip could be understood as a "light" version of Curitiba-Paranaguá: it only descends halfway (from 900m to 350m), takes half of the time, there are half as tunnels, the abysses are half as deep. Instead of typical Paraná food, there is typical Polish food, served at the Catholic church of Rio Natal.

The trip used to do all the way down to Corupá, but it has been trimmed several times due to single line sharing with freight, and now it doesn't even go down to Rio Natal abandoned station. (Actually, Curitiba-Paranaguá was also trimmed to Morretes.)

There are some attractions from "outside" tourists which may be interested in German/Polish/whatever immigrant traditions: music fanfare, sale of souvenirs, etc. etc. I'd get pissed off with those things if we were at 2005, but now that I have lived outside my home town,

I've learned to give the due value to such (seemingly silly) things. I thought that train would have very few passengers, but the platform was already crowded when I arrived. About 200 people attended the trip.

Figure 3: Steam train in Brazil

And of course, the undisputable attraction of ABPF/SC trip is the steam locomotive. In general, locomotives always are to be respected, but the steam engine feels like a giant, live animal. It feels warm one meter apart, makes a lot of noise and demands being taken care of with oil and grease at every station.

The whistle is much more musical than the diesel loco horns. In the other hand, the smell of burnt coal is not that pleasant; even I would get fed up of it, if I had to take the train every day for a long period.

The steam train is very popular; people living besides railroad still wave a lot to the steamer, even though it travels every month for many years, and the same line sees several freights every day.

Here I have a YouTube playlist with all videos I did during the trip, in chronological order. Not all have English comments, sorry. Enjoy the noise!

A little problem with my trip was the intermittent rain. It didn't build up to heavy rain which would demand windows closed, but gave me extra work to record and take pictures. At least the rain stopped completely when the train went back uphill, which made tourists happy. Most of them were very interested in the Atlantic Forest and mountains.

Figure 4: Railroad in Brazil

Of course I like the forest too, but I'm seen often at Rio Natal (by car); my focus was the railroad itself, because several sections diverge from the gravel road and were completely unknown to me.

The train departs at 10:00, stops at Rio Natal by 12:00, begins to climb back at 13:00 and arrives back at 15:00 again at Rio Negrinho station. A lot of daylight was left to go to Pousada João de Barro hotel to drop my gear and take a look at the city, which was completely dressed up for Christmas.

A gigantic chimney from an old furniture factory was dressed with lights all the way up so it looks like a giant candle at night.

The hotel itself is inexpensive and extremely pleasant, and several finesse touches like antiquities in dinner room, as well as a privileged view of city landscape, create a very nice environment.

Figure 5: Rio Negrinho, Brazil

Though freight trains (whose frequency is function of soy harvesting) are very scarce in this season, I could hear at least two of them from my room. I didn't run after them by car just because it was raining heavily at Saturday night.

Sunday morning: sad thing, time to depart. Surprisingly, a perfect sunny day was waiting outside. I went to my second objective: visit a railroad bridge in the middle of nothing, between Rio Negrinho and Mafra cities.

This bridge can't be reached by car, a short walk (less than 1 mile) in railroad is needed. I did not have maps for this area, but Google Earth helped me with this one. I had to print the map (no cell phone signal at there), and it was actually a good idea since I had a difficult time to find the gravel road which leads to nearby the bridge.

Figure 6: Railroad trestle in Brazil

Quite a strange sensation, walking by the railroad completely alone like a hobo, under a deafening silence. It's unavoidable to thing about security and safety issues. Security is not a problem there, but perhaps safety is: what if I fell from bridge and broke a leg? It would take a week to someone find my corpse...

Fortunately, everything was fine, pictures taken, mission accomplished. The only issue: no train passed by the bridge to make my pictures more beautiful... BTW the bridge is nearby another abandoned station (Avencal) whose yard is actively used to cross trains.

Figure 7: Avencal yard, Mafra/SC (2019)

Time to go home, parole warrant is expiring :) Of course I would seize the opportunity to see even more track, and perhaps some freight train. I went back to Rio Natal, by car, using the most tortuous and unknown ways I could find, with the help of GPS to find which roads lead to target altitude (350m). On my way to Corupá, I thought I heard the engine of a diesel loco...

Figure 8: Railroad and GL-8 in Brazil

Of course I could not let this pass by. I turned around and went back up in the same direction as her. Unfortunately the gravel road is full of dangerous curves, while the train goes in a straight line with right of way. When I reached the grade cross, only the last wagons could be seen. Went up a bit more, same thing.

At this point the train makes a long curve while the road goes straight up very steeply. In spite of this advantage, only the some of loco could be seen when I reached there. To add insult to injury, I recorded the wagons passing, only to discover afterwards that I didn't press Record button properly. #FAIL.

I could have climbed up to Rio Natal again and record the train at station, but it was time to go home already, and I would be very angry if I lost again. So I did not see any running diesel locomotive at this weekend. We can not win all times, after all.

The land, the man, the fight

The São Francisco Railroad will be 100 years old by 2010, if we take the begin of construction into account (1910). It reached Mafra by 1915. The main challenge was climbing up the Serra do Mar mountain range, about 900m above sea level. The railroad followed the natural terrain of Rio Natal valley.

There was already a "road" at there which went up to São Bento do Sul, and the railway goes besides the road except when the latter becomes to steep; when the railway snakes through nearby hills to catch up while keeping 3% declivity (the same grade as Curitiba-Paranaguá).

Figure 9: Image of Brazilian railroad section in mountain area

Above we have the Google Earth image for the most sinuous section, north of Rio Natal. The image spans around 1.2mi (2km) from left to right, and the marks point the location of tunnels #2, #3 and #4 (out of a total of 5).

This railroad was a very important development factor for all served regions. First, it was a channel for herba-mate (a kind of tea) and lumber exports; in time, the region switched to a industrial-focused economy.

Passenger service was the only (reasonably fast) way to travel from Joinville to the high lands, and even after bus service was available, it offered lower fares, so being preferred by many people, up to complete extinction of passenger service at the end of 1980's.

Interestingly enough, Rio Natal does not have a regular bus service as of today (most people have cars and bikes instead), so the passenger train left a vacuum still unfilled.

Figure 10: Brazilian railroad station (abandoned)

Means at disposal by 1910 meant that railroads had to leverage the natural topography, often following valleys and river sides. Such things would not be allowed today due to environment laws.

Even at high lands, which don't have much altitude variation, a look at Google Earth shows that railroad between Rio Negrinho and Mafra follows almost exactly the course of Rio Negro river. The result is a railroad full of small-radius curves which look unnecessary.

This brought up very persistent legends about English railroad builders adding a lot of unnecessary curves because the railroad cost was a function of distance. Actually, those many curves elided too much prohibitively expensive facilities like bridges, landfills, cuts, tunnels and so on, keeping total cost on tight budgets of 1910's Brazil.

Figure 11: Brazilian railroad and steam train

The alternative strategy is to build a very straight and steep railroad with funiculars, or using a rack railway. The main railroad from Santos to São Paulo never employed adhesion; it used to be a funicular, and now it is rack. This is probably the most viable solution, should a new railroad is built on Serra do Mar.

Another factor of apparently poor standards of São Francisco, is the then-customary practice of building a quick-and-dirty railway, with wooden bridges etc., make it be profitable, and then make the necessary improvements like steel bridges and rectify the geometry.

Unfortunately, the lack of technology of 1910 was replaced by the lack of brains of our governors, and so the railway keeps the original way as of today. The same happens with almost all important railroads throughout Brazil.

Figure 12: Brazilian railroad station (not in use; preserved as museum)

This fact brings an unexpected, and somewhat welcome, side-effect: makes the trainspotters and model railroaders happy. Such old railroads may be seen as dynamic, outdoor museums, with unique elements. For instance, Brazil holds the world record for simple adhesion railroad grade: 10% (Campos de Jordão).

In contrast, consider the Ferrovia do Aço (Steel Railroad), built in 1970's with highest standards: 1% grade and minimum radius of 900m. Around 25% of railroad length is over some kind of artificial structure (tunnel, bridge, overpass etc.) and the railway is quite long. BTW the 5 mile (8km) tunnel of this railroad is also a world record.

Back to São Francisco railroad, the mountain section is easy to visit because, as said, there is a (narrow) road which follows the same way. But most "jewels" lie in sections where the railway diverges from road, so it is needed to leave the car and go by foot through railway, sometimes for a fair distance, depending on which item you want to visit.

All tunnels, all overpasses and most bridges are outside road's view. The tunnel #1 is the nearest from a grade crossing. For the lazy ones, there is a consolation prize completely visible from the road: a bridge over Rio Vermelho (Red River), just below the #1 tunnel. Google Earth is your friend to find interesting stuff.

Figure 13: Steam train in Brazil

Apart from the obvious beauties, a walk by the railway shows how well-made it is, in spite of primitive means at disposal by 1910: shovels, picks and dynamite. Almost every spot where there is potential for landslides has been fenced with stone walls.

Bridges and overpasses seem to be much higher than necessary, because they take into account the high flow of water when it's raining a lot. Every stream is drained properly by an open channel instead of tubes (that would clog fast with branches and leaves, and are difficult to inspect from above).

Except by tunnel #1, all others are caved on clay. I suspect that builders opted by tunnels not because the hills are high (because they are not, there is almost no hill over those tunnels), but because cuts in those places would slide all the time.

And with such touches, the railway resists for a century while much more recent roads slide and break up every time it rains a little above average.

Figure 14: Brazilian southern rainforest (Serra do Mar)

Still about valleys, it is noteworthy that São Francisco railroad was the main region's terrestrial connection to the rest of Brazil. Though this role has been taken by the BR-101/376 highway, it climbs a very difficult valley, which was simply out of reach of XIX century technology. All terrestrial ways before BR-376 did not go NWN, but instead went straight to West and explored some favorable topography.

The bottom line is that Serra do Mar mountain range was always an important obstacle for development of Brazilian regions west of the litoral strip. "Conquering the mountains" was a continuous effort which shaped Brazilian history forever. The São Francisco Railroad is just one chapter of this effort, but certainly a quite romantic one.

Figure 15: Trestle in Brazilian railroad