Void possibilities: the Thousand-day Railroad – Vazio S/A

The Thousand-day Railroad
Carlos M Teixeira

In the early 70s, the military regime then in power in Brazil conducted preliminary studies for the construction of a new railroad connecting Belo Horizonte, Rio and São Paulo. The results were published with fanfare in the press, where the project, officially called the Steel Railway, was nicknamed “The Thousand-day Railroad”, a reference to the expected construction timeframe.

Stretching over 834 kilometers, the technical standards were to be “first-world”: two-way tracks, high-speed bends, a maximum slope ratio of 1% and electrification. The economy was growing at upwards of 10% a year during the period 1968-1974, and forecasts were for sustained rates of 8% per annum until 1980. Demand for mineral transportation grew by 29.5% a year between 1973 and 1976, and such promising expectations for development left President Ernesto Geisel concerned that ore-traffic would hit gridlock, threatening supply to the steel mills in the southeast and compromising commitments already assumed for the exportation of this raw material.

The problem was that the Steel Railway, though urgently needed, was planned in such a manner as put the cart before the horse. The gigantesque project was justifiable given Brazil’s impressive economic performance during the early 70s – the so-called Brazilian Miracle. Brazil was no China, but there was a flurry of gargantuan infrastructural undertakings: the Rio-Niteroi Bridge (km), the Trans-Amazonian highway (km), the Itaipu Hydroelectric Plant (then the largest in the world), etc. Yet in the case of the railroad, few combinations could have been more of a recipe for disaster than tight schedule, continental proportions and impossible topography. By the time they realized the enormous construction costs that would be forced upon them by the topography and other “hitches”, it was already too late. The worst problem was having to scale back electrification, which not only resulted in millions of dollars-worth of abandoned equipment, but also meant the freight cars would have to be pulled by diesel-electric locomotives unsuited to unventilated tunnels, as the original project was tailored to electric engines.

Electrification was considered vital to the Steel Railway for various reasons. Among the hundred-plus tunnels along the line was the largest in South America, the 8,600-meter “tunelão” (big tunnel) in Santa Rita de Jacutinga. The main problem was that this exorbitant number of kilometers-long tunnels practically disqualified the use of diesel engines, which would have required the installation of prohibitively expensive fume exhaust systems in every tunnel along the route. In 1976, a formal contract was signed for the full electrification of the Railroad. However, this was also when the first foreshocks of economic crisis started to be felt in Brazil, with worrying rates of inflation. Curbing the rise of inflation required cut-backs on government spending, the railroad included. The brisk pace of construction slowed from February 1977, scuppering the thousand-day completion deadline for the job. It was the end of the Miracle, and Brazilian economic performance would never be the same again.

The economic situation deteriorated and work on the railroad was suspended in 1978. When it was eventually resumed, the pace was another, and would become even slower after October 1982. That same year saw the arrival of the first batch of electrification equipment featured in the 1976 contract. The grave economic crisis of 1983 made matters even worse, bringing construction to a total standstill the following year. Unfinished overpasses, useless tunnels and deserted work bases littered with abandoned machinery, all left exposed to the elements, dotted the landscape of southern Minas throughout much of the 70s and 80s, testifying to the failure of the undertaking and to the absurdity of infrastructure left to decay before it had even been put to use.

That was how matters still stood when, in 1986, the board at Rede Ferroviária Federal S/A, the federal railway company, developed a plan to complete and operate a 319-kilometer stretch between Jeceaba and Saudade, where the infrastructure was nearly complete. The new approach foresaw various simplifications, such as a single track (no longer two-way) and the use of diesel-electric locomotives. Electrification was not discarded outright, but was indefinitely postponed, seen as its implantation alone would have cost over a billion dollars.

As the chances of electrification became increasingly remote, the decision was made to use some of the idle equipment on other governmental railway projects (the Recife subway and suburban lines in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo), but the rest continued to rust away in a depot in Cruzeiro, São Paulo. Work on the railroad resumed in earnest and, on April 14, 1989, the ends finally met at km 138 + 965m, in the municipality of Madre Deus, Minas Gerais. After 14 years, the first trains were up-and-running. The “Thousand-day Railroad” had become the “Five thousand and Ninety-eight-day Railroad”, and still only partially complete. Among other pendencies is a Pharaonic 3.2-kilometer sequence of four tunnels (longer than the gigantic Rebouças tunnel in Rio) still inaccessible and unused in Belo Horizonte, waiting patiently for some attempt to retrieve it from Limbo.

These are the tunnels that would be brought to light as our set design for Distressed.

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