The International Steam Pages

Brazil's Devil's Railway gets new lease of life

This story about the Madeira-Mamoré Railway by Louise Sherwood appeared on the BBC News website on 27th November 2010 - see In the interests of the railway enthusiast community at large, I have abstracted it because news media items tend to be ephemeral, associated with the article was a gallery of mainly historical pictures of which I have abstracted one picture of Porto Velho to show recent positive developments.

It was the early 1900s and American Percival Farquhar was a man with a mission, determined to succeed where others before him had failed. The wealthy entrepreneur from Pennsylvania had been granted the concession by the Brazilian government to build a railway to help transport rubber from Brazil and landlocked Bolivia to the outside world. It would be the third attempt to lay rail tracks in this part of the Amazon rainforest, where treacherous rapids made sections of the Madeira and Mamoré Rivers unnavigable. Farquhar, whose businesses went on to include other railways and ports in Brazil, contracted a US company - May, Jekyll and Randolph . Their task was to build the line from the Bolivian border to Porto Velho in Brazil, where goods could be loaded onto boats to reach the River Amazon and out to sea.

Some 20,000 men, from countries including the US, England, Scotland, Germany, China, India, Barbados and Grenada, responded to the job advertisements that promised riches in a new land. But reality was a remote outpost with no amenities. The men had to cut their way through thick jungle in intense heat and humidity, while heavy rains and floods frequently washed away the tracks they had just laid. They faced ambushes from indigenous peoples and attacks from wild animals, and many succumbed to malaria, yellow fever and tuberculosis. It is estimated that some 6,000 people died during construction of what became known as the Devil's Railway. The 366km (230 miles) of track running from Gujara Mirim on the Bolivian border to Porto Velho was finally completed after five years of work in 1912. But just a year later, the market for Amazon rubber collapsed as new Malaysian plantations took over. The railway's heyday was over almost before it had begun. Farquhar dusted himself off from this setback and moved on to other projects, but the Madeira-Mamoré Railway was set on a course of decline.

For those who worked on it, the railway was, and remains, a key part of Brazil's cultural and industrial heritage that deserves to be restored.

"We put everything into the railway, our work, our blood, and it gave us our living. That's why we keep fighting. We want to see it running again," says Jose Bispo de Moraes, who worked on the line from the early 1950s for some 20 years.

“The Madeira-Mamoré railway not only brought about the birth of this city, it was part of the conquest of the Amazon” - Beto Bertagna

Brazil's National Institute of Artistic and Historical Heritage Manuel Soares da Silva began working at the Guajara Mirim station on 1 June, 1953. "It was my 17th birthday and I started as a telephone assistant before becoming a stoker and then a driver. There were no training courses. We learned everything on the job. I spent 12 years just going up and down the track almost every day, even holidays," he said. "The toughest job was feeding the fire because it was very hot and sparks would fly out. You had to keep shovelling wood to power the engine or the pressure would drop. High blood pressure is a problem for humans but for the train it's vital," he laughs. There was another, more dangerous, challenge. "You would have two trains running down the track at the same time in opposite directions. Every 10km there was a telephone and points. You had to call the boss responsible for co-ordination and check the position of the other train to see if you needed to let it pass," says Mr Soares da Silva.

In the 1960s, with the growth of the car industry, Brazil's then military government decided to build a road to replace the railway route. By 1972 the line was closed, apart from an occasional tourist train running along a 7km stretch. Drug addicts moved into the vacant railway buildings, humidity turned the locomotives to rust and jungle reclaimed the tracks. For enthusiasts, the best step would be to see the trains running again on the line. Walking around the old train workshop today, Mr Bispo de Moraes points to what looks like a heap of metal surrounded by rubbish.

"That's a 'monkey'," he says, his eyes lighting up. "When we learnt how to use all the machines we gave them nicknames like frog and donkey. It's a tragedy to see them in this condition."

UK rail enthusiast Martin Cooper visited the railway in 1998 and was so shocked by its dilapidated condition he set up the Madeira-Mamoré Railway Society (MMRS) in partnership with campaigners in Porto Velho.

"I was saddened by the inability of political leaders in [the state of] Rondonia to realise the tourism potential and wanted to help to preserve this industrial heritage which is world class in its importance," says Mr Cooper. 

Although the society closed in 2009, Mr Cooper says he still gets emails from descendants of the European and North American citizens who built the line seeking to trace their relatives. Recent years have seen some moves towards restoring parts of the railway. In 2005, it was listed by Brazil's National Institute of Artistic and Historical Heritage (IPHAN).

"Only sites of national importance are given heritage status and the Madeira-Mamoré railway not only brought about the birth of this city, it was part of the conquest of the Amazon," says Beto Bertagna, IPHAN's director in Porto Velho.

Two years later, with a 12m reais ($7.2m, £4.5m) grant, Porto Velho's tourism board began to restore one of the train sheds. The railway's revival received another boost when the Santo Antonio Energia company began to build a hydroelectric dam close to Porto Velho. As compensation for their project's social and environmental impact, they are spending 27.6m reais ($16.6m; £10.4m) on restoration. This so far includes development of the station building and renovation of another of the train sheds. It is also planned to restore three locomotives and four carriages, as well as developing the site of the old hospital and cemetery in Porto Velho where many of the workers were buried. Mr Bispo is happy to see the station complex being restored.

"I will bring my great-grandchildren here to tell them all my stories," he said.

Yet doubts still remain over whether sections of the track will be reopened and for the ex-train workers that is the most important step.

"Only when the train is moving will life come back to this place," said Mr Soares da Silva.

It is now almost a century since the first locomotives steamed along the tracks. Will the Devil's Railway roll again any time soon?

Rob Dickinson