The International Steam Pages


A Brazilian Narrow Gauge Branch Line: Descalvadense 

This account was written by Leandro Guidini, the locomotive engineer on the Perus Pirapora preserved line and translated by Thor W. Windbergs. I have made only minimal changes to make it conform with the standard units and terms I use on this website (eg mm for rail gauge).


Always we view in general, with certain romanticism the trains and the railway companies, but few times we stopped to analyze and to understand the real daily operation of the trains.

So I applied my research to the 600 mm gauge trains of Cia Paulista in São Paulo, especially with regard to the Descalvadense branch line (13km = 8m), or simply "The little Train of Aurora." Not only I, but all see the romantic setting of the train that passes by plantations, stopping at the station Pântano for finally arrives to the city of Aurora. But, really, how was it then? How did in fact, the train really operate?

Today, after investing years of study in the theme, with a good personal experience in the operation of the small steam locomotives and their trains in real railway lines, I think I can describe it now with a more practical perspective, totally eliminating such romanticism, and really describing the dynamics of working the Descalvadense branch.

I came to this conclusion after continuously collecting diverse information. Look at the steam locomotives; they have certain limitations, be it of weight, tractive effort, fuel capacity; either liquid or solid. The lines also have limitations, with curves and ascents that limit the allocated "train consist", creating specific conditions for each passage to be travelled. The whole railway and infrastructure also creates more variables, such as size and capacity of the yards, warehouses and stations. That everything together generates dynamics for each situation, such dynamics that might have contributed to the rise and decline of the Descalvadense extension.

Let us imagine some time in the middle of the forties. To begin, the main traction locomotive was the old 960, which was built in 1893, with capacity for just a little more than a thousand litres of water (265ga.) and 2 m³ (2 stere = 2 m³ ≈ 0..72 Cords) of firewood. If we calculate that a locomotive in her technical condition uses something around about 10 cm³ of firewood per kilometre, which means that engine requires more or less 1.5m³ to complete one trip between Descalvado and Aurora. The water carried is also completely consumed over this trip distance. So that upon arrival at the end stations Aurora or Descalvado the engine should have a supply of firewood and water, as well as water source in the middle of the branch line, where for safety, the engines supply of water in the tank can be topped up.

The passengers train left Descalvado bound for Aurora at 07:00. For the locomotive crew planning, we assume the locomotive is still hot with some pressure from the day before. In this case, in a matter of 30 minutes she would be lit again and would be ready with pressure to work. But she needs to have her supplies replenished. So she is moved to firewood supply stacks and loaded. With 2 people, this labour takes around 15 minutes, without rushing. Then the time arrives to replenish the engines supply of water. At least 800 litres (210ga.) of water will be necessary to fill the tank, which takes at least 10 more minutes. We have already spent 1 hour for these preparations. The train still has to be switched to be parked at the station platform. As the train consist made up and was tied up the previous day on the ready track or car barn, this would facilitate the switching time a little. But the train should be at the platform of the station by at least 6:45, so that the passengers may embark calmly and so that their suitcases and goods can be allocated properly as well as mail and that the parcel post would be stowed. So adding all this together, the 1 hour for engine preparation, the switching and the platform time waiting to leave, the trainmen (or just "man") employees of the little branch line railroad would have to arrive to the engine shed at 05.00 in the morning, at the latest 05:30. 

“All aboard”, the train is ready at the platform with passengers boarded. For the conductor, there is enough time to wait, time to check the tickets and time to confer with the Station Master, time to write down the number of passengers, time to log quantity of freight, luggage or post, with their various destinations. The engineer is waiting at the throttle. His fireman has already “oiled around” the engine and is now preparing his fire to face the battle up the hill ahead, which continues until arriving to the station of Pântano. For the work ahead, it is necessary that engine has her full working pressure, for engine 960 it is 130 pounds per square inch (9 Bar). The engine should carry a high level of water in the gauge glass, her fire must be hot and deep and all the cars must be properly coupled and secured with safety chains attached. Since the brake system is vacuum based, if the cars should break apart separating the vacuum brake line, the whole composition would apply its brakes. Because of this, at the car barn or siding all of the vacuum hoses between the cars should have been connected and at both ends of the consist (at the front of the locomotive and at the end of the last car) blind end caps must been properly installed, this is the only way the brakes can be tested to ensure that there are no leaks and it is safe. Therefore those last 15 minutes of preparation in anticipation of the departure are very important. 

The conductor signals his permission for departure by blowing his whistle, the conductor's signal is confirmed by the engineer with a toot of the locomotive whistle. The train leaves slowly, stretching out the composition and crossing the whole yard, which is full of switches susceptible to derailment, for this reason only after the whole train passes the last switch is it allowed to accelerate to the normal track speed. Cia Paulista from São Paulo adopted a track speed limit of 30 km/h as the maximum allowed for their narrow gauge (600 mm) branch lines, but this speed could not be reached over the whole line due to the ascents and descents. All this is part of that dynamics that I mentioned in the paragraphs above.

The train left the urban area of the city, and its first stop was at the siding of Sr Alfredo Barros, at km 3.229. There was sometimes somebody to disembark or disembark, but the train proceeded to its second stop, at the siding of Fazenda São Miguel, at km 5.321. This stop was a little more important and there was almost always a passenger to disembark or embark, as well as freight and mail to be exchanged. After this stop begins the climb of the hill towards the station of Pântano, the first rural neighborhood to be reached by the train. There, the locomotive, paused briefly in preparation of the next 5 km of trip, as it would be a battle for the fireman and the old locomotive. This maybe was the part of trip with the largest consumption of firewood and water, and of lowest speed. This was the beginning of the losing battle against the boiler, as too much steam was demanded from the pistons of the locomotive pulling the train up the hill. I believe that the firewood consumption in this phase of the trip was some 60% of the total consumption of the trip, and at least 50% of all the water was consumed here as well. With persistence, experience and the crew's sweat, the train arrived at Pântano at 07:35, where the stop was a little longer, about 3 minutes. The locomotive would be owed without doubts "a cold drink" at this station, filling up the level of the tank to avoid any type of problem of resulting from a lack of water during the rest of the trip. Leaving for Aurora, the next 3 km and trip was almost level, with a slight descent to Aurora, a moment of rest for the train crew. Fifteen minutes of travel separate one station from the other, and at 07:50 the train arrives at the end of line, Aurora. 

Once the passengers, freight and post is unloaded, then it is time for switching the train consist, the order of the consist has to be correct for the return trip since there is no way to turn the whole train. Additionally cars may have to be added or dropped from the consist as well as positioned in the yard. The locomotive must again be supplied with firewood from the stacks and the supply of water onboard must be topped up. That would be about another half hour. Then there are always wagons to be switched at the yard, which is also completed by this crew. The next train for Descalvado will depart at 09:00, and following protocol, at 08:45 must be ready at the platform. The time available was perfect time for all these operations. The return trip begins, after that whole ritual that was performed in the departure from Descalvado. The train arrives at Pântano at 09:12., three minutes later it leaves, the trip is well calmer since that big climb from before is now a long downhill grade. This is the time for use of train brakes; they must be worked with a lot of care by the engineer, in order to maintain the speed but also not allowing the slack in the train to run in. 

Even though it is a downhill trip, the engine still consumes firewood and water, because the vacuum of the brake is generated with steam also, and this is now being used pretty consistent at this moment. You can see that the fireman does not get to rest for a moment during the trip. As we pass São Miguel, it signals that we will soon arrive again in Descalvado, precisely at 09:50. Again everything and everyone is unloaded and the engine reverses to the yard, where the cars are uncoupled and parked, the locomotive then switches the cars that are waiting at the yard, once again the engine is resupplied with firewood and water and, this time, it is parked or tied up inside the engine shed, where it will await for the next train, that will leave at 15:30 for Descalvado, returning by 17:50. So now the crew eats lunch, rest and then everything begins again. At the end of the day, around the 18:30 the train prepared ready to be kept in the engine shed overnight. It is the employees' time to go home to take bath, to have dinner and to sleep, since at 05.00 in the morning the routine starts all over again.

This without a doubt the labor on the little branch line was hard and trying, but it is also very gratifying and fills one with a sense of pride. But a sense of romantic doesn't really exist. The romanticism comes with the nostalgia of envisioning he who lived for and performed the work, those that were forced to bend to the routine that so marked their life. Yes, this then is romantic nostalgia. And it is this experience above that is the part of history most often forgotten, the part of history remembering the effort and perspiration long ago which awakens the feeling of longing that the train left in people's hearts.

I expect, in one way or another, that all can visualize the sequences in this text as real life, a daily life that happened long ago, in another world where life had another form of dynamic, and I imagine that the reader can envision all the work and labor required to maintain this once critical form of transport, and we can also now understand why transport needed to its development until this form of narrow gauge branch line was no longer needed and ceased to exist. But this discontinuation should be done in a respectful way for all the sweat and labor invested in the past. That for me defines the word PRESERVATION, which comes with the definition of HERITAGE. This is what I tried to narrate above can be framed in the endeavor called "immaterial heritage", the part that is always more difficult and typically insufficient, but is as fundamental to preservation as the material goods. This experience, this day-to-day routine is important to build the romanticism. Therefore, I wish that you consider and think about this whole long text, because in him I tried to put a little bit of everything that I learned, in practical ways, of the “Train of Aurora”. It is here my part of the legacy for the future, so that they know that that train was more valiant than you would imagine!


Rob Dickinson

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