A Breathtaking Railway
By “Awake!” correspondent in Brazil
“THE most beautiful, thrilling, wonderful, awe-inspiring, yes, breathtaking.” That is how a Uruguayan tourist guide described the railway trip from Curitiba to Paranaguá in southern Brazil.
Come and join us on the exciting three-hour ride abroad the modern Litorina, a streamlined one-carriage diesel train. Anxious not to miss a single view, we pick a clear day. As we settle in our seats, with background music, a warm welcome in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese—together with an announcement that free refreshments will be served during the trip—comes over the loudspeaker system and adds to our expectant mood. What spectacular glimpses await us on the 110-kilometer (68-mile) journey?
Leaving 907-meter-high (2,976-foot-high) Curitiba behind, the train soon begins winding its way through green meadows that give way to more rugged terrain. The first of 13 tunnels catches us unawares in its dark embrace.
Outside again, quick motion-picture-like scenes fascinate us. Deep valleys slice through mountains, with each receding row fading into hazier bluish green. There are luxuriant forests of Araucaria pine trees, their branches and tufts of needles at the very top of the trunk reminding us of parasols. Lush plant life—at times interspersed with yellow, white or pink flowering trees or silvery leaves—hides the ground.
Tragedy of the Serra do Mar
The train comes to a halt at “Kilometer 65.” Our attention is drawn to a memorial tablet and a cross at the bottom of the precipice. What happened there? On May 20, 1893, in the wee hours of the morning, soldiers knocked at the door of a prominent businessman and politician, known as Baron of Cerro Azul, in Curitiba. On orders of the ruling general, he and others on the blacklist were put on the train to Paranaguá. High up in the mountains, at “Kilometer 65,” the train screeched to a halt. It was still dark. The prisoners were pulled out of the train and pushed over the precipice into the abyss.
Only for moments do we contemplate the chilling tragedy. The train glides along to its encounters with more pleasant spots. Bare rocks jut out of the entwined profusion of green foliage. Streams of water come cascading down from rocky heights. Sounds of “oh!” and “ah!” “look over here!” or “olhe aí!” break forth from the lips of excited passengers as noses are pressed to the windows. Gauzelike spray envelops the tumbling waters of a cascade. Its name? Why, the Bride’s Veil!
The eye can hardly keep pace with the changes all around us. Clinging to the mountainsides, a gigantic viaduct spans gaping depths. Another tunnel looms up, envelops us and finally releases us. Then follows another short stretch of railway track on a bed precariously carved out of the mountainside.
Approaching the Devil’s Curve, we hold our breath. The train moves along the very edge of a deep ravine. Do we have the heart to look down? Knowing that no passenger train has ever been derailed here is not enough to relieve our tension. A curve of 45 degrees over a terrifying abyss makes us feel queasy. Will the train slip right into the abyss? Only when we are around the bend do we start breathing easily again—ready for the next surprise.
The train stops at the small station of Marumbi. A number of adventurous mountaineering enthusiasts get off. No doubt they are heading for Abrolho peak, a colossal block of rock. Being easy to climb, it is sought out by many. But there are other peaks in the vicinity, such as Ponta do Tigre, Morro do Gigante and Olimpo. All add grandeur to the panorama. At the bottom lies the modern power plant of Marumbi, on the Ipiranga River.
The brief stop enabled us to inhale air tinged with the aroma of tropical vegetation. Amid all the awe-inspiring handiwork of the divine Landscape Designer, the train begins to nose its way down toward the coast. We are bypassing the highest Serra peak of 1,979 meters (6,493 feet). Nine hundred meters (2,953 feet) below are the deep-blue waters and white breakers of the Atlantic Ocean and, along the coast, houses and towns are scattered like children’s toys. Sheltered by an array of small islands, the city of Paranaguá is situated in a bay bearing the same name.
All too soon we come to the end of our memorable trip. Although the hustle and bustle of one of Brazil’s important seaports and a delicious seafood lunch take our attention, our minds are really still up in the Serra. Before long we are back on the train, retracing our path on the single track. This time we cannot help but be in a pensive mood. How did they manage to conceive of and complete such a daring project?
Singular Engineering Feat
A fellow passenger comes to our aid with a historical sketch. When, in 1853, Paraná State was separated from São Paulo State, a pressing need arose for an efficient link with the Atlantic coast. How else could Paraná export its maté tea, timber and coffee? The obvious answer was a railroad between Curitiba and the coast. Construction rights were obtained in 1871 and later transferred to the “Compagnie Générale de Chemins de Fer Brésiliens.” Eventually, in June 1880, the construction was inaugurated in the presence of Emperor Dom Pedro II.
Divided into three sections, the first one—a stretch of over 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Paranaguá to Morretes—presented only the problem of marshy and alluvial soil. Real problems began with the start of the second section at “Kilometer 42.” Within the short distance of 39 kilometers (24 miles), the track rose from five meters (16 feet) to 955 meters (3,133 feet).
No wonder the second section was the most laborious and daring! At “Kilometer 45,” the original European engineers abandoned the job because of the perilous precipices in the Serra do Mar. However, undaunted Brazilian engineers took up the challenge. The primitive means at their disposal might have frightened almost anybody. Much of the scaffolding was made of logs simply tied together with lianas, or climbing vines.
With cries of “Impossible! Risking your life for nothing!” still ringing in their ears, the workers moved on—meter by meter. Steep mountains, composed of granite and gneiss, slowly yielded to the dogged determination of engineers and workmen alike. Precipices of 900 meters (2,953 feet) soon had bridges clinging to the sides of hostile slopes.
Originally fifteen tunnels were cut in the rocks and 41 bridges were built. (Only 13 tunnels are still in use.) A total of 972 meters (3,189 feet) of bridges and viaducts and 1,689 meters (5,541 feet) of tunnels, the longest being 429 meters (1,407 feet) at an altitude of 995 meters (3,264 feet)!
Once the obstacles of the Serra had been overcome, the third and last section was a cinch. It runs over a smooth plateau, almost in a straight line, from Piraquara to its terminal, Curitiba.
For five years, whenever a false step would mean sure death, 9,000 men worked courageously. But only 4,000 were active at a time. The other 5,000 were in bed sick with tropical diseases caused by insect bites. The toll of human life was high.
All obstacles and negative predictions notwithstanding, on February 5, 1885, at 10 a.m., the seemingly “impossible” was achieved. The first train then set out from Paranaguá, and it arrived in Curitiba at 7 p.m. Why the delay? Well, the travelers had been served a regal meal at Cadeado station. The train was received in Curitiba amid the joyous exclamations of the population and some Brazilian and foreign authorities. Nowadays the line is acclaimed as one of the world’s fine engineering feats and a credit to man’s endurance in the face of overwhelming odds.
Of course, the scenic Litorina is not the only train running on the line. There are ordinary passenger and freight trains, with shunting stations to allow one to go up and the other down. The railway remains the lifeline between the interior of Paraná State and the outside world, fulfilling the original purpose for which it was built.
At last, we leave behind the dense jungle vegetation hugging the mountains, the blue sky above and the somber depths below, as well as the gurgling and splashing waters and the fragrance of tropical virgin forests. Our sense of appreciation has been sharpened by this unforgettable trip. Perhaps you can undertake it yourself someday. If you do, you will never forget the breathtaking railway.