Brazilian Sketches



Railways and a Two Thousand Feet Climb

by Rudyard Kipling

A Drop in Traffic

It has been related how we were hauled up the face of a two thousand foot difference in level which occurs rather abruptly on the road between Santos and San Paulo; and how we had been promised that we should be brought down respectably by rail. That was made the excuse for a paseo—what the Australian aborigine calls a “walk-about.” The railway that connected the two places said: “Certainly! Let there be an Inspection Car, with men to explain. We’ll show you a Line.” It was a foreign-owned and largely foreign-managed company which, by the terms of its Charter, is forbidden to pay more than a certain dividend. The rest has to be turned back into the business. Hence the tale that, when everything else has been painted three coats, its telegraph-poles will be carved, and gilt, and its ballast white-washed.

The Essential Railway Man

Except that it was more luxurious, the car might have been Indian, South African, or Canadian. It did not, by any means, go direct to the sea, but took the field at large, in order that one might look at things out of the observation-end, where the easy chairs are. Next to travelling through a summer port in an English Admiral’s own barge and watching abject Navy boats scuttling out of your light, there is nothing to equal Inspection Cars. You can do everything except run backwards for a second look, and everything you want to know is answered at once by the man who knows or made it.

Not to mention that every new railway-run has its special flavours. Pulling out of San Paulo through the suburbs, the massy-built, spacious, clean stations, with their smells of varnished rolling-stock under hot sun, mixed freight, concrete, dust, blossoms, brick and tile works, and an underlying note of spicy sawn woods, went to the head at once. So did the talk of the men in the car who took, according to their offices, the courteous salutes of station-masters, road-gangs, and signallers, and, like all railway-men, carried on with their job meanwhile. For the line is always being straightened and improved and pampered at curves and junctions; and they talk it over like a mothers’ meeting.

“Hello! There’s old Pereira. What’s he doing here?” “Straightening (number quoted) curve, and they’re damning your eyes down at (local Saint’s name) for those sidings we promised ’em.” “I knew it. But we haven’t the room. If only we had bought land properly in the beginning!” It was the old wail of all present railways from Waterloo to Salt River—the inevitable result of cold feet among distant boards of directors, who thirty years ago turned down the pleadings of the men on the spot.

About that same epoch a Traffic Superintendent, called Van Horne, explained to a passenger off an ocean liner which had just tied up to a pine-stump, how a wooden-trestled, raw-banked track, that sometimes reached Montreal in a week, would soon be an immensely important railway. And when his prophecy came true, he built a trifle of four hundred miles of track across Cuba to keep his hand in. His great ghost would have rejoiced in the talk and the chaff in the chairs by the observation-door.

Railwaymen never know how to take holiday. They identify passing trains by their private numbers and official timings; and lengths of pet road-bed or experimental rails by the feel of them beneath the bogeys. In the intervals, they gibe at the colours of the passenger coaches of other lines; or explain how superior are their new pressed-steel freight cars—built, by the way, on East Indian models. We ran over several systems in our tour, electrified or steam, and on one branch, which had not yet made up its mind which to become, met a sway-backed wood-burning, “smoke-stacked,” little loco, ringing its bell. But it hauled a full load of mixed freight and passengers out of the hinterlands it served, and went off through the heat-haze, coughing, sparking, and tolling as though it were back among the cornfields of ancient Vermont.

How Lines are Born

It turned the talk to railway development, and how, in this land, you borrow some money and start a line from a terminus full of advertisements and daily papers, and go on and on with it till it runs up a tree. There you post a young man with orders to roost till the tide of produce and passengers rises and pushes the whole thing a few miles further into the unknown.”Room for railways in this country?” A quarter of a million—half a million—miles of ’em wouldn’t be too much to begin with.

“And is that how you do?” I asked. “Which tree do you run up ?” “We?” they replied all together, with no uncertain voice, “WE move the Coffee. We move so many thousand (or million) bags of it per diem (or minute). WE get the Coffee to Santos.”

They do, indeed, but there came up in my head the memory of another line—in the milk trade—several miles long, laid out just below winter flood-mark of an English valley. At intervals, therefore, it is immobilised. On one such occasion I met a director, who said that six passengers and the milk-van were sitting, afar off, in cold water. “And what are you going to do?” said I. “Oh, the passengers can walk. (Do ’em good.) But I’ve got to get the milk through. Do you know where one can borrow a pair of horses?”

I did not contribute this tale. I listened to the men talking among themselves of construction, survey and improvement; to the names of engineers, forgotten by all but their likes, who gave their iron selves to one job, in the face of multiplied discouragements, won through on the position they had dug in on from the first, and went growling, but satisfied, to their graves. Such and such a bit of work, for instance, they owed to old So and So. Obstinate as any three mules, a terror in the office, but—damn it!—the end proved him right to the last cubic yard of dirt. Dead? Oh, long ago. Up the line somewhere in camp, or—was it down at Santos? They dwelt on the patience of other men in the beginnings to whom loss of time meant their very reputations, but who still kept their hard-held tempers, as well as their integrity, in the face of bribe and pressure. They spoke, too, of improvements and inventions which other men hatched out after long trial and experiment, and had then handed over to the Line as a matter of course. But one lighter tale, (I pray I may have got it correctly) sticks out from the rest.

The Mosquito Specialist

In the days before men had discovered how to deal with the nuisance, there was a stretch of construction which had to be abandoned to the mosquitoes. (The brutes were as large as stallions and neighed at their work.) News of the retreat went to England, where there was a man in authority who did not understand. Mosquitoes were “little foreign insects that flew about.” Men did not go out of their way for them. He said it was “absurd.” He was invited to “come and see.” So, in a tour that embraced greater interests, he took ship and visited that section of earthwork, and they gave him the very best breeding-ground on it for his camp and his bed, and everything else that was his. And, in the morning, when the young men came to bear away the spotted corpse, they were met by a passionless, unmarred person, who said: “Mosquitoes! What mosquitoes? I didn’t notice any mosquitoes. I knew it was absurd.” The Devil had arranged that this English-bred son of a roller-topped desk should be immune! There the tale stuck. Drawn corkscrews could get it no further!

How it is done

Then someone who knew about surveys pointed out that the landscape did not exactly favour the engineer. It was a huddle of aggravating, cramped hills; or downs with water-courses that demanded extravagant culverts; or soft-sided cuttings; or embankments alongside live slopes where, if the flaying rain once gets under the skin of them, the gangs clap down tarpaulins and hang on for dry weather. “Oh, not with us, of course. We’ve finished that sort of thing long ago. I mean the other Lines.”

“Then, why do you all use such heavy rolling-stock?” I demanded. “Because everyone insists on luxury in travel.” When you think of it nothing is so merciless as a Democracy. A car-load of millionaires can be left out all night and they will only laugh; but reduced-rate excursionists must be treated with distinction. If they are not—human nature being what it is and this particular line foreign-owned and managed—public criticism is immediate, drastic, and eloquent. The big City itself is always wanting something; so are the manufacturing suburbs, which love to accumulate freight cars and load then at leisure; so are the small staple-producing centres all round. Transportation which is life, touches them at every point. Their various demands have to be sorted out in the wash, and care taken that everybody is equally offended, which is the sole secret of all administration. But every pound they import or export by sea has to come and go between Santos and San Paulo through a chute which drops two thousand feet in eleven kilometres from the table-land to the coast.

We approached this escalator over the Line’s very best road-bed and fattest rails, which returned a clean, joyful note beneath the wheels. As we reached the region of mist that caps the range, and fills the dams of the electric works, the culverts and gutters grew larger and wider.

We slid past a very great black north-country shunting yard, laid out over-hanging naked space. Its edge cut the horizon half-way up to the zenith; as though one stood on the crest of a gigantic dam that delivered into air. But the train we had belonged to was already broken up into blocks of three coaches, which seemed minded to go on. Other blocks of three pushed up from below this inexplicable finish-of-things, and began to form themselves into trains, like rod-animalculae under the miscroscope. “Now”, said the men,”We’ll let her go on down, and lay our car up out of the way on this spur.” We creaked round a ledge and halted broadside on to blue-black abysses, flanked by forested mountains.

Somewhere at the bottom was a glare of sun through mist, and a prospect of illimitable ravines. A heap of rubbish lay near our foot-board. A man who knew about hard woods identified the different sorts, and touched a root with his foot. It went down and down as a suicide rolls over a cliff. There was a note in the air of some immense stringed instrument, under-run by a touch of crying metal. It came from the yard, and when we loafed over there, we saw that it was sung by wire cables running over sheaves in the centre of tracks that pitched off the end of the yard, just as water pitches out of a spillway, and vanished round a corner. The sheaves were set at various angles to humour the ringing, humming cables. Layers of oily air wandered up from Santos till one almost smelt the steamers down there.

Suddenly the cables stopped for a few minutes; a special type of loco with an exaggerated belly took charge of its appointed block of coaches and drew them neatly above the stilled rope. A bell tinkled; there was a jar from the loco gripping the rope; it moved on once more, and the procession went over the spillway.

They told me that all trains are broken up into these threes, and worked down the drop, up-coaches balancing the down—worked on the cable through five separate hauling-stations, by locomotives who are mostly grips and brakes. The grips lay hold of the wire of each stretch, till near the end of it; then they release and pick up the next stretch and so on down to the bottom. If the cable snaps and the wire jumps the sheaves and wraps round wheels and things, the loco-brakes, plus those of the three coaches, ought to bring everything up at once. Nothing, it was demonstrated, could be simpler, and to prove it, traffic kept pouring in behind us, broke up into threes and pitched over, while the disintegrated up-traffic coalesced into complete trains and pounded on for San Paulo, with the passengers all reading their papers inside.

The Pulse of the Machine

“And what works the cable?” “A Corliss! Come and look at him.” There are many beautiful man-made things in God’s world, but among the most perfect for Strength, Beauty and Silence is a thousand-horse Corliss engine at its duty.

This one lived by himself. In front of him were the huge grooved drums on which his section of cable ran, evenly, slowly to all appearance, and noiselessly. High up on his back was the bridge of an ocean-liner—dials, levers and electric bells complete, and one lone man at his trick. He was linked with the next station down the chute, and stood untouchable as a priest, while the cables coming up tautened themselves, took the rim of the drum, and went out into the open, stiff as the shafts of sunrise, and the clock-pointers told out the minutes and seconds of ascent and descent. An almost inaudible click of levers settled these matters.

“Does it ever stop?” I whispered. “For a few hours between midnight and morning. That’s when we change and repair. Sundays? Oh, no! Sunday means excursion-traffic from both ends. I wonder how the old Brighton and South Coast would like having to drop their Pullmans down ten Devils Dykes into Hove. And, if there’s three minutes delay up here, San Paulo wants to know whether we’re asleep. We handle our freight at night mostly. In any weather? What do you think? Naturally, you can’t see your hand before your face in real rain. And we live in a shower-bath at times, here.”

A Shift of Scenery?

He told a tale of a big engine-fitting that had to be shifted and replaced in the scanty four-hour lull of traffic. All the actors rehearsed the drill till they were timed perfect, and knew to the split second when to lay hands on their properties. At the instant traffic laid off, they leapt on to a stage, lighted as no theatre dares to be; unbolted, jacked up, and slung clear what they had to; and sweated the new part into place, effective for its duty, on the very tick when the two towns woke up and wanted to go trading and travelling, and wooing and bathing, same as yesterday. It was an epic. I had the honour of being introduced to Ulysses, who had laid it all out in advance; to Chiron, who had had to rein in his steam-horses and swore a lot; and to Achilles, who said it could never be done to time, but took off most of his apparel to make sure that it should be. Translated out of the Greek, they were untemperamental Yorkshiremen and Scots; for the reason that all vital bearings in human machinery must run on the hardest jewels in the market.
“And now, if you please, we’ll go down.” On which our car joined two friends and ducked over the spillway into tropical heat and scenery, to the music of the skirling sheaves.

There must be worse railway country in the world; but I had not seen any. Every yard of those fallacious mountain-sides conspired against man from the almost vertical slopes out of sight above, to the quite vertical ravines below. One could not help admiring the fiend’s own skill with which water always attacks the weakest points of trestle-abutments, tunnel-mouths, and curves. All pitches and banks were flashed, stoned, concreted, and, where possible, diverted; the guttering was ample as town-cisterns and the culverts corresponded. All ground that offered room for anything, except a snow-shed, had been brought into the fighting-line. Nothing in Nature was trusted to stay put or to be left unwatched. And there were steel trestles that launched out across gulfs where you could drop a hundred feet into fifty-foot forest before your rolling-stock really began to roll.

The whole section was a work that, properly, one ought to have studied on foot, with guides and alpenstocks, instead of from an easy chair. I think the men liked showing off their bad child. One of them observed to an equal: “Now in the Argentine, nothing much matters. It’s all flat, and you can see your train coming over the curve of the world.” “Yes, but how about the Cordilleras, old man?” “Ah, that’s different, but, anyhow, they’ve got rock there. You can blast all day if you like.” “I didn’t like. I don’t like earthquake-country.” At this point a man swung off at a hauling-station that clung to the side of the track by pure suction. I know that he went to make sure that the throb of its winding-gear had not unseated the vacuum, but he told me he was “looking at a bit of track for himself,” and I saw the staff on that eagle’s nest of a platform stiffen in the sun.

We had risen seven or eight degrees of heat in a quarter of an hour’s drop. When we reached the flat ground near Santos and the respectable loco who took us there; the shut mountains behind us showed no sign by, or through, what miracles we had descended.