Shortening the Brazilian Commute

Better highways, railways, are a (new) reality.

I just got home from a quick commute to the farm, and I made the trip in one rather long day. I even took time to stop and snap a picture or two just outside of Porangatú.

Why is this news? The road I take is vastly improved over the severely-cratered and sinuous two-laner on which, in times past, you spent about half your driving time waiting for a chance to pass one or another caravan of semis lumbering up even slight grades at 30 mph or so. I didn't lose any rims on the entire trip!

In Brazil, this is progress.

And, as if that weren't enough, a good section of the highway had those little ground-level reflectors imbedded into the lane striping so that, at night, you had at least some idea of the road contours ahead.

Upon making it home so fast, I had a look the photograph I had interrupted the trip to take, and thought of an article I had read about a Brazilian farmer who was producing cotton in the Sudan. He said the trip to his Sudanese farm, by air to Cairo and then on to the farm itself, took no longer than the road trip between two of his more distant Brazilian properties.

Rail, of course, would make it even faster. While there's no talk of building passenger lines to crisscross Brazil, there is plenty of talk, and, surprisingly, plenty of action in that arena, for Ag products.

That's because not busting an axle on a Brazilian highway has long been big enough news to write home about. Most of Brazil's Ag production, by far, gets where it needs to go on a semi-truck. When you consider that the total land area of this country is about 3.3 million square miles (the fifty states of the U.S. are around 3.8 million) that's a long way to go on bad roads.

Consider this, too.  Brazil's got just over 17,000 miles of railroad track to cover that vast area, which is only a bit more than the total amount of track in the states of the U.S. Midwest. Illinois, Iowa and Indiana together have more than 15,000 miles of track.

And that's likely one of the main reasons the Brazilian Agribusiness Association, the Brazilian oilseed crushers and the Mato Grosso corn and soybean group all got together at the end of March with ANTT, the Brazilian national ground transportation agency and several transportation advisors.

The head of the corn and bean association told the group that his state's Ag logistics system is 58% highway, and just 25% railway. And, he said, "Railways create freight cost savings, which make cost reductions to the producer possible."

Those savings could be on the order of 30% in some places, according to Mato Grosso farmers with whom I talked right after a new railway started operating between the southern part of that state and the Port of Santos.

Which brings me to the snapshots I stopped to take just outside of Porangatú, Goiás, on my way home. Workers had laid the rail bed and an underpass crossing the formerly pockmarked BR-50, and were readying to lay rails and cross ties.

Brazil's Achilles heel has long been high transportation costs, but the country is making progress—real concrete and steel progress - in overcoming the curse of its appalling infrastructure. And that's worth taking the time out for a picture.

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