AFTER 18 years, Brazil is once again the stage for the International Heavy Haul Association’s (IHHA) conference, which in this 12th iteration will focus on the “Application of Innovations in Heavy Haul for a Sustainable World.” Primarily, the event will aim to showcase how environmental issues have become more prominent in the sector in recent years.

“Until 2019, sustainability and decarbonisation within the heavy haul sector was not widely discussed by rail companies around the world,” says IHHA president and consultant at MRS Logistics, Mr Antonio Merheb. “However, railways are currently recognising the mode’s role in contributing to a more sustainable world.”

According to Merheb, the growing importance of environmental issues has placed rail at the centre of the debate.

“The rail sector is recognised as the transport mode that emits the lowest level of polluting gases, which makes it an attractive option to reduce the environmental impact of freight transport,” he says. “Faced with this reality, there has been a need to invest in technologies and solutions that increase the capacity of rail transport. This involves making trains longer, heavier and faster in order to optimise system efficiency and productivity.”

The development of technology such as train automation and battery traction has enabled the railway sector to improve its operational efficiency and further reduce its carbon emissions. “These innovations have a significant impact on the decarbonisation of rail transport and are considered key to driving sustainability in the sector,” Merheb says.

Event highlights

IHHA’s first post-pandemic conference, taking place between August 27 and 31 in Rio de Janeiro, is being organised in partnership with local co-hosts MRS Logistics and Vale.

Out of a total of 508 papers submitted, the technical committee has selected 200 for oral presentation and another 100 to be presented in poster format, covering all conference themes including sustainable innovation, track, bridges and tunnels, operations, rolling stock, motive power, traction and energy efficiency, and human factors.

According to Merheb, the first day of the conference will focus on the vision for heavy haul in 2030. The opening plenary session will feature contributions from the president of MRS Logistics, Mr Guilherme Segalla de Mello, the president of Loram, Mr Bradley Willems, and South32 director of energy and logistics strategies, Mr Brian Monakali. There will also be a moderated panel discussion with representatives from Rio Tinto, MxV Rail, Transnet and Vale.

“The rail sector is recognised as the transport mode that emits the lowest level of polluting gases, which makes it an attractive option to reduce the environmental impact of freight transport.”

Antônio Merheb, president of the International Heavy Haul Association (IHHA) and a consultant at MRS Logistics

Sustainability, a key theme for the first time at this 12th edition of the conference, will be the highlight of the second day’s plenary session, with the presentation of projects and initiatives by speakers from several countries. A highlight of the programme will be the panel moderated by the freight director of the International Union of Railways (UIC), Ms Sandra Géhénot, taking as its theme “Analysing global challenges and opportunities for rail sustainability.” The panel will include Transnet’s head of planning and strategy, Mr Andrew Shaw, Vale director, Mr Daniel Novo, and UIC president, Mr François Davenne.

The integration of the heavy haul value chain, considering mines, railways and ports, will be discussed during the morning of the third day, with presentations from subject specialists and executives from companies active in the sector. The main presentation will be given by a transport specialist at the World Bank, Mr Edpo Covalciuk Silva, on the subject of “Railway reform, regulations and public-private partnerships as key factors to unlock rail transport: a case study from Brazil and India.”

To close the conference programme the final plenary session will address the next steps for the heavy haul sector.

The IHHA conference has gained importance due to the growth of the heavy haul sector, which according to Merheb has accelerated in recent years. “This growth is influenced by several factors, including economic, political and regulatory aspects in different regions of the world,” he explains. “Fluctuations in commodity prices, trade policies and environmental regulations have a direct impact on this demand.”

The award of concessions to operate, develop and maintain Brazil’s rail network to the private sector over the last 25 years has resulted in significant increases in rail’s share of the country’s freight market to 21.5%, according to the National Logistics Plan (PNL) - 2035. However, there is still considerable room for growth.

Brazil has a relatively low network density when compared with countries of a similar size such as Canada, India and China, but rail still plays an important role in Brazilian logistics.

In 2021, more than 93% of iron-ore for export arrived at Brazilian ports by rail. Rail is also responsible for carrying over 49% of bulk agricultural commodities in Brazil including 53% of its sugar traffic, 58% of maize, and 46% of the output of soya producers, which includes soya beans and bran.

“These numbers highlight the relevance of rail as an efficient option for freight transport in Brazil,” Merheb says. “However, it is important to continue investing in the expansion and modernisation of the railway network, with a view to increasing its capacity and coverage throughout the country.

“This would bring significant benefits to the Brazilian economy, improving logistical efficiency, reducing transport costs and increasing the country’s competitiveness in the global market.”