BRAZILIAN railway MRS Logistics, which operates a 1643km network and recently secured an extension to its operating concession until 2056, is facing a major challenge over the coming decades: to continue to innovate to promote growth, including doubling the amount of general freight it moves and increasing sevenfold the volume of containers carried on its network.

The railway’s output is already high. Despite operating only 6% of the total network privatised in the 1990s, MRS Logistics now moves more than one third of all rail freight in Brazil, and almost 20% of the country’s exports. Its network serves the states of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, which together account for around 50% of Brazil’s GDP.

MRS will present some of its initiatives for growth at the IHHA conference in Rio de Janeiro later this month, which it will co-host with fellow freight operator Vale.

In 2022 MRS Logistics carried a total of 178.2 million tonnes, a 4.9% increase compared with 2021, with agricultural products contributing to this growth. However, iron-ore represents about 58.5% of its total freight volumes, amounting to 104.2 million tonnes.

“Although we already have high levels of efficiency, there are still opportunities to improve the productivity of assets through innovation, particularly optimising the management of the fleet and supply chain integration, thus generating greater sustainability,” says MRS Logistics president, Mr Guilherme Segalla de Mello.

“Constant advances in technology and procedures demonstrate significant potential for the development of energy efficiency in operation, whether through the modernisation of assets, the development of support tools for operation, the reduction of inefficiencies or the improvement of processes.”

“We have more challenging topography in Brazil than in other countries, which means railways have a more sinuous alignment and varying gradients. This situation makes a specific impact on energy efficiency and the use of alternative sources of energy.”

Mr Guilherme Segalla de Mello, MRS Logistics president

But the need to become even more productive also raises other issues.

“We have more challenging topography in Brazil than in other countries, which means railways have a more sinuous alignment and varying gradients,” Mello says. “This situation makes a specific impact on energy efficiency and the use of alternative sources of energy.”

One particular challenge has been operating freight trains in areas where access to the railway is difficult for drivers and other staff. This led to the development of a solution to automatically operate a train for around 10km without a driver.

The system was developed after heavy rains caused the Brumadinho disaster on January 25 2019, when a tailings dam at the Córrego do Feijão iron-ore mine suffered a catastrophic failure. The subsequent collapse of the dam, located 9km east of Brumadinho in Minas Gerais, released a torrent of mud that killed 270 people.

Following the collapse, a Self-Rescue Zone (ZAS) was established where entry was prohibited, including for train drivers, making it impossible for MRS to conduct operations at the nearby Andaime terminal, in Itabirito, even in the event of a train becoming stuck here.

In a quick and innovative response, MRS worked with Newon to develop the Autonomously Operated Locomotive System (SLOA) using commercially available technology. SLOA uses a microcontroller-based platform (ESP32) and Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) and receives information via GPS or radio to execute commands inside the locomotive.

Based on GPS coordinates, the system controls the locomotive using relays and electromechanical actuators, which enable the operation of standard iron-ore trains of 136 gondola wagons. CBTC is also used to ensure the safety of train movements.

First, the DEL, a mechanical train stop device which halts the train if a failure occurs, is activated. The train’s brakes are then prepared for automatic activation. Finally, the type of payload such as a full or empty train is selected, with the train then operating automatically along the route with the push of a button. After reaching the other end of the restricted section, the driver deactivates SLOA and takes over control of the train for the remainder of the journey. This has enabled the number of locomotives required to haul these services to be reduced from 10 to four.

If necessary, the train can be controlled remotely using an industrial tablet, which communicates directly with the locomotive over an LTE network.

“There are several innovation projects with a positive impact on the sustainability of our business,” Mello says. “Initiatives to enhance safety, for example, have improved monitoring at level crossings. There are other projects, focused on optimising railway operations, which have resulted in the better asset availability while reducing consumption.”

In addition to the challenging terrain, Mello says there are challenges posed by the communities neighbouring the railway.

“As we pass through urban centres, we can have both positive and negative impacts on stakeholders,” Mello says.

Investment plan

For this reason, MRS has developed an investment plan with three key strands: increasing capacity and meeting performance targets; undertaking investment in the public interest; and infrastructure improvements to minimise the impact of the railway in urban areas.

Reais 11bn ($US 2.29bn) has been allocated to infrastructure work and the acquisition of assets, of which Reais 6.2bn has been allocated for capacity expansion and performance improvement, and Reais 4.8bn for meeting obligations such as the government grant.

Also noteworthy is the second group of investment projects worth Reais 3.7bn, which aim to improve urban transport, encourage modal shift and reduce transport costs. Reais 1.1bn alone is being invested in projects to segregate lines shared with São Paulo Metropolitan Trains (CPTM) commuter services, including the construction of viaducts, underpasses, footbridges, new fencing, and level crossings.

Added to other mandatory investment projects under its concession, MRS is expected to spend Reais 31bn on improving its network up to 2056.

The renewal of the MRS concession is also expected to result in further diversification of the freight carried by the railway. In addition to ore and steel, the company already has shippers in the automotive, home appliance, chemical, food and consumer goods markets. General cargo currently represents approximately 40% of the total volume transported, 7% of which is intermodal, but this total is expected to rise to 50% in the coming years.

In the past year, the company has also carried less conventional loads such as army tanks for Independence Day parades, large tyres for off-road vehicles in open containers, bakery products for Christmas and New Year festivities and drinks.

Mello says that, as in all sectors, MRS Logistics is affected by the exponential rate at which technology is advancing, but is doing its utmost to move with the times and to offer a flexible and attractive product to the market, as IHHA delegates will doubtless hear at this month’s event. “MRS has sought to understand movements, follow the market and also be a pioneer in the implementation of solutions,” he says.

“Considering new technology, we see computer vision as having great potential, which should open up a range of possibilities.”