Where there’s a track there’s a train – Stop!
The rebuilt and improved Central Railway that connects UPM’s Paso de los Toros pulp mill in central Uruguay to the port terminal in Montevideo is ready for testing. An important part of taking the rebuilt rail connection into use after three decades is building safety awareness in surrounding communities.
Rebuilding the railroad leading from Paso de los Toros to the capital is one of the most significant infrastructure projects in the history of Uruguay. The state-owned railroad is part of the Uruguayan government’s infrastructure plan, executed as a public-private partnership. The existing railroad was outdated and only partly in use, so along with the 273 km railway, also 246 level crossings, 66 railway bridges and 25 stations and passenger stops are being built.
The UPM Paso de los Toros pulp mill began production in April 2023 and will be a major user of the new railway, expected to make up half of the freight transported via the Central Railway. Despite the fact that UPM will be one of the main users of the line, it also brings new business opportunities to other industries in the inland of Uruguay as well as the possibility to develop passenger traffic.
The railway will start operations during the first half of 2024 after mandatory tests have been carried out. UPM has ensured logistics with truck transportation meanwhile rail logistics are fully operational.
Long history of Uruguayan rail
The history of the railroad in Uruguay began in 1866 when the Central Railroad Company initiated construction of the first 17-kilometre stretch of tracks that connected Montevideo with Las Piedras, a nearby city in the Canelones department. From there the railroad expanded to encompass over 2,000 kilometres of tracks spread across lines to various destinations, all converging radially towards the capital Montevideo, where the country's main seaport is located.
The journey along the tracks and the arrival of the train played a crucial role for Uruguay´s inland, in areas far away from Montevideo. It enabled the founding of numerous communities around the tracks and train stations. Consequently the train became a symbol of prosperity and decentralisation in Uruguay.
In the mid-20th century the ownership and operation of the railroads completely transitioned to the Uruguayan state under the Ministry of Transport and Public Works, with the establishment of the National Administration of Railway, marking the definitive exit of private companies from the business.
At that point the railway faced various challenges that jeopardized its future. By the mid-1980s passenger transportation was permanently suspended on several main lines, and the transportation of cargo to Montevideo was significantly reduced.
However, the train continued to be a symbol of prosperity and the idea of having a functional railway back in action became a cherished aspiration among Uruguayans.
Safety comes first
Reviving the railways involves more than necessary reconstruction works – it also requires recovering a dormant culture of coexistence with the railway. Over decades of absence, communities living alongside the tracks now refurbished by the Central Railway project lost their awareness of the railway and safety around it. This aspect was acknowledged in the social impact studies conducted for the UPM Paso de los Toros pulp mill project, leading to coordinated and proactive actions to address this issue.
UPM, as the primary user of the track, will contribute around 50% of the tonnage needed to make the railway service viable. In line with its commitment to contribute to the efficiency and safety conditions throughout the mill’s logistics chain, the company has also adopted a collaborative role in generating specific awareness raising plans related to community rail safety.
In 2023 UPM collaborated with the Ministry of Transport and Public Works on the launch of a Railway Safety Awareness Programme. The programme is led by the Ministry, with UPM and the Automóvil Club del Uruguay, one of the main organisations in the country focused on information and road safety, as its main partners.
Minister José Luis Falero highlighted the need for an initiative of this nature at this stage: "One of the pillars on which our management is based is road safety, which is why the implementation of this programme is of utmost importance with the arrival of the Central Railroad. It will provide information, education and prevention advice to local communities. The idea is for people to begin to understand the importance of the railroad and the change in the reality we have today. We are once again having a functioning railroad in Uruguay with new technology. This requires people to know about it in all departments in places where there are level crossings."
The programme includes conducting information sharing and awareness raising workshops on rail safety for all communities affected by the track layout, led by the association Automóvil Club del Uruguay. The programme involved local organisations and authorities related to traffic, road safety, emergency, security and health. Additionally, collaboration with educational centres, schools and secondary education institutions is key to broadening the programme’s scope, making young people the agents of communication about this new railway culture.
Spreading the message in communities
In 2023 the programme reached more than 250 authorities and key leaders as well as 6,000 high school students and teachers in 25 communities. In the case of young people, training includes encouraging them to convey the message within their families, peer groups, friends and communities. In this way the total reach is even greater than the number of official participants.
The activities included were designed for each target audience using innovative tools such as virtual reality to achieve a greater impact in spreading the word and understanding. The focus is on understanding the safety of signaling, how to behave on and around the railway, safety practices, and producing guidance on how to behave in different scenarios as people coexist with the railroad.
The awareness initiative is based on the concept: "Where there's a track, there's a train – Stop!". The onsite actions are complemented with a communication campaign in traditional and social media to strengthen and expand its reach. The plan for this year is to continue on the same path reinforcing the communication campaign and conducting workshops with another 6,000 people.
María José Cuevas, Senior Specialist, Community Relations in UPM Uruguay, emphasises the need to support the initiative: “The awareness plan in the communities where the train will cross has been crucial in creating a network of awareness about the big change that the train's operation represents after so many years of inactivity. And especially in the case of such a modern train which is different from before. It is important to reinforce good practices in rail safety. We all need to come together – institutions, local leaders, educators and parents – to raise awareness about the need for education regarding coexistence with the train. The community has welcomed it very positively, both the authorities and the institutions. It is essential to work together on this issue.”