Broad Gauge Relics in the Açores.

Many years ago I read an account in the British railway press of some broad gauge locomotives that were supposedly still in existence in the Açores. ln 2008 I decided to the visit these Portugese islands, located in the Atlantic Ocean, and I decided to see what I could find out about these locomotives. The only information I could find was just one web page with a poor picture and no up-to-date information.

ln constructing the Great Western Railway in the United Kingdom, lsambard Kingdom Brunel chose a gauge of  7 feet 0¼ inches. This wide gauge produced a very stable roadbed but there were difficulties at the many locations where the broad gauge interchanged with the standard gauge (4 feet 8½ inches). Standard gauge had a larger network of lines and, to make a long story short, the broad gauge Great Western Railway was converted to standard gauge by 1892. At this time the broad gauge locomotives were either cut up or converted to standard gauge. A few were retained for a short time as historic exhibits but these were also cut up in the early part of the twentieth century leaving no broad gauge survivors. A broad gauge replica has been built and operates at the Didcot Railway Centre.
Azores Broad Gauge
A view taken in the sixties or seventies period which illustrates the work being undertaken by the railway at that time.

The broad gauge was also chosen for some industrial operations, notably harbour works where large stone biocks had to be transported. The wider gauge helped to spread the weight. One such was the Holyhead harbour iri Wales whersMessrs. J. & C. Rigby won a contract for the harbour construction in 1848. They used a broad gauge railway even though tle line to Holyhead was always standard gauge. Around 1861, some of the Rigby equipment was shipped to the Açores for the construction of the Ponta delgada breakwater.

ln all, three locomotives, all 0-4-0 tank, worked at Ponta Delgada:

1 - built by Neilson, Reid & Co. in 1 861 (serial number 697)
2 - built by Black, Hawthorne 1880-1888 (serial number 766)
3 - built by Falcon Engineering, Loughborough, in 1888 (serial number 165)

Number 1 is believed to have carried a plate "J & C Rigby, Holyhead Harbour Works 1861" which suggests thtt it was used at Holyhead before being shipped to Ponta Delgada.
Azores Broad Gauge
The quarry showing the extent of the railway operations.  A steam locomotive can be seen although it appears that oxen were also used tomove the wagons around.  Several types of four-wheel railcars can be seen as well as rail-mounted cranes.  Many switches can be seen but small wagon turntables are also in use (bottom right)

The railway was last used around 1973 after which time the three locomotives were placed on display in the garden of the Museum Carlos Axe where they quickly deteriorated. Around 1994. two of them (No. 3 and one other) were moved under cover into a warehouse of the Ponta Delgada Port Authority. lt appears that the third locomotive was in such bad shape that it could not be saved.
Azores Broad Gauge
This appears to be locomotive number 3 together with some vertical boiler cranes, when last used.

Ponta Delgada is the main town on the island of Sao Miguel and, on our final approach, we flew.over the port and I wondered if the locomotives were in one of the buildings I could see. Walking down to the port, I found an encouraging clue. ln the works yard, in plain view from the street, was a cast iron water tank with "J & C Rigby" and "Harbour Works Holyhead" cast on the sides - the date "1862" was even cast on one side.
Water Tank
The water tank reads "J.& C. Rigby, Harbour Works, Holyhead, 1862".  The tank is broad gauge but the pigeons are standard gauge!

I speak no Portuguese but, I went to the Port Authority ofiice and asked if anyone spoke English. No luck, and Spanish was no good either, but I finally found a lady who spoke French. She assured me that the two locomotives were still in existence and she would get permission for me to see them. I was introduced to Americo Correia, an engineer with the Port Authority, who was responsible for these relics. Americo has commenced to remove some of the parts from number 3 as a start towards restoration. However, he has not removed any rust in the hope that this would help to protect the remaining metal. Although they are under cover, the salt sea air is still taking its toll. Most of the locomotives are very, very badly rusted and it seems that very little could be reused othbr than as a pattern to make new parts. Under the wooden lagging, the boilers are coated with asbestos cement which can only be refioved under stringent conditions. They are small industrial locomotives, typical for the period before the internal combustion engine when industry and inirastructure was built largely with the assistance of rail. They may be small but there is certainly a lot of room between the frames. Braking is by hand with wooden shoes clasping the wheels while additional traction can by obtained by gravity sanding. Water is put into the boiler by injectors. The tall stacks each have a curved oval plate cast with the letters "OPA", the initials of the department of Public Works of the Açores.
Broad Gauge Locomotives
Oneof the locomotives in 2008.  Under cover but with an incredible amount of work required if they are to be restored even as a static exhibit.
Broad Gauge Locomotives

Another view of one of the locomotives in 2008.

The plans are somewhat vague. There was a proposal from a British group. a few years ago. They offered to restore the two locomotives on condition that one be returned to the United Kingdom. The Port Authority rejected this because they want to see both of them retained, and possibly used, in Ponta Delgada.

There is another broad gauge survivor on San Miguel. There is a cement mixer standing on a short stretch of broad gauge track next to a traffic circle on the road to the airport. ln spite of its exposure to the wet sea air, it seems to be in remarkable condition.
Cement Mixer
The broad gauge cement mixer on a short length of track near a traffic circle.

So there they are today. They are what is believed to be the only remaining Brunel gauge locomotives in the world, although they never worked on Brunel's railway, together with an unusual broad gauge cement mixer. Ponta Delgada would like to see these used to full tourists on a short railway. However, for the present, the best that can be hoped for is that they stay inside in the dry.
Click above to see a slide shows of my pictures of the railway relics in the Açores.
See also my web pages on this at

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, May 2010.

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