|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.
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.
A view taken in the sixties or seventies period which illustrates the work being undertaken by the railway at that time.
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.
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.
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)
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.
The water tank reads "J.& C. Rigby, Harbour Works, Holyhead, 1862". The tank is broad gauge but the pigeons are standard gauge!
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.
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, May 2010.