The International Steam Pages

A Garland of Islands, Part 7, Africa 2

Robert Hall writes about island railways of the world in a series of articles:

Click here for the other parts:

And so from Africa’s east (Indian Ocean) coast, to its west (Atlantic) one. All the “railwayed” islands off this side of the continent, are present or former possessions of Spain or Portugal. These locations also have in common, its being virtually certain that the scanty public railways which they once had, all perished well over fifty years before the time of writing; and that information about them is meagre and when it is to be had, not always totally on the same page. From such photographs as exist, though, one feels that these lines would have been pleasant to know.

In the Gulf of Guinea lie the small islands of São Tomé and Principe – formerly a colony of Portugal, now a minuscule independent nation. The islands’ economy has long relied on agriculture in the form of plantations of coffee, palm oil, and especially cocoa – undertakings which in these parts are unfortunately in poor shape nowadays. Up to fifty-odd years ago, these enterprises were served by agricultural narrow-gauge railways: profusely on São Tomé, and with a little trackage also on Principe. Such lines are beyond the scope of these articles; however, the colony also had for a while, one short common-carrier railway. In so far as the line is chronicled, the gauge has been given as 750mm; but a recent visitor measured the few remnants of track which survive at the island’s capital, and found 800mm between the rails.

Whatever its exact gauge, this Caminho do Ferro de São Tomé ran for a final total of 18km: from the capital, São Tomé city on the coast, up into the hills to Cruzeiro de Trinidade (opened 1913), and a 4km extension on to Milagrosa opened in 1924. Motive power comprised two Maffei 0-8-0Ts with Gölsdorf “swivel-wheel” semi-articulation. The half-dozen passenger coaches supplied, seemingly sought to cater to a broad-spectrum clientele – a commodious saloon coach for the island’s governor and other V.I.P.s, and conventional coaching stock for first, second, and third classes. Plus assorted freight wagons. The line’s principal freight action involved cocoa beans “down”, and assorted supplies for the plantations “up”.

The CFST’s history gives an unusual twist to the old chestnut about “the line which refused to die”. Although passenger traffic was initially brisk – helped by the role of the village of Trinidade, as a version in miniature of an Indian “hill station” vis-a-vis the hot conditions of the sea-level capital – the line was never a paying proposition, and financial losses progressively mounted as years passed. The CFST was closed completely at the end of 1926, after a mere thirteen years in traffic (two and a half years for the extension); at least, that was the official position. It is learnt that in actual fact, the line continued in sporadic unofficial use long after 1926. The railway, including its rolling stock, was supposedly put up for sale in 1931; but it seems that nothing came of this move -- two passenger special trains are reported to have run on Easter Sunday of 1935. The line continued to see use in the 1940s and 50s by the colonial authorities, to haul earth and rocks to São Tomé city for landfill for dock and building construction – an internal-combustion loco (details unknown) being used on these duties in the 1950s. Presumably the railway finally faded out before the end of that decade; nonetheless, it would appear to qualify for the distinction of having continued in active existence of a “ghostly” kind after on-paper abandonment, longer than any other railway in the world – i.e. for at least twice the length of its official working life.

Whatever the precise circumstances and chronology of the railway’s demise, it has been established that at some stage, several of its coaches were sold / transferred to the 750mm gauge railway based on Vila de João Belo (now Xai-Xai) in Mozambique, another Portuguese colony. (By one unsubstantiated account, the two locomotives also went to that destination.) The initials CFST have been noted on the axle-boxes of certain coaches on the Mozambique line. If the São Tomé line was indeed of 800mm gauge, the vehicles would clearly have needed regauging for service in Mozambique.

Not a very great distance from São Tomé, but closer to the mainland, is the location of another short “colonial” island narrow-gauge public railway. An island about which the words could be echoed, written a few years ago about another part of Africa: “it changes its name more often than The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”. The railway shortly to be described, served for its brief and long-ago lifetime, Fernando Po (or Pó, or Poo); later, the island became known as Macias Nguerra; nowadays it goes by “Bioko”. The isle concerned, is part of the tiny nation of Equatorial Guinea, the greater portion of which lies on the African mainland a couple of hundred kilometres away. Before independence, the whole set-up was Spain’s colony of Spanish Guinea.

Fernando Po’s railway was on the modest gauge of 600mm, opened in 1913/14 and reaching a length of 17km running southward from the capital, Santa Isabel (now Malabo). Before its inauguration, some of its route had been covered by man-powered 600mm gauge tramways. The railway line was State-owned, and bore the name of Ferrocarril de San Carlos. Original plans, a good deal more ambitious, for a 185km 600mm-gauge network serving the whole island – including the never-reached eponymous town of San Carlos – did not come about; all that ever carried traffic was the 17km as described, terminating at Bolaopi. The approximate initial kilometre of the line, in the capital between the harbour, and the line’s headquarters at Plaza de España, included a short (322m) Abt rack section on a gradient of 5% to 8-and-a-half%. The railway’s working life was, for sure, on the short side – under two decades. The harbour-to-headquarters stretch, including the rack section, was abandoned in 1926; and the rest of the line, to Bolaopi, closed completely in early 1931, replaced by a road.

The FC de San Carlos is known to have had five locomotives. There were two Orenstein & Koppel 0-4-2 rack tanks, built 1913 and 1914 – which going by the dates for the other locos, would seem to have in the line’s earlier days, worked the whole route in addition to the rack section. Three conventional well-tanks (two Orenstein & Koppel, one Jung) arrived later: two of 0-4-0 wheel arrangement, one of which was bought second-hand in 1917, the other new in 1925. Sources disagree as to whether the third (new 1922) was an 0-4-0WT or an 0-6-0WT. At all events, this line would have been a gem for lovers of the “two-foot” gauge – which has long had numerous devotees, but it can be taken as a sure thing that not very many of them knew about the FC de San Carlos while it was running, and fewer still experienced it at first hand.

The Atlantic island of Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal, can be seen as belonging culturally, ethnically, and even geographically, to Europe more than to Africa; but I will follow DLJ in putting it under the “Africa” heading. The island is some 50km end-to-end, mostly mountainous – and long a famously idyllic spot, much favoured by holidaymakers and the wealthy who can choose to live virtually wherever they please. In the light of these factors, it is unsurprising that Madeira’s only railway was a rack line up the mountain (called, simply, Monte) behind the island’s capital of Funchal, situated on the coast. It is surmised that the railway’s chief purpose was use by tourists and holidaymakers, plus possibly some commuter traffic.

The railway’s official title was Caminho do Ferro do Monte; it was of metre gauge. Originally, the line ran from Funchal town, up to a station at or near the mountain’s summit, named Belmonte; this section, opened in 1893 / 94, was 2.5 kilometres long. In 1912 a 1.3km extension was opened, to Terreiro da Luta. The line’s gradient is variously given as 16.7%, and 25%.

There is some slight uncertainty about the details of the railway’s locomotive fleet. Best information-piecing-together exercise result would seem to be: there were four 0-4-0RTs, built by the firm of Esslingen, entering service between 1893 and 1912 and originally numbered 1 – 4. One of these was badly damaged by a boiler explosion in 1919; parts of this loco and one of its classmates were subsequently combined, to produce one working machine which received the new number 6. Also, an 0-4-2RT of more modern design, from SLM, entered service as no.5 in the mid-1920s. All locos were of the classic “tourist-rack-railway” pattern, made with boilers tilted forward, so that they would be level on the climb. It would appear that standard operating practice was loco plus one coach, with the loco at the “downward” end.

The railway had, especially from the 1930s on, to contend with road competition; from buses, and additionally of a more unusual kind, described below. With, in addition, the tourist trade being virtually eliminated while World War II was in progress, the line was abandoned in 1943. The circumstances of the time meant that even if wind had been got of impending closure, a hasty trip to Madeira to “bag” the rack railway would have been impossible; except just perhaps – with Portugal having been neutral in the war – if the hypothetical gricer had been a Portuguese citizen and resident: still, one feels, a very long shot.

The Madeira rack line’s out-of-the-ordinary competition was from a favoured tourist attraction of the island: the exciting descent by gravity through Funchal’s streets, from the top of the Monte, by means of a sledge / toboggan affair in which the visitor sits; the contrivance is piloted and braked by two locals. A number of photographs show train and toboggan side-by-side. It might be speculated that patrons would choose to travel up to the top by the railway (before it is possible to “gravitate” down, the summit has to be attained by some other means), and then descend by toboggan – conceivably, the railway’s “up” trains tended to be appreciably fuller than their “down” counterparts. The toboggan ride down from the Monte is still a popular attraction for visitors today; it would seem that present-day Portugal is somewhat less health-and-safety-obsessed than Britain.

And so to the Canary Islands, long-standing and firmly Spanish territory but situated in the Atlantic a little way off Morocco. The islands had in times past, metre-gauge trams serving their two chief cities: Las Palmas on Gran Canaria, and Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The Las Palmas trams ran essentially between the city and its port, Puerto de la Luz, opened new in the late nineteenth century. Working was by steam locomotives until 1910, when the line was electrified. Road competition led to its closure in the 1930s; subsequently, though, oil shortages consequent on both the then ongoing World War II, and the recent Spanish Civil War, led to a reopening of the tramway in 1944, with trains hauled by steam locomotives. Two locos are known to have been used for this – essentially “emergency”, and fairly short-lived – service. One was a German-built 0-4-0T which had been used at the city’s port; the other experienced a long and chequered career, and is still in existence today. This machine, an 0-6-0T by Sharp Stewart (3343/1885) was originally built for Spain’s Zaragoza – Cariñena metre-gauge railway, which was converted to broad gauge around the mid-20th century. After her tram-substitution stint in Las Palmas, this loco went to the colliery at Cistierna near León, on the metre-gauge La Robla line, where she worked for many decades – remaining in service there until at least the end of the 1980s. The loco is now in static preservation at Cistierna.

Santa Cruz de Tenerife had an electric tram system, on a modest scale, between 1901 (first section opened) and 1951 – carrying passengers, and also freight in small quantities. Tenerife has nowadays, a “second-generation” tram / metro system, not greatly extensive so far – its first section having opened in 2007.

Useful internet links for further information.

Thomas Kautzor (of course...) has been to São Tomé and his report contain further links.

Googling "Madeira Rack Railway" produces a mixture of the real thing and nothing at all to do with the subject as usual. This page contains a couple of old postcards of the railway -

For the Santa Cruz de Tenerife trams, look no further than

Rob Dickinson