The first railway in Portugal opened in 1856 between Lisbon's Santa Apolónia station and Carregado. Although the standard gauge of 1435mm had by then been adopted in several European countries, the new line used a broader gauge of 1664mm (5 Portuguese feet). Under British influence, some later lines were initially constructed to 1435mm gauge, but were later reconfigured to the broad gauge. The broad gauge did, however, allow interoperation with the Spanish network, which used a gauge of 1674mm. As speeds became higher in the late 19th / early 20th centuries the small difference in gauge became important, and so the systems of both countries were gradually reconfigured to a compromise gauge of 1668mm, which became known as Iberian gauge.
A few narrow gauge (1000mm) lines remain in operation in the Douro valley. Some other narrow gauge lines in the Porto area which survived into the 21st century have been converted to form part of the Porto Metro.
Until 1925, a narrow gauge rack railway ran up into the mountains from Funchal town, connected to the harbour by a mule tramway.
There was at one time a broad (2140mm) gauge railway on the island, used for the construction and subsequent maintenance of the breakwater that form the south side of the harbour at Ponta Delgada. The original equipment was supplied by the British firm of J & C Rigby, contractors for the construction of the breakwater at Holyhead in North Wales; some of the equipment had previously been used on the Holyhead project and carried makers / owners plates indicating this. The broad gauge was chosen at Holyhead not from any desire or expectation of any connection with Brunel’s Great Western Railway, which used a similar gauge (the main line railway to Holyhead - the Chester & Holyhead Railway, later part of the London & North Western Railway - was built to standard gauge), but because it was considered better suited to carrying large blocks of stone from the quarry to the breakwater. A similar situation prevailed on Ponta Delgada, although of course in that instance there were no other railways concerned.
The Ponta Delgada railway connected a quarry to the west of the town with the site of the harbour breakwater. Following the completion of the breakwater the railway saw only intemittent use for repair and rebuilding, operating for the last time around 1973. Few traces now remain.
The site of the quarry is now occupied by the main runway of João Paulo II Airport (PDL). Rua Engenheiro Abel Férin Coutinho follows the line of the railway from there to the harbour. A short section of broad gauge track can still be seen embedded in the road surface in the harbour itself. Other visible relics are a cement mixer wagon mounted on a short length of broad gauge track, and the original water tower used to supply the locomotives. These can be found, respectively, at the western and eastern end of Rua Engenheiro Abel Férin Coutinho.
Abel Férin Coutinho (1891-1971) was a civil engineer and for many years director of the Ponta Delgada Port Authority. He supervised a number of major works around the harbour, including the construction of the Avenida Infante Dom Henrique along the waterfront of the city, and major harbour repairs following storm damage in the 1940s. He held the Ordem de Cristo (a Portuguese medal of honour) and was also known as a keen sportsman, founder of Clube União Desportiva (one of the local football clubs) and a very supportive member of the Clube Naval de Ponta Delgada yacht club.
After their retirement, three steam locomotives were stored in the open, where their condition deteriorated badly until the 1990s, when two were taken under cover in the workshops of APSM (Administração dos Portos das Ilhas São Miguel e Santa Maria) - the third was considered beyond recovery, and was scrapped. These two locomotives are now carefully stored pending possible future restoration. They are not generally on view to the public, but can be seen by special arrangement.
Flag image from CIA World Factbook