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Railways in the breakwater quarry on São Miguel
Trains at work in the quarry, west of Ponta Delgada, that supplied stone for the breakwater work
The image dates from the late 1960s, when the locomotives were last used

The Portuguese autonomous region of Açores (Azores) is a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean. There are no active railways in the islands today, but there was at one time a broad (2140mm) gauge railway on the largest island, São Miguel.

The railway on São Miguel was used for the construction and subsequent maintenance of the breakwater that forms 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 intermittent 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 stored pending possible future restoration. They are not generally on view to the public, but can be seen by special arrangement.

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Photo image supplied by Américo Paulo Martins Correia
of the Ponta Delgada Port Authority, via the website of Colin Churcher