Maria Pia Bridge in Porto

Let the train take the strain

The opening of Portugal’s first passenger railway on October 28, 1856 was not auspicious. The line operated by a private company (Companhia dos Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses) stretched from Lisbon to Carregado, a distance of just over 42km on the west bank of the Tagus.

Amidst clouds of steam and smoke, this first Portuguese railway train set out on an autumn morning. The young and popular king, D Pedro V, was aboard, along with the crème de la crème of Portuguese society. There were whistles, hissing and rockets as the train lurched into motion and, along the side of the track, huge crowds pushed and shoved for a better view.

The locomotive, acquired at second or even third hand in Britain, was clearly being asked to do too much. The Marchioness of Rio Maior wrote that the locomotive looked like an enormous flagon and, during the journey, it was necessary to let go some of the carriages, leaving them and their passengers stranded desolately neither in Lisbon, nor yet in Carregado.

One carriage was abandoned at Olivais; the cardinal patriarch of Lisbon was left at Sacavém; another carriage full of dignitaries was abandoned at Póvoa. If Carregado had been further away, she wrote, perhaps the locomotive would have arrived without carriages, all by itself. Her father managed to get aboard the royal carriage nearest the engine and arrived at Carregado where a sumptuous feast awaited them.

It was enough for the whole train full of passengers, and those few who did arrive certainly ate well, while those who had been abandoned on the track went hungry. Many of these unfortunates arrived back in Lisbon around midnight, and they dined out on their adventures for months afterwards. Opposition leaders had a field day. The governing Regeneration Party, they wrote, “had chosen a locomotive in its own image, rotten and lacking in power…”

The king D Pedro (1837-1853-1861) was supportive and so too was the Minister of Public Works, Fontes Pereira de Melo, who was so enthusiastic that he would like to have the whole country travelling by train for six months.

While the famous author Almeida Garrett would not travel by train, historian Alexandre Herculano reckoned that the train was a heavenly gift of legitimate progress, similar to the plough, the ship, the printing press. The steam engine, he wrote, brought warmth and comfort, cleanliness and health to the shacks of the common people who had lived for centuries in extreme misery, with all its pains and agonies.

Expansion of the rail system began almost immediately, but not without difficulty, since indecisiveness and chronic lack of finance dogged its development. The work was left to private capitalists, many of whom were discouraged by the lack of return on their investment, mainly because Portugal was not a developed economy, and there was not enough commercial traffic to generate adequate revenue.

The first objectives were achieved, however: the link between Lisbon and Porto, actually the south bank of the Douro (1864), and to the Spanish border (at Elvas, 1863); the link to Madrid followed soon after (1868). At this point, Portugal began to feel less remote and isolated from the rest of Europe.

Problems of finding enough private capital to develop the railway system led the state itself to assume that role. The lines in the Minho and the Douro were undertaken in partnership with private companies. Soon it became accepted that the public railway system was a public service which might not generate profit.

The visits of the royal family to Sintra and Cascais also led to the early development of rail links from Lisbon to those two towns. The first idea for the Sintra connection was a French monorail system, which suffered from breakdowns and derailments and was abandoned in 1877.

The neo-Manueline station at Rossio in the centre of Lisbon opened in May 1890 specifically to serve the Sintra connection. This station served for international rail departures until the 1950s, while Santa Apolónia (inaugurated in 1865) served the east and north. A major advantage of Santa Apolónia was that it was so near to the Tagus docks.

The interest of king D Luís (1838-1861-1889) and his queen D Maria Pia in Cascais for his summer holidays led to the opening of the coastal line in 1889, and the opening of the terminus at Cais do Sodré in 1895.

In the north of the country, the terminus at Porto was on the south bank of the Douro at Vila Nova de Gaia, and it was only with the opening of Eiffel’s D Maria Pia bridge in 1877 that the rails reached into the heart of ‘a cidade invicta’.

The regular European service known as the Sud Express connecting Lisbon-Madrid-Paris-Calais also opened in 1877 and, after 1906, this service was operated on a daily basis. Initially, Paris was two days away by rail and through this connection there arrived in Lisbon from the centre of Europe foreign newspapers, magazines, books and fashions. Lisbon was beginning to be connected to mainland Europe. Eça de Queirós wrote that “there arrived torrents of new things and ideas…Each morning brought a revelation, like the new sun every day”.

The railway played a great role in the development of the towns it passed and in the industries, which had a new means for export. On the other hand, towns such as São Brás de Alportel, the major producer of cork in the world, was unable to export fast enough to protect its position because the projected rail line to the town was never built.

By 1900, the national rail system had 2400km, and it continued to expand in the early part of the 20th century. The Algarve line reached Faro in 1889, Vila Real de Santo António by 1906, Portimão by 1903 and finally Lagos in 1922.

By Lynne Booker
|| [email protected]

Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

Alexandre Herculano de Carvalho: ‘The steam engine brought warmth and comfort’
Dom Pedro V
Inauguration of the first Section of the Railway Line between Lisbon and Carregado
Maria Pia Bridge in Porto