The International Steam Pages

The Railways of São Tomé e Príncipe, 2009

Thomas Kautzor reports on his January 2009 visit, the pictures were added on 17th March 2009.  Click here for the report of his 2011 revisit.

The Islands:

The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are of volcanic origin and lie approximately 250 km off the West African coast, near Gabon. The island of São Tomé, where the capital city of the same name is located, is 46 km long and 35 km wide, with a total surface of 854 km2. The Pico de S. Tomé is 2,025 metres high. The island of Príncipe is only 18 km long and 12 km wide, with a surface of 142 km2. Its major settlement is the village of Santo Antonio, and its highest point the Pico de Príncipe at 1,000 metres. The total population is estimated at 160,000 (2008), of which c. 55,000 live in the capital, and only 6,000 on Príncipe.

Initially discovered by Portuguese seafarers in 1470, the islands were settled from 1485 (S. Tomé) and 1500 (Príncipe). Sugar cane was introduced in 1493, together with slavery. In the 15th and 16th century the islands became a major trading post of the transatlantic slave trade. The turn of the 17th century marked the beginning of two centuries of decline, with most of the sugar cane planters having left for Portugal’s largest colony, Brazil. The year 1787 saw the introduction of coffee from Brazil to Príncipe, together with cocoa. The introduction of these cash crops marked the second colonisation of the islands by the Portuguese. By the end of the 19th century 90% of the land was in the hand of Portuguese planters, and the plantations required large quantities of workers. Following the abolition of slavery in 1875, tens of thousands of contract workers, serviçais, were brought to the islands mainly from Angola and later from Cape Verde and Mozambique, and indentured labourers continued to cultivate the cash crops, often in the same conditions as under slavery.

Cocoa grows best at altitudes up to 700m, while coffee can only be grown on a narrow belt at an altitude of between 800 and 1,400m around the Pico de S. Tomé.

On 5 September 1975, the islands gained independence from Portugal. As a result, most of the 2,000 Portuguese left overnight, taking with them the management skills to run the roças. On 30 September 1975, two dozen larger roças (plantations) were nationalised. However, due to a lack of investment, know-how and experience, production plummeted and the facilities fell into disrepair. As a result of the fluctuating cocoa prices on the world market and the high cost of production, S. Tomé could not compete with countries such as Ghana or the Ivory Coast. Today most of the roças belong to the state and are leased out to private individuals or consortia. The larger ones produce biological (= "organic" RD) cocoa, while coffee is produced at Nova Moca and Monte Cafe. The buildings are very dilapidated and vegetation has reclaimed most of the formerly cultivated land. Many of the workers and their descendents, who have had no alternative but to stay on the roças, are unemployed.

The Caminho-de-Ferro de São Tomé (C.F.S.T.):


While there were numerous projects to construct public railways around the island of S. Tomé, and even on the tiny island of Príncipe, the only one that was actually built was the line from the city of S. Tomé to the hillside village of Trinidade, later extended to Milagrosa, a total length of only 18 km which remained in public service for a period of only 13 years.

Trinidade, a village on the slopes of the Pico de S. Tomé volcano, was the location of the governor’s chalet, as well as of a number of residences for workers of some of the trading companies present on the island, due to its cooler temperatures. Although the railway was initially to be built with a track gauge of 600mm, it was later decided to use 750mm gauge. Construction started in October 1908, but proceeded very slowly, mainly due to the lack of an available workforce on the island, a problem also faced in the roças. During the construction phase two 600mm gauge steam locomotives, a Decauville N°. 478 (a 3¼ tonnes 0-4-0T built for the “Ministère de la Marine et d’Outremer” in 1906, according to the Decauville builder’s list) and a Krauss, were used. These were put up for sale in June of 1914. Later, a 750mm gauge 0-4-0T 10 tonne Henschel (N°. 8810/1908) was delivered, together with some 24 wagons from A. Koppel, Berlin (most likely side-dump wagons), two trucks and two high-sided open bogie wagons. Sternberg & Co. of Frankfurt/Main delivered an inspection trolley with a 3 h.p. engine.

On 26 October 1912 the Direcção de Portos e Viação de S. Tomé was created by decree to run the railway. On June 3rd 1913 the line was inaugurated and opened to traffic the following day from S. Tomé to the village of Trinidade. The final section to Cruzeiro de Trinidade was only opened on August 1st, 1913. A 4 km extension between Cruzeiro de Trinidade and Milagrosa was opened on July 1st of 1924 to serve a number of roças in that area.

The line ran from the wharf of S. Tomé at the old customs house (Alfândega) through town, by the apeadeira (= halt) of Jardim, to the central station at Fortaleza de São Sebastiao, where the main station and depot were located, then through the halts of Almeirim, Amparo II° and Quifindá to the station of Lemos, and continuing through the halt Obó Longo to the station of Trinidade, at km. 14. The extension to the station of Milagrosa (km. 18), located at an altitude of 452 metres, ran through the halts of Benfica and Água Cavalo. Most of the halts were used as loading points for the roças along the line.

Rolling stock ordered for the line comprised the following:

  • Two 0-8-0T steam locomotives from Maffei (N°. 3595-6/1910), with Gölsdorf articulation, numbered C.F.S.T. 11 and 12 (N°. 1 was most likely the Henschel used during construction and kept on the railway).  output 300 h.p., 32 tonnes in use, 25.5 tonnes empty;
  • One salon bogie wooden carriage for use by the governor and other high officials, built by Société Franco-Belge in 1911. It had a salon, two rooms and a toilet;
  • Three mixed 1st/2nd class bogie wooden carriages, built by Baume-et-Marpent in 1910, with 12 seats in 1st and 18 seats in 2nd, separated by a toilet compartment;
  • Two 3rd class bogie wooden carriages with longitudinal banks, built by Baume-et-Marpent in 1910, with 40 seats;
  • Two baggage bogie vans with a postal compartment, built by Société Franco-Belge in 1911;
  • Three covered bogie wagons with a 15 ton capacity, Société Franco-Belge 1910;
  • Six flat bogie wagons with a 15 ton capacity, Société Franco-Belge 1910;
  • Four high-sided open bogie wagons with a 15 tonnes capacity, Société Franco-Belge 1910.

Initially passenger traffic exceeded expectations and special trains were often run on Sundays and holidays to allow the inhabitants of S. Tomé to escape to the cooler climate of Trinidade. A typical timetable had one pair of trains on weekdays and two pairs on Sundays and holidays. The trains were extended to Milagrosa only three times a week. Goods trains were run when needed. Down traffic was mainly cocoa, with some firewood from Lemos station and some coconuts. Up traffic comprised mostly supplies for the roças, mainly construction materials. Aguardente (sugarcane Brandy) was transported in both directions. At the opening of the line, 45 agents worked for the railway, but by the time of closure in 1926, there were only 22 fixed agents left, including only one driver and one fireman.

Although revenues increased over the years, expenses increased even more and the railway was running at an ever-increasing loss. As a result, Sunday and holiday passenger trains were suspended in October of 1926, the following month weekday passenger trains as well, and the railway was officially closed in December of that year. However, some traffic continued until 1931, when the whole railway, including the rolling stock, was put up for sale. Holiday passenger trains must have continued to run occasionally even after that date, because on the Easter Sunday of 1935 two passenger trains were reported to have run. In the 1940s and 50s the railway continued to be used by the Public Works department to haul earth and rocks to S. Tomé for the construction of a landfill for the new docks and to build houses in the Pantufo neighbourhood. In the 50s an internal combustion locomotive of unknown make or origin was used.

Because most of the plantation railways on the islands had a gauge of 600mm, the locomotives and rolling stock could hardly find local buyers after closure. It has been reported that the two 0-8-0T locomotives were sold to Mozambique, but no traces of their having been used there has ever been found. However, at least three carriages were sold to the Gaza Railway at Xai Xai, Mozambique. By 1998, the two 3rd class carriages were still present in derelict conditions, with the former salon carriage having been transformed into mixed 1st/2nd class carriage N°. AB 11, still serviceable. All three still had their builder’s plates and the initials C.F.S.T. on some of the axle boxes.


Today remnants of the CFST can be found near the old port/customs, as well as at the former station.

Opposite the Praça da Independência, there are two piers with track remains. The smaller pier has just one straight track and is used by local fishermen to unload their catch. The larger pier, which once had two cranes, has a siding midway along it, with the main track continuing towards the end, where it splits into two sidings. The locals unofficially use this pier as a public toilet.

The main station area opposite the new harbour (built on land reclaimed from the sea) is now occupied by the public works department (Direcção de Obras Públicas e Urbanismo – DOPU) and the National Roads Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estradas – INE). The former passenger station, recently restored, hosts a branch of the Banco Internacional de STP (BISTP) and the Ossobó souvenir shop on the ground floor, and the local offices of Portuguese NGO Santa Casa de Misericordia on the first floor. Behind it is what was once the workshop/car shed, now used by the Civil Engineering Laboratory (Laboratorio da Engenharia Civil en STP – ECSTP). This building once had three tracks leading into it, with one adjacent track on each side covered by a wooden roof. Beside it is a former nine-track semi-roundhouse, now used as a cement store. Also within the yard is the former goods shed and a large hangar through which still runs a single track. The hangar has been used since 2008 to house an art exhibit, and a four-wheel steel flat wagon remains on the track and has been made part of the exhibit.

Strangely, although the CFST was reported to be 750mm gauge, I measured the tracks on both piers and inside the hangar at 800mm.

While the station buildings at Lemos and Trinidade are also said to have survived, I could not find anyone who knew their location and did not investigate any further.

Railways in the roças:


The plantations (roças) comprised the main plant (sede), which had the cocoa, coffee, palm oil and copra processing facilities, workers housing, an administrative building and the plantation manager’s house, as well as smaller dependencies (dependencies). Those plantations near the sea had their own facilities to load the crops into small boats, which would take them either to larger ships anchored offshore or to the capital to be transhipped. These ranged from simple stone or concrete piers to large plants that included some processing facilities. Cocoa and coffee was dried either under the sun on large concrete platforms or on large rail-mounted drawers, or mechanically in ovens. The roças were mainly self-sufficient, also producing food crops and keeping livestock to feed the workers. Fish was provided by local fishermen in exchange for not being forced to work on the plantations. After World War I, following international protest on the way the workers were treated, hospitals were added to most of the roças.

Railways were introduced into the plantations by the end of the 19th century to link these various entities, replacing bullock carts. By 1910 S. Tomé had 246.5 km of railways and Príncipe 39 km. In that year, 20 out of 132 roças on S. Tomé, as well as two on Príncipe, were using railways, ranging in track length from 300m (Jou) to 35 km (Água Izé). Track gauge ranged from 600 to 850m, with light rails, mostly 7 kg/m. Human, mule and steam locomotive traction was used, with some diesel locomotives introduced later on. On downward grades, trains were often run by gravity, with brakeman on the wagons. Based on old photographs, most of the steam locomotives (as well as the diesels) must have come from Germany, but there were also some French-, Belgian- and English-built ones. The larger railways had passenger coaches to take the plantation manager and his guests around the plantation.

Some of the lines reached way into the mountains, with high gradients. Where the gradients were too high, aerial tramways (caminhos-de-ferro aéreos) were used, at least by three roças on S. Tomé (Ponta Figo, Ribeira Palma and Java).

From the 1960s, most of the railways were replaced by road transport. Today no active railway remains on the islands. However track remains can be found mostly where these were embedded into the pavement and could not be uplifted. Those rails that could be uplifted can be found all over the islands, mostly used as telephone poles, barriers or to cover culverts along the roadsides.

I spent a week touring the roças which once had railways, based mainly on a Portuguese military map from 1958 (see Honig). The island can be subdivided into three zones, along the three national roads (estradas nacional). Some roças are just beside these roads, while others are some way up into the mountains, with some only accessible on foot.

1. Northern/Western S. Tomé (EN1):

Roça Boa Vista (km 5): The railway here once linked the roça with the pier at Praia Lagarto on a bay located between S. Tomé city and the airport. No railway remains were found.

Roça Boa Entrada (km ): The 600mm gauge railway (23 km in 1910, 30 km in 1924, 7 kg/m rail) included a 6-7 km long link between the roça and the pier on Praia Juventude, just south of the village of Micoló. Remains seen include an embankment with a small bridge and some track remains at a road crossing.

Roça Agostinho Neto, formerly Roça Rio do Ouro (km 10): This was the largest roça on S. Tomé, formerly owned by Marquês Conde de Valle Flor (who also owned roças Diogo Vaz, Bela Vista, Valle Flor, Boa Esperança and Nova Estrela, having a total of 68 km of railway track by 1910 and 204 km by 1924), producing cocoa, palm oil and copra. After independence it was renamed after the Angolan poet and first president. There were two distinct railways of different gauges here, the 650mm gauge lines around the plantation and an 8 km long line between the sede and the pier at Fernão Dias, laid at a gauge of 850mm with 14 kg/m rails. This last line used steam traction from the beginning and at least two locomotives are known to have been used here, both 2-4-0Ts built by Bagnall: “Rio do Ouro” (N°. 1565/1898) and “Santa Clara” (N°. 1774/1904).

The railway was said to have been in use until 1967/68. Today, there are many remains. At the sede there are extensive track remains of both gauges. At the upper level, where the administrative buildings and workers’ houses are located, 650mm track is embedded in the cobbled stone pavement. This track leads down to a dryer shed, located at an intermediate level, which is also reached by the 850mm gauge track. Below that are the roça’s workshops, from where the 850mm gauge track used to run to the pier. Track at the intermediate and lower level is 3-rail mixed gauge. Inside a shed located behind the workshops, and which might have once been the loco shed, are the remains of a steam locomotive (thought to have be built by O&K), essentially the frame and boiler. As the shed has been turned into housing, walls have been built all around the loco and it is now entrapped, however it can be viewed through holes in the outer wall.

At Fernão Dias (off km 8 on EN1), the extensive storage buildings remain. Two tracks run through the central part of the storage shed and then join into a single track that runs onto what remains of the pier. A perpendicular track under the shed crosses these and is linked to one by a turntable, now uprooted. A four-wheel wagon truck is locked inside. Also still standing is the boathouse with its two tracks used to lower boats into the sea.

Roça Praia das Conchas (km 13): 600mm gauge track remains were found inside the abandoned drying plant. Next to it was a derelict stationary steam engine (Ransomes Sons & Rapier N°. 26003). Abandoned outside the sede beside the road was a boiler from another portable engine. Apart from the right-of-way, no traces of the railway were found at the location of the former pier at Praia de Praia das Conchas.

Roça Plancas (km 13): The only traces of the railway at Plancas (6 km in 1910) that could be found were gaps in the cobbled-stone pavement where the rails and sleepers once lay (600mm gauge).

Roça Ribeira Palma: This roça high up in the mountains once had an aerial tramway linking it to the coast. It was not visited.

Roça Rosema: This roça, located high up in the mountains, had 12.4 km of railway track in 1910. A short length of 600mm gauge track was found on the way up to the sede, embedded in concrete over a culvert. Further up the track leading into the sede was found, together with a spur ending under an unloading ramp. Down on the coast the stone pier is still standing.

Roça Ponta Figo (km 28): This large roça had 27 km of railway in 1910. Today it produces biological cocoa. No traces of railways could be found both at Ponta Figo and its dependency of Generosa, located higher-up in the mountains. However 800mm gauge track remains could be found at the storage facilities and pier of Ponta Figo Praia, just south of the town of Neves, consisting of a single-track ending by a three-way switch just before the partly collapsed pier.

A 1,300m long aerial tramway linked the end-of-line at an altitude of 400 metres to the dependency of Manuel Morais, from where another railway continued into the mountains, linking it with other dependencies. The aerial tramway, opened in 1910, had a capacity of 14 tonnes/h., using 14-16 buckets with a capacity of 80 kg each, powered by a steam engine fed with coconut husks. Manuel Morais, on the way of the trail used for ascensions to Pico de S. Tomé, is not accessible by road and was not visited, but some of the buckets and the machinery of the tramway are said to have survived there.

Roça Monte Forte (km 30): The manager’s house at this plantation, which produces biological cocoa, is now a guesthouse. No traces of the railway could be found.

Roça Diogo Vaz (km 35): The railway (650mm gauge) here once linked the roça with its dependencies in the mountains at Maria Luisa and Santa Jenny, hauling cocoa, coconuts and palm nuts. The pier on Praia Velha, opened in 1893, proved unsafe and was later replaced by a new storage facility and a pier at Esprainha, some distance to the north.

Track remains were found, including inside the sawmill and workshops buildings at the roça, which produces biological cocoa, as well as a wagon truck. A stationary steam engine, bearing RSJ, (= Ransomes, SIms, Jefferies RD) which looked as if it had worked the day before, was formerly used to power various belt-driven machinery in the sawmill, but had to be stopped less than two years ago when the water level glass broke and no replacement could be found (If anyone knows how to source a spare, please get in touch. RD). A used electrical saw could however be found and is now used instead. Outside in the yard lies a small boiler, said to have come from one of the roça’s steam locomotives (In fact it's from another portable engine and there is part of a plate which reads Lincoln - England, most likely it's a Robey or Ruston or even a Foster. RD).

At Dependencia Esprainha (km 32 on EN1), a single track could be found under the storage shed, ending at a switch where the rest of the pier has collapsed. A perpendicular track crosses it on a small turntable, entering the locked shed, which was said to contain some wagons.

Roça Binda: This small roça is located some way south of Santa Catarina, the last village along the paved road, and was not visited. According to the map, it once had a single railway line into the mountains.

2. Southern/Eastern S. Tomé (EN2):

Roça Pinheira: No remains of a railway were found here.

Roça Pedroma: 12 km in 1910. 600mm gauge Krauss 0-4-0T N°. 5701/1908, named „A. Tenaz“ and delivered to “S. Levy & Cie, São Tomé”, is thought to have been delivered here. S. Levy was the owner of Roça Pedroma. No remains of a railway were found.

Roça Uba Budo (km 9): This roça, its sede at an altitude of 230 metres, had no railway in 1910, but 27 km of 600mm gauge track by 1924. Its steam locomotives were housed in a two-road shed. I found the remains of a six-wheeled steam locomotive (boiler, frame and motions) at the sede and track remains inside the disused palm oil factory at Ubo Budo Praia, the location of the pier. Cocoa is still processed at Uba Budo Praia, but production of palm oil has ceased and the stationary steam engine used in that process is now hidden by vegetation.

Roça M. António: This location was not visited, as it was reported not to have any remnants of a railway.

Roça Nova Olinda (km 13): The railway linked the sede with the Santa Joana dependency. No traces were found.

Roça Água Izé (km 16): This roça had one of the largest railway networks on the island (600mm gauge, 34.6 km in 1910 and 60 km in 1924), reaching the slopes of Pico S. Tomé via roça Bombaim all the way to roça Trás-os-Montes. Steam and diesel locomotives were used here and apparently it was the last railway in use on the island.

At the sede, where palm oil is produced today, there are extensive track remains, which lead all the way down to the remains of the collapsed pier. Locked away in a cocoa storage shed opposite the manager’s house are a Schoema diesel locomotive, a semi-enclosed passenger car (one open and one closed compartment, with four seats each), a smaller open passenger car (four seats), and a braked wagon frame. Apparently this is the last train to have run on São Tomé, taking visitors around the roça even after the tracks into the fields had been lifted, until about twelve years ago, when the locomotive suffered from a broken joint and no replacement could be found on the island. Since then the train has been stored inside this shed.

The plantation house at the dependency of Bombaim, high in the mountains and reached by road via Trinidade, has been restored and is used as guesthouse for tourists. Track remains were found here under the grass and inside the ruined cocoa dryer shed.

Roça Caridade (km 24): Some track remains were found here, embedded into the cobbled-stone pavement.

Roça Colónia Açoreana (km 25): This roça had 2 km of railway tracks in 1910 and was using steam locomotives by 1914. No remains were found.

Roça Santa Cecilia (km 25): Some track remains were found at the sede. The winding and completely overgrown right-of-way was followed down to the ruined stone pier, set next to a beach in a small bay. Some wagons were said to have plunged into a ravine some years ago after children of the plantation rode them downhill.

Roça Angra Toldo: This roça, not accessible by car and not visited, was said to contain some remains from its railway (tracks or more ?).

Roça Aliança (km 35): 2 km-long railway in 1910, no remains found.

Roça Manuel Caroça (km 48): No railway remains found.

Roça Dona Augusta (km 49): A short piece of embedded track was found here.

Roça Ribeira Peixe, formerly Perserverança (km 51): Most of the land of this roça is now planted with palms, and a factory has been built inland at Emolve to transform their fruits into oil. At the sede, the remains of two steam locomotives (frames and boilers) could be found behind a building that might have been the workshops. Close inspection was impossible due to the presence of bees inside one of the boilers.

Roça Novo Brasil, formerly Praia Grande: 7.5 km in 1910. This roça is not accessible by car and was not visited.

Roça Porto Alegre (km 83): A 10 km railway was opened by 1899, running from Porto Alegre around the bay, and by 1910 there were 14 km of tracks. No traces of it could be found.

Roça Jou: This isolated roça, north of Porto Alegre on the west coast of S. Tomé, had a 300 metre long railway in 1910, which was probably closed before 1958 as it does not appear on the map. The roça is now abandoned and was not visited.

3. Central S. Tomé (EN3):

Empresa Santa Margarida: 4 km of tracks in 1910, no traces found. The plantation is still producing cocoa.

Roça Milagrosa (south of Trinidade, km 7): 1 km of railway in 1910, no traces found. A Robey & Co., Lincoln, mobile steam engine could be found off the road a short distance before the entrance to the roça.

Roça Java (south of Trinidade, km 7): This roça has closed and no traces of the aerial tramway could be found.

Roça Monte Café (km 12): Located at an altitude of over 700 metres, this is the only plantation exclusively producing coffee which used rail haulage. The railway here is said to have had four gauges in use, 600, 650, 800 and 850mm, with rails of 7 kg/m, later replaced by 8 and 12 kg/m. There were 15 km of track in 1910 and steam traction was used. No traces could be found, however a short length of 600mm gauge track with 3 or 4 wooden wagons on top of the dryer shed, built in 1914, is still used to sort the freshly-picked coffee.

4. Railways of the roças on Príncipe: (see the revisit report from 2011 for updated unformation)

Due to the non-availability of flights to Príncipe during my stay, I was unable to visit that island. The following roças had railways, all of 600mm gauge: Sundy (9 km in 1910, 50 km in 1929), Paciência, Porto Real (30 km in 1910), Esperança (dependencies at S. José/Pincaté, Montalegre, S. Trinidade, S. Joaquim O. and Anselmo Andrade), Terreiro Velho (dependency at Nova Estrela) and Infante D. Henrique (dependency at Neves Ferreira). Track remains exist at least at Sundy, Porto Alegre and Terreiro Velho. Survivors include a small German-built four-wheel steam locomotive at roça Sundy and a stationary steam engine at the abandoned roça Porto Real.

Roça Terreiro Velho is owned by Italian national Claudio Corallo, who produces cocoa here, which is processed at his chocolate factory in S. Tomé (he also produces coffee at Nova Moca on S. Tomé). More info under:

During the first half of the 20th century, the Companhia da Ilha do Príncipe used to run a 600mm gauge horse tramway in the streets of Santo Antonio, the small capital of the island. Tracks went all the way onto the pier.

The Dutch-owned Bom Bom luxury resort on the northern tip of the island uses rail-based boat launches to get its fishing speedboats into the sea.

Sources and literature:

  • Salomão Vieira, Caminhos-de-Ferro em S. Tomé e Príncipe, UNEAS, S. Tomé, 2005
  • Salomão Vieira, Caminhos-de-Ferro da Ilha de S. Tomé, in Bastão Piloto No. 203, September/October 1999
  • William Leon Smyser, São Tomé, the Chocolate Island, in National Geographic, May 1946, pp. 657-680;
  • A.E. Durrant, C.P. Lewis, A.A. Jorgensen, Steam in Africa, 1981;
  • E.T. Honig, Railway Networks in West Africa – Tome 1, Röhr, Krefeld (pp. 124-127);
  • Allan C. Baker, Coffee, Cocoa or Palm Oil? Two Little Bagnalls, in Locomotive International No. 14, May 1992, pp. 32-33;
  • Back Track, in Locomotive International No. 20, July 1993, p. 30;
  • João M. Loureiro, Postais Antigos de S. Tomé e Príncipe, Maisimagem, Lisboa, 1999
  • São Tomé – Ponto de Partida, Chaves Ferreira, Lisbon, Dec. 2008
  • Sophie WARNE, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe, Bradt Travel Guides, November 2003 (pp. 185-234);
  • Kathleen Becker, São Tomé and Príncipe, Bradt Travel Guides, July 2008.

Rob Dickinson