Past, present and future of the Portuguese narrow-gauge network

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


Over more than a century, narrow-gauge railways (90-100 cm gauge) coexisted with broad-gauge railways (167 cm) in the Portuguese rail system. Construction of narrow-gauge tracks spread out between 1875 and 1943, particularly in the peripheral areas of Portugal. For decades, these lines were the main instrument of mobility for the population that lived in the Portuguese countryside, given the lack of roads and motor vehicles in those regions. They were also crucial for the transformation of that landscape into a technological landscape. Nowadays, just one of the lines is in operation; most were closed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, while others were re-gauged or reconverted to tram systems. The abandonment of these infrastructures left an abundant and important industrial heritage that constitute a relevant aspect of the Portuguese material culture.
In this paper I analyse the implementation of this technology, as a low-cost technical solution to build railways in peripheral, rugged, sparsely populated areas. Narrow gauge is studied throughout the different stages of evolution associated with large technological systems: implementation, development, innovation, competition, consolidation, transfer, and decline.
I will examine the reasons for its construction (low-cost, technical adaptability), the challenges it faced (technical, financial, competition by other means of transportation), its transplantation to different contexts (in the mainland and the former colonies), and the main causes for its closure (specially the development of the motorway network).
I will describe the current status of the network (permanent way and rolling stock), what new uses were given to them (if any) and what projects for its reutilization (new forms of mobility) are currently planned or being executed. In this regard, I will highlight to what extent those projects value the existing industrial heritage, respect its authenticity and historical relevance and promote the touristic potential of those areas.
Period18 Oct 2019
Held atThe International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (T2M)
Degree of RecognitionInternational