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Bahia and San Francisco Railway (BSFR)

Bahia and San Francisco, Brazil




6 years




Project achievements

Area improved

People moved around the country more to find new jobs and homes

Solved the problem

The railway was able to transport goods around Brazil quicker

Used engineering skill

Tunnels were dug, and railway tracks were laid in difficult terrain

Build a railway to transport cargo and passengers

The Bahia and San Francisco railway (BSFR) was one of the first railways to be constructed in Brazil. It was built by British engineers between 1857 and 1863.

The 75-mile (121km) line was the first stage of a planned 360-mile (579km) rail route. The scheme eventually connected the port of Salvador in the state of Bahia, north-eastern Brazil to the 1,811 mile-long (2,914km) Sao Francisco river, part of which runs through Bahia.

The BSFR was designed by British engineer Charles Blacker Vignoles. Vignoles had already worked on the London to Brighton and Liverpool to Manchester railways.

Vignoles was also chief engineer for the Tudela to Bilbao line in Spain, as well as having worked on railways in Ireland.

Vignoles sent his son Hutton to Brazil to map out the best route. As the voyage from England to Brazil took three weeks by boat, Hutton sent his research back to his father. Vignoles senior drew up the design and specifications for the scheme in London.

Work on the route started in September 1858. Hutton Vignoles stayed in Brazil to help oversee the scheme. John Watson – another British engineer – headed up an Anglo-Italian project team with some labour hired locally.

The BSFR reached Alagoinhas, about 123km from Salvador, in 1863. Another 283 miles (455km) of line was added to the route by Brazilian engineers between 1875 and 1896.

Bahia and San Francisco Railway

John Vignoles talks to us about the Bahia and San Francisco Railway.

Did you know …

  1. The construction of the BSFR attracted interest from the Brazilian royal family. A letter home from chief engineer John Watson describes a visit to the scheme by the emperor and empress of Brazil.

  2. Watson wrote that ‘the Emperor rode over the first section of the Bahia and San Francisco Railway, accompanied by… Captain Vignoles, the company's engineer… and his staff of assistants’.

  3. The letter goes on that ‘the English workmen… gave his Majesty a right hearty welcome in John Bull fashion’.

  4. Watson also notes that the emperor told him that the tunnel they visited that day ‘was the first tunnel he had ever gone through’.

Difference the project has made

Traders were able to get goods around Brazil faster using the BSFR. The railway carried cargoes including coffee and sugar.

The line contributed to social change. Brazil saw a great deal of internal migration between 1872 and 1890 as people moved around the country to look for new jobs and homes. New railway lines – including the BSFR – helped this migration.

The BSFR didn’t make much money – disappointing investors. The scheme’s poor financial results discouraged new railway investment in north-east Brazil for 20 years.

How the work was done

Engineers working on the BSFR faced a number of challenges. These included the limited supply of both materials and experienced workers in Brazil.

Many of the construction materials and equipment for the scheme came from Britain by steamer. This took time and made start-up costs higher.

The need for skilled labour saw BSFR chief engineer John Watson hire 1,000 Italian workers using agents in London before he left Britain to head up the project.

Although the scheme used some local labour, another 3,000 British workers made the three-week journey to work on the BSFR. Many of them stayed on in Brazil to build public works including roads and sugar mills.

Bringing in large numbers of immigrant workers hit the BSFR hard in the bottom line and contributed to its lack of financial success. A similar scheme – the Sao Paulo railway – spent about one third of its budget on importing workers from overseas.

As well as laying 75 miles (121km) of railway in often difficult terrain, engineers had to excavate tunnels for the line.

People who made it happen

  • Designer: Charles Blacker Vignoles, ICE member
  • Chief engineer: John Watson, ICE member
  • Construction engineer: Hutton Vignoles