The Tramways of
Pernambuco state


Allen Morrison


Pernambuco is Brazil's oldest state and was a world supplier of sugar and cotton in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was occupied by the Dutch in 1630, but returned to Portugal in 1654 and was the seat of rebellions and insurrections for the next 200 years. Pernambuco declared itself an independent republic after a revolution in 1817 and sparked the Confederation of the Equator in 1824. Its capital city, Recife, has been called "the Venice of Brazil" because its central area is built on a series of islands and peninsulas. Population was 200,000 in 1910 and is about two million today.

Recife was the starting point in 1858 of Brazil's second railroad, a 31 km line from Cinco Pontas station to Cabo (the route of Metrorec's Linha Sul today) [see map]. Recife was also the second city in Brazil, after Rio de Janeiro, to operate steam locomotives on its streets and was allegedly the first city in the world to use locomotives designed specifically for that purpose. The steam tramways in both Rio de Janeiro and Recife were called "maxambombas" – after the little railed carriages used to load cargo onto riverboats. (It is uncertain whether the word was used to designate the locomotive, the passenger car, or the whole train.)

Recife's first two street-running locomotives were constructed in 1866 by Manning Wardle & Co. in Leeds for the British-owned Brazilian Street Railway, known in Recife as Estrada de Ferro de Caxangá. Five similar units arrived in the next four years, with passenger cars built by George Starbuck in Birkenhead. The city's first maxambomba line, between the port and Apipucos, opened on 5 January 1867 [see map]. Track gauge was 1219 mm (4 ft) and the line was extended to Dois Irmãos that year and to Caxangá in 1870. A branch to Arraial (Casa Amarela) opened in 1871. Another steam-powered tramway, the 1400 mm gauge Trilhos Urbanos do Recife a Olinda e Beberibe, built with Brazilian capital, inaugurated a line to the historic village of Olinda on 20 June 1870, and a route to Beberibe in July [see map]. Trilhos Urbanos also used locomotives built by Manning Wardle in Leeds, but most of its passenger cars came from John Stephenson in New York. Recife's locomotives pulled only one or two cars at first, but it was not long before larger locomotives were pulling long trains. The maxambombas ran through World War I.

The city's broad, gently-curving thoroughfares of today were developed by its steam tramway lines. Av. Conde da Boa Vista, Av. Caxangá, Av. Rui Barbosa, Av. Conselheiro Rosa e Silva, Av. João de Barros, Av. Beberibe and Estrada de Belém [see map] were the paths of the Caxangá and Olinda railways. Av. Norte was the route of Great Western of Brazil's railroad to Limoeiro. Most of these avenues were later used by electric trams and, finally, by ônibus elétricos.

All the city's trams were not drawn by steam locomotives. On 22 September 1871 the Pernambuco Street Railway, later called Ferro Carril de Pernambuco, opened a tramway line to Madalena [see map] whose vehicles were pulled by mules. The first cars were closed like the local buses and the public called them ônibus; when the company installed electric lights the passengers renamed the trams electroburros. Gauge was wide, operation was left-hand, and extra mules were stationed at waterside to help pull cars over the arched bridges. In 1882 the FCP had 50 trams and 400 mules.

Considering its pioneer spirit, it seems odd that Recife was the last major capital in Brazil to install an electric tramway. The Great Western of Brazil Railroad, which operated steam trains northwest of the city, proposed an electric line in 1899 that would run from Brum station directly north along the isthmus to Olinda [see map]. But the Western Telegraph Co. protested that electricity would interfere with its underwater cables, and the plan was never realized.

Twenty-one cities, including a half-dozen smaller capitals in the northeast, already had electric trams by 1912 when locomotion in Pernambuco was still provided by 27 locomotives and 900 mules. The Pernambuco Tramways & Power Company was registered in London on 24 January 1913 and the contract for construction of an electric tramway was awarded to J. G. White of England. Tests began in November 1913 and the first electric tram line in Recife, from Bairro do Recife across Santo Antônio island to Boa Vista, was officially opened on 13 May 1914 [see map]. Gauge was meter, the cars carried trolley poles and the rolling stock came from both the U.K. and the U.S.: 70 large 14-bench bogie trams from United Electric in Preston, England, and 100 2-axle open cars from J. G. Brill in Philadelphia. It was an auspicious beginning.

The steam tramway to Olinda was electrified on 12 October 1914 and electric traction reached Várzea in 1915. Steam tramways to Dois Irmãos and Arraial were replaced by electric lines in 1917 and the last maxambomba in Recife ran to Beberibe in 1922 [see map]. Several of the double-truck electric cars were rebuilt as deluxe closed models for a new line to Boa Viagem beach that was inaugurated on 25 October 1924. An extension was also planned to Jaboatão, 8 km west of Tejipió, but was not constructed. By the late 1920s Pernambuco Tramways was operating 130 motor cars and 110 trailers on 141 km of route, the third-largest streetcar system in Brazil.

Electric Bond & Share Company purchased the Recife tramway in 1928 - but kept the British name. The U.S. firm transfered 20 two-axle cars to meter-gauge tramway systems in Maceió and Natal, which it acquired in 1930, and began rebuilding 4-axle open cars into streamlined closed cars which the public dubbed "zeppelins." In 1940 Pernambuco Tramways began bringing 4-axle center-door trailers from the United States, including at least one specimen from New York State Railways in Syracuse. The roster for 1943 shows 26 double-truck aluminum cars, 20 streamlined wood cars, 7 single-truck closed cars, 61 single-truck open cars, 49 double-truck open cars, 93 trailers and 34 trams for cargo.

Ebasco's interest in Recife diminished after the War and the tram system declined rapidly. Streetcars were eliminated from both Bairro do Recife island and Santo Antônio by 1951, and the last tram in the city ran from Boa Vista to Madalena - where the first horsecar ran 80 years earlier - in March 1954 [see map]. Trucks and other parts were transfered to Ebasco's meter-gauge tramways in Vitória, Belo Horizonte and Campinas.

When the system closed, local politicians accused Pernambuco Tramways of breaking its contract and started legal action. Tram service was restored: a single 4-wheel open car ran once a day from Parque 13 de Maio to Fundão until late 1960! Tram 104 was later preserved in a riverfront park on Rua da Aurora and transfered to the Museu do Homem do Nordeste in 1985. The electric tram era in Recife lasted only 46 years. Steam trams had run for 55 years.

The new Companhia de Transportes Urbanos inaugurated a trolleybus system on 15 June 1960 and about a hundred vehicles were operating on nine routes in 1980. Most of the trolleybuses were built by the Marmon-Herrington Company in Indianapolis; 50 of these were acquired second-hand from Belo Horizonte in 1965. New routes, using exclusive trolleybus lanes, opened in 1982, and 18 Villares trolleybuses were acquired from the Ribeirão Preto system in 2000. But Recife's ônibus elétrico network closed on 24 September 2001.

Reconstruction of the city's suburban railroads began in 1983 and Metrorec inaugurated its first "metro" line to Werneck on 9 March 1985 [see map]. The route was extended to Jaboatão in 1987, a branch opened to Camaragibe in 2002, and the first section of the "Linha Sul" (South Line) to Cajueiro Seco began carrying passengers in 2005. Recife's new electric trains carry pantographs. Track gauge is 1600 mm, the standard for rapid transit in Brazil.

The line south toward Cajueiro Seco had originally been planned as light rail. A 13 km "VLT" (veículo leve sobre trilhos) route to Prazeres, just above Cajueiro Seco, was announced in August 1991. But the project was revised and the line was rebuilt as conventional heavy rail.

See pictures:
Part A: 1867-1913
Part B: 1914-1927
Part C: 1928-1980



(in order of publication)


Fox, Douglas, and Whitley, H. Michell. Planta da Cidade do Recife. London, 1906. Street map shows track layout of both animal and steam tramways. Scale, 1:10,000.

"Narragansett Trail Cars for Brazil." BM, 4/1914, pp. 113-115. Two photographs and diagram of Recife trams.

"Electric Street Railway Progress in Pernambuco, Brazil" in Electric Railway Journal (New York), 27/6/1914, p. 1437. Tramway inauguration.

English Electric Journal (London), 4/1923, p. 176. Good photo of Recife tram.

Hartley, H. Livingston. "Electric Tramways in Pernambuco" in Brazilian Business (Rio de Janeiro), 8/1929, p. 9. Finances and operation of Recife system.

Whitcombe, H. A. History of the Steam Tram. Lingfield (England), 1937. Recife (Pernambuco), p. 6.

Brazil. Serviço Geográphico do Exército. "Recife" topographic map, scale 1:50,000, 1943. Tram routes.

Planta da Cidade do Recife e Arredores. Recife, 1948. Area map shows track layout of electric tram system. Scale, 1:25,000.

Sette, Mário. Arruar. RJ, 1948. "Cadeirinhas e Diligências," pp. 87-144. Extraordinary description of steam and animal tramways.

Untitled news item in Brazil-Ferro-Carril (Rio de Janeiro), 9/1948, p. 57. Financial and engineering problems of Pernambuco Tramways.

Cavalcanti, Paulo. A Verdade sobre a Pernambuco Tramways. Recife, 1954. A 35-page diatribe against yanqui imperialism.

Price, J. H., "The Story of G. F. Milnes" in Modern Tramway (London), 7/1964. Information about the locomotives built in 1866 for the steam tramway in Recife, p. 239.

Mota, Alves da. No Tempo do Bonde Elétrico. Recife, 1982. Tram lore and photos. More about the tempo than about the bonde elétrico.

"A cidade nos trilhos: era a maxambomba" in online edition of Diario de Pernambuco (Recife), 5/2/2001. Article about the maxambomba inauguration of 1867 quotes the original newspaper announcement (which, however, does not use the term maxambomba).

Veneza Americana. Extraordinary short film on YouTube that shows the new trams built for the Boa Viagem line which opened in October 1924. The film is dated 1925, but the footage was shot on the Várzea line before the beach line opened.

Morrison, Allen. The Trolleybuses of Recife. My webpage with history, map and 13 photographs of the city's ônibus elétrico system, which operated from 1960 until 2001.

Gilvando Sá Leitão Rios. Linhas apagadas: do coletivo como arcaico ao individual como moderno [a extinção dos bondes na década de 1940]. Second edition, Recife, 2013. Superb, perceptive, provocative analysis of the tramway's demise.



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This site was placed online on
3 May 2006

Copyright © 2006-2106 Allen Morrison