The first Italian railway: the history of the Naples-Portici line

Built in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, it launched the Italian railway industry.

A little more than four and quarter miles. That was the length of the first Italian railway, the famous Naples-Portici line, inaugurated on 3 October 1839. Not Milan, not Turin: the first railway line in Italy was built in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, on the commission of King Ferdinand II. The long history of Italian railroads began on that day: now Italy has around 10,500 miles of tracks managed by Rete Ferroviaria Italiana, in addition to nearly 2,000 miles of secondary lines managed by other companies.

The construction of the Naples-Portici railway gave rise to the entire railway industry: until then, nothing like it had been built in Italy but thereafter, from 1839 onwards, rapid progress was made. Everything started with the Pietrarsa Workshops (located between Naples and Portici) where an old factory for the manufacture of cannons was converted to produce whatever was needed for the construction of the first Italian railways. In 1860, the factory employed more than 1,000 workmen, engaged in building locomotives and rolling stock. But how did the construction of the first Italian railway line come about?

The Naples-Portici railway line: the forerunners

It should be said that Italy’s first railway line was created slightly later than in other countries. What went down in history as the first railway line in the world was, in fact, inaugurated in September 1825 in England: this first example of a railroad, 26.7 miles long, ran between Stockton and Darlington in the north of the country. The creator of this first railway was George Stephenson, the inventor of the steam engine. The primary purpose of the railroad was to connect the coal mines of the hinterland with the port of Stockton. It is not therefore surprising that the first real passenger carriages were only introduced 8 years later in 1833. Before then, passengers were forced to travel on “adapted” flat carriages.

In 1830, it was the turn of the United States, with the railway between Charleston and Hamburg, then France, in 1832, with a railway between Saint-Etienne and Lyon. In 1834, the first Irish line was inaugurated and, in 1825, the first lines in Belgium and Germany. Canada, Russia, Cuba and Austria also all preceded Italy.

The construction of the first Italian railway line

The construction of the Naples-Portici line, as mentioned, was commissioned by King Ferdinand II of Bourbon. This was the last true king of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, who understood the benefits of the railway for the transport of goods and people but did not immediately see the strategic value that the ‘iron road’ could have in supporting the Kingdom’s Royal Navy.

The official go-ahead was given on 19 June 1836. On that day, in fact, the agreement was signed for the construction of the first Italian railway line, under which the king assigned the project to the French engineer, Armand Joseph Bayard de la Vingtrie. This contract was for the construction, within 4 years, of a railway line between Naples and Nocera Inferiore, including a branch to Castellammare. It should be said that the money required was entirely put up by Bayard (who formed the company Bayard and De Vergès) in exchange for the income from the first 99 years of the line’s operation (a period later reduced to just 80 years).

As mentioned, before then no railways had been constructed in Italy. That was why, in order to construct the railway along the Neapolitan coast, they had to rely, in part, on products from abroad. The first Italian railway was therefore not only built with French funds but also with mostly foreign materials and technologies. The locomotives that streaked along the Naples-Portici line in the early years actually came from England, built by the Longridge and Starbuck workshops of Newcastle and designed by George and Robert Stephenson. The iron required to build the tracks was extracted from the mines of the Stilaro valley and processed in the ironworks centre of Mongiana in Calabria. The standard passenger wagons, on the other hand, were made in Naples at the factory of San Giovanni a Teduccio.

The route of the first railway in Italy

The Naples-Portici line was just over four and a quarter miles long. This was a completely flat stretch with a curvature radius of between 1,312 feet 4 inches and 9,842 feet 6 inches. To cover it from end to end, the first trains took a little more than 10 minutes, travelling at a stupendous speed for those days: the British steam locomotive, baptised ‘Vesuvius’ and boasting 65 horsepower, whizzed along at just over 30 miles an hour. As a comparison, it should be remembered that, in those days, people only got around in vehicles pulled by animals, at an average of no more than two and a half miles an hour for goods transport.

The inauguration and continuation of the works

The Naples-Portici line was inaugurated by the king who, at noon on the dot, gave the signal for the first train to depart, asserting that “This iron way will undoubtedly benefit trade and, considering how much this new road will benefit my people, I am happy to think that, once the works have been finished at Nocera and Castellammare, I will be able to see them continued to Avellino and up to the shore of the Adriatic Sea”. This first train was boarded by 48 invited dignitaries, accompanied by 60 officials, 30 artillerymen, 30 infantrymen and 60 sailors as well as the band of the Royal Guard bringing up the rear. That was just the start: in the following 40 days, the Naples-Portici line carried a total of more than 85,000 passengers.

In 1842, the stretch to Castellammare di Stabia was inaugurated and, the following year, the railway reached Caserta. Finally, in 1844, Nocera was connected. The Naples-Portici railway line, as has been said, launched the Italian railway industry: in 1840, it was the turn of Milan-Monza and, in 1844, the Pisa-Livorno line was inaugurated, followed in 1846 by Lucca-Pisa (which connected the Duchy of Pisa with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and was one of the first international railways in the world).