The Naples-Bari? A railway started in 1846

by Federico Quagliuolo

We are all waiting for theinauguration of the Naples-Bari railway, which will unite the Italian coasts in 2026 finally eliminating a wall that has separated the two cities for centuries. Yet, irony of the dates, the works began 180 years earlier.

It is indeed dated March 2, 1846 the implementing decree signed by Ferdinand II of Bourbon in which the construction of the Naples-Barletta, a railway that initially had to reach Otranto in the plans. The idea of the Neapolitan monarchy was in fact that of being able to facilitate the passage of goods and people between the two main ports of the kingdom continental, with a strategic advantage that no Italian state could have.

How this story ended, unfortunately, is known.

Galleria dell'Orco
Inauguration of the Galleria dell'Orco,

An ambitious project for Napoli-Bari

The project was presented to the King by a 36-year-old engineer from Puglia, Emmanuele Melisurgo, the father of the most famous William. Next to him, financiers of the project, were John Pook and David Nunes Carvalho, two English entrepreneurs: the idea ofi connect the two ports of the Kingdom it was indeed very interesting economically for all actors, as the costs of transporting goods and people on the railway would lead very important earnings and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies would diverted many trade routes directly to Puglia, avoiding the circumnavigation of the whole peninsula by foreign ships. Moreover i 300,000 ducats of bail (equal to plus or minus 20 million euros) they would have been invested in the stock exchange by the state, in order to put them to good use.

The decree of 1846 is very detailed in the definition of the project and explains that, being of public utility, it can even be changed at any time for the construction of other public utility works such as roads or other strategic infrastructures.
The inspectors of the King they would then have examined the safety of construction sites and works, as well as having to evaluate the quality of the materials used.

In the same way, the protection of antiquities is very fascinating: in paragraph 5 of the decree, in fact, it is Any destruction of ancient and culturally valuable objects is categorically prohibited.

To have a definition of the size of the railroad, the original route had to be very similar to that of the A16 motorway, the Naples-Canosa. Let's imagine the difficulty in having to dig dozens of tunnels to cross the central Apennines and to overcome the numerous valleys with bridges and stable supports capable of hold up the locomotives of the time! The intermediate stages were Avellino, Ariano Irpino, Lucera, Foggia, Canosa, Barletta and Bari. Then it would be extended up to Brindisi and Taranto.

Just 6 years after the inauguration of the first railway in Italy, the Naples-Barletta was a very ambitious project with a thousand technical difficulties that was supposed to be built in just 8 years. Record times that were not respected due to a thousand problems that came suddenly.

Locomotiva napoli-bari ferrovia
The first locomotive of the Kingdom, the Duke of Calabria. Photo from the Bonelli Museum Collection

A badly born railway

Two years after the decree of Ferdinand II were enough to meet the first problems. The project had been presented in the 8 months foreseen, the corrections requested by the king had been applied (such as the lower fares of the tickets and the free transport of the military) and the works were inaugurated in Bari. Then came the riots of 1848 and Melisurge, who was among those who asked the King for a constitution, was imprisoned and then fled to England. Meanwhile, British investors decided to withdraw their offers due to tensions between Naples and London. All postponed.

Era 1855 when the works were resumed. Melisurge later returned to an amnesty and founded a company to complete the work, even obtaining the possibility of build railways in Salerno and Taranto, even reaching as far as Crotone.

And a problem arose that seems more relevant than ever. Gustave Delahante, a French entrepreneur who had to build the railway from San Benedetto del Tronto to San Severo di Foggia, did lawsuit to the Melisurge firm. A local landowner also intervened, who began to make other claims, not to have the tracks in his land. In short, as per ancient Italian tradition, everything froze in court.
When Francis II with a decree he released the delays by entrusting the contract to a new entrepreneur, the group Talabot, it was too late. Garibaldi arrived at the gates of Naples and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies closed the last page of its history.

With Unity, the compass of the country began to point towards the center of Europe and resources were invested in the strengthening of communications between the North and the South, leaving the Apennines to divide Italy in two.
We will only have to wait until the third millennium to see a light at the end of the railway tunnel: almost at a distance two centuries from the first project, finally the two seas of continental Southern Italy will find communication in 2026.

-Federico Quagliuolo

Collections of the royal laws and decrees of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies
Amintore Fanfani, Journal of Economics and History, Fratelli Bocca Editore, Milan, 1968
Lucera, the railway and the unification of Italy - Lucera: memory and culture (

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