By the mid 19th century, the islands had become a major centre of cocoa production, one of the largest commercial sources in the world at that time. As lightweight railway equipment became available, it was widely adopted so that by the early 20th century most of the plantations (Roças) had their own railway network, generally 600mm gauge, steam hauled, and in some instances extending to tens of kilometres. Following independence in 1975, the plantations lost much of their market share and languished. A few remained active into the 21st century, but none retained a working rail network. Many relics remain, however, and can be seen by the determined traveller.
On the island of São Tomé a public railway, the Caminho de Ferro de São Tomé, was opened in 1913 from São Tomé wharf, through the town, to Trinidade, a distance of about 14km. It was extended a further 4km to Milagrosa in 1924. Never a great success, the line was officially closed in 1931, although the tracks continued to be used unofficially by the roças for several years after that. The gauge is recorded as 750mm, although a researcher visiting in 2009 reports measuring the remains as 800mm gauge.
A 600mm gauge horse drawn street tramway operated in the early part of the 20th century in the town of Santo António on the island of Príncipe.