The International Steam Pages

Once upon a time, long ago,
Across Northern Spain on the Metre Gauge, May 1980

Wilson Lythgoe has been circulating friends with some steam pictures taken some time back and with his permission and encouragement they are reproduced on these pages and will be added to from time to time. Click here for the index.

Google Maps tell me it's 640km along the northern coast of Spain from San Sebastian to Ferrol. I knew there was a metre gauge railway going the entire distance and there was a passenger service on it. That was reason enough to travel part way plus it was to be my first journey on a gauge less than the New Zealand standard of 3' 6''.

My tale is probably best told from a letter to my parents written at the time:

"Changed trains at the border due to change of gauge.....from the air conditioned luxury of a French train to a very hard backed and uncomfortable tram like unit for San Sebastian. The worst is yet to come get along Northern Spain it's a narrow gauge railway and a quick check this afternoon revealed wooden seats and very spartan conditions....still that's the reason for being here I suppose. Initial impressions of stepping back in time about twenty years."

The metre gauge station at San Sebastian Donostia. Most likely the railcar on the left was the one used from the border.

The following day I photographed this little gem before climbing aboard for the journey to Bilbao around 100km away.

Again quoting from my letter:

"The tourist brochure said 'San Sebastian and Bilbao are joined by a highway which allows the journey to be made in fifty minutes. There is also a railway.' What the brochure doesn't say is the railway will take three and a half hours! Anyway a delightful experience.
Six carriages seating forty in wooden comfort, an electric loco from 1929 and away you go. Very loose couplings so the starts were rough but for narrow gauge the train seemed to belt along. Hugging the hill line very closely until it could climb no more the train would then rush into a tunnel and then down the hill into a valley before repeating the process once again. Numerous stops with the passengers being mostly school children going to towns along the way. 
The railway has obviously seen better days as at one station spotted a couple of dining cars in very derelict condition."

Somewhere I must have found a postcard of the little train. I doubt there will be copyright problems in my sharing it after all these years.

At Bilbao I discovered there was a metre gauge line heading south west over the mountains to Leon which looked more interesting than my original idea. More letter quoting:

"At Bilbao this morning a freight van, three 3rd class and one first class carriages, and a diesel. Busy local traffic for the first twenty miles and then next to nothing for the rest of the day. The first fifty miles took three hours....solid uphill climbing all the way....then up and down for the rest of the trip.....I lost count of the number of times we doubled back on ourselves in an effort to gain or lose height. Most of the time was spent on the move and station work was very fast. It took eleven hours for this anachronism to complete the journey. Luckily I had enough foresight to stock up with some bread, cheese, beer etc before the trip began as there was no such thing as a refreshment stop."

By road, using Google maps, the distance seems to be just over 300km but the train took eleven hours! I only took one photo during the day and that was at Mataporquera as we waited to cross the opposite number: the only other train seen on the line.

The metre gauge station at Leon with railcars that apparently were for a local service.

A month later I passed through Leon again and went back to the station to photograph the morning train leaving for Bilbao. It was the same size as the train I had travelled on only this time was hauled by 1501 a General Electric loco built in 1964.

The evening arrival though produced a surprise: an eight coach train with a large number of passengers aboard. Another GE, this time 1507, was doing the honours.

The metre gauge in Portugal, which I absolutely fell in love with, is today in terminal decline with very little remaining in use whilst in Spain the same gauge has been modernised and appears to be thriving. The Bilbao to Leon train that once took eleven hours still runs but now completes the journey in a mere seven and a half hours. 

Rob Dickinson