The International Steam Pages

Just in time for the “Correo” ( Spain 1979)

Robert Hall reminisces on a trip to Spain 30 years ago.

John Betjeman allegedly said in his last years, that one of his biggest regrets about his life, was not having had more sex. I know how he felt – not thinking right now, in that exact context; but as regards rail-interest expeditions abroad, for which with me, desire has always far exceeded funds and opportunity. One of my several “mostly-fails” in this line, is Spain.

One of those countries which it seems that, in all departments of life, people either love or loathe. In the earlier parts of the twentieth century’s second half, Spain was a magnet for very many railway enthusiasts, with steam – from very ancient, to highly modern -- in great quantity and variety, both on the 1668mm (5ft. 6 in.) gauge network spanning the nation (all within the state railway system, the RENFE); and on the huge amount of trackage of kaleidoscopically-varied narrower gauges – metre-gauge the commonest, but lots of others – rather splendidly, a few on 1435mm, which counted as “narrow” in Spain: all n/g independently owned. A minority of railfans, however, found Spain a complete turn-off, and had no wish to go there. Sometimes, things political contributed to this sentiment; more often, it seemed simply to be a matter of “what you fancy, or don’t”.

I was, in principle, hooked on the Spanish rail scene ever since material read in the early 1960s, revealed to me what it was like. Notwithstanding great longings, and much planning and scheming, I was never able to make it to Spain during its “classic” steam era. For one thing, that era came to a – for some – disconcertingly rapid and early end. Spain was for long renowned for its possession of an in most respects antiquated railway system, including being mostly steam-worked by wondrously heterogeneous motive power. As often in such circumstances, this situation gave more pleasure to gricers, than to the long-suffering inhabitants of the country who had to use its slow, inefficient, and often inadequate train services. I once saw in print, in a non-railfan source, the statement that around the 1950s progressive Spaniards, critical of the governing regime, sometimes asserted that the country was deliberately kept in the railway “Dark Ages”, by the machinations of the Catholic Church in Spain, which supposedly saw better communications as likely to be accompanied by, in its eyes, less desirable forms of progress. This strikes me as flagrant nonsense, dreamt up by people with an over-the-top anti-clerical agenda; provides nice fantasy-fodder, though. If the tale had been true, one can imagine every gricing vicar in Spain, ardently wishing to be assigned to the Railways Department...

Wild notions of clerical meddling, aside; through much of the 1960s, the feeling was quite widespread, that things were such that there would be plenty of time for Spanish steam: while over the years it would inevitably modernise and lessen to some extent, it was seen as probably going to persist in some strength, after more forward-looking Western European nations had eliminated steam. I for one, was shocked – having rather taken my eye off this particular ball for a couple of years – to learn in the late 60s, that steam in Spain was rapidly fading – electric and diesel traction taking over in strength on the RENFE, diesel likewise on the narrower gauges, where the lines weren’t closing; and per RENFE, remaining steam quickly becoming confined to a smallish range of the most modern types. Yearned to go there while there was still time, but it wasn’t to be. Spain, like its neighbours, kept steam for some years longer than Britain; but the end came for RENFE steam in 1975 (the same time as in France, and a year earlier than in Portugal, at any rate vis-a-vis the broad gauge there). Concurrently, narrow-gauge lines rapidly dieselised or ceased operation. By 1979, when I at long last managed a visit to Spain, the only public-service steam left in the country, was on the metre-gauge Ponferrada – Villablino line, some 60 km long, in the north-west. With this line’s raison-d’être being to serve coal mines along its route, its keeping coal-burning steam, 100%, as its motive power, made some sense; also, by the late1970s it was doing a little latching on to the tourist-and-gricer value of its steam-hauled passenger service.

Enthusiasts certainly made their way to the PV in droves, in the late 70s. With my finding Spain a potentially attractive place in its own right; a week’s solo trip there in late August 1979, taking in the PV and a bit of other, diesel-worked, metre gauge in the north, was set up. Ingeniously planned, though I say it as shouldn’t: out by land (ferry Dover – Calais), crossing Franco-Spanish border at Irún; thence a day’s RENFE journey far westward to Ponferrada. Several days in northern Spain, ultimately reaching Santander, whence the ferry to Plymouth. Arrival at Irún – out of the French 1435mm gauge train, into the Spanish 1668mm one -- was in the early morning. The onward RENFE working proved to be an up-market, long-distance variety of diesel multiple-unit, scheduled to run express-wise along electrified main lines, from the French border, to the far north-west (presumably – memory has mostly to serve me for this piece – to Coruña and / or El Ferrol) – calling conveniently for me, at Ponferrada some nine or so hours thence. That was the plan – but “mice and men” (if Spain has a Robert Burns equivalent)... we motored along seemingly happily enough, for the 150-odd km to the big junction of Miranda de Ebro; a scheduled stop, where we stopped... and didn’t start again.

We ended up sitting at Miranda de Ebro for some three hours; it was gathered that our diesel unit had very bad mechanical problems. One had to assume that something was being done, somehow, to sort matters out. There seemed a nice appropriateness for a Briton to be enduring prolonged tedium here, out of all possible Spanish locations. In World War II, escapers from German POW camps often made for neutral Spain, in their hoped-for journey home. Neutral, but “some countries are more neutral than others”: in that era Spain’s regime, while ostensibly not taking sides, in fact favoured and supported the Axis. Escaped Allied servicemen were not handed back to the Germans, but not looked on very lovingly, either. They were often lengthily incarcerated by the Spanish authorities, in conditions greatly resembling those which they had experienced in Germany, pending diplomatic working-out of their being ultimately allowed to proceed onward to Britain. Probably the most prominent such internment camp was at no other place than Miranda de Ebro – dreary and not very agreeable “time done” there, is told of in the memoirs of a fair few WWII escapers. The camp was well within sight of the railway line, and at least one memoir-writer mentions observing long freight trains puffing their way eastward, loaded with materials to aid the German war effort. (Had I been in such a situation circa 1942, would have found this – the trains, not their payload --a compensating factor for said situation.)

Imagining the Church’s putative railway-sabotage squad still in business in 1979 – by then, in a strictly “underground” way – one can envisage their rubbing their hands in glee over this splendid foul-up. “Enjoy your triumph, guys, such as it is” – ultimately an electric loco was coupled to our diesel unit, which then proceeded electric-hauled on its much-delayed way. Many hours’ quietly splendid panorama of the Spanish scene followed: down south-west through Burgos to the junction of Venta de Baños – reversal there, and off north-westward to León and ultimately, Ponferrada, reached about 7 p.m. Early and late in the run, impressive hill / mountain country traversed; in between, splendid areas of sparsely populated plainland / wolds – here in the un-touristed interior of the country, much looking indistinguishable, I would imagine, from how it would have been before the Civil War of the late 1930s. After a fine spell in the hills, at last to 1979’s “Spanish narrow-gauge Mecca”.

Hotel accommodation found for the night; exploration of Ponferrada and its railway, on the morrow. The PV’s passenger service had never been of Madrid-suburban standards; and by 1979, it was down to one working each way per day – the Correo (“mail train”) – departing Ponferrada 1215 and Villablino 1528. The intrigued visitor had to accommodate himself to the train service, not vice versa. PV’s locomotive stock fell basically into two categories: the “2-6-0 family” – some conventional tender locos, some Engerth type semi-articulated 2-6 + 4 back-tanks (these latter, if I have it rightly, obtained second-hand from other metre-gauge lines); and 2-6-2Ts, at any rate largely USA-built by Baldwin. The Correo’s preferred and regular motive power was Engerth no. 31, and she was performing the duty on the day of my visit – with a consist of three or four coaches, if memory serves me. “European continental standard” of black loco, dark-green coaches. Off promptly at 1215, up into the hills – with 2-6-2Ts seen on shunting and coal-hauling action at various points en route. Fine mountain scenery, albeit a bit of a constrained “feel”, from the railway’s closely following throughout its length, the valley of the river Síl. My PV journey was one way only. With the soup having become thin in the gricing department in Spain as at 1979, and with a wish to see something of the country generally, as well as “the other”: my plan was to walk for some 60 km through the Cordillera Cantabrica mountains, from Villablino until regaining -- meant in the nicest way -- civilisation, to the east. This duly and enjoyably done, involving two nights “under the stars” – happily the weather was warm and dry throughout (these regions get, by Spanish standards, a higher-than-normal rainfall).

Overall in my few days in non-tourist Spain, I found people either friendly, or basically uninterested one way or the other – my being English, was hardly ever found a problem. Ability to speak French, probably helped: it seemed thirty years ago, that many more Spaniards knew French, than English. A hostile exception, was at a mountain village somewhere east of Villablino. Entering the village, I was accosted by an aged gent who clearly wished to interact, “benignly until proved otherwise”. Not comprehending his words, I responded per my very small grasp of the local lingo, “I’m English; I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish”. The word “Inglés”, clearly pushed his “hot button” – face contorted in disgust, he spat out what seemed his one word of English: “Enn-e-meess ! Enn-e-meess !”, and motioned for me to be speedily on my perfidious-Albion way. I wish I’d had enough Spanish to respond, “1588 was an awfully long time ago, old boy” – as things were, I just walked on, leaving the old chap no doubt feeling joyful about keeping his village a Brit-free zone.

By foot plus a couple of kindly-offered lifts, to La Robla a little way north of León. This, a name to conjure with in Spanish narrow-gauge lore: one end of the metre-gauge Ferrocarril La Robla, running some 250 km to link La Robla and León in these latitudes, with Bilbao on the coast to the east-north-east. Why the undertaking was named after obscure La Robla, rather than bigger and better-known places served – well, railways’ names are often not much characterised by common sense (Manchester & Milford, anyone?). In 1979, this long route was in service via the undertaking FEVE (government agency which took over narrow-gauge railways uneconomic “under their own steam”, but adjudged still socially necessary). It then ran, essentially, between León and Bilbao; the 10 km-odd branch from the eponymous La Robla, to the junction with the m/g main line, had no passenger service any more. I walked the track of the branch, end to end from La Robla to the junction, Matallana. Rails were still down, in fairly decent condition: as regards whether still in use for freight or not, “the jury had to be out”.

The night was spent at Matallana; quite early the following morning, caught the eastbound working of the line’s one-each-way-per-day through train between León and Bilbao. The trip took place long ago, and notes taken at time, long lost: can only say, diesel loco hauling a fair-length rake of coaches. Something like three hours, I think, taken (the train called at every station) for the probably 100+ km to intersection with RENFE’s line to Santander. Stays in memory as one of my most delightful train rides, ever – along the beauteous southern slopes of the Cordillera Cantabrica. Totally everyday-and-normal, for people travelling from A to B (most of whom were probably bored out of their skulls) – a winding way, via many loops and curves, and one wonderful horseshoe bend which had me thinking, “whaur’s yer Bridge of Orchy the noo?” (If truth be told, more enjoyable for me scenery-wise, than the Ponferrada – Villablino – which was crushed in the river valley between impressive mountain peaks, and included a Stygian tunnel or two which could for nastiness, probably have challenged the Ffestiniog Railway’s pre-deviation Moelwyn “rathole”.) Cistierna, called at en route, had at that time a connecting steam-worked colliery line – said steam unfortunately not observable from my train.

A bad case was got, of “twenty-years-ago syndrome” – oh to have been doing this not in 1979, but in 1959, when the line would have been all-steam (including Garratts), and this its premier train would probably have been hauled by a Pacific lately acquired from the Tunisian railways, of all unlikely sources – “that way madness lies”. Arrival and disembarking, all too soon, at junction with the broad-gauge line to Santander. Said junction bizarrely named Mataporquera -- “kill the lady swineherd”. Funny people, these Spaniards...

After a generous connection, a scenic run by 1668mm gauge EMU over the mountains and down again, to Santander; night in a B & B there; and embarkation next day, for the 24-hours-or so sea journey to Plymouth. The far north of Spain was largely metre-gauge country, with the broad-gauge RENFE something of an interloper. Santander is on the lengthy coastwise m/g route from the French border to El Ferrol: goods wagons of that gauge were observed on the quayside, but time before boarding the ship, not sufficient to permit detailed exploration.

I made it to the Ponferrada – Villablino pretty much in the nick of time. The daily return passenger working was withdrawn about a year after my visit; the line’s attempt to get into the tourist / railfan market had clearly been half-hearted at best. Diesel locos came in in some strength during the early 1980s – essentially taking over the main-line work, while steam lingered on shunts and colliery branches. This situation continued to obtain for most of the 1980s. Steam finally faded out near the end of that decade; the line continued in operation, acquiring some regauged diesel locos from RENFE – its chief role becoming haulage of coal from the mines at top end and en route, to a power station a few kilometres up the line from Ponferrada, at Cubillos. With the line thus becoming, for gricers, very much a minority taste (and difficult of access without one’s own transport), it has basically vanished from the “learned journals”. I understand that to best available knowledge it still runs, as above, between the mines and Cubillos: route from the latter to Ponferrada, is disused.

Journal-perusal would seem to inform that the metre-gauge route along the north coast, French frontier – El Ferrol, is today still alive and well, for passenger traffic at any rate; and the La Robla railway’s Bilbao – León route, after some years “in eclipse”, is now basically active once more. A revisit three decades on, is more pleasant to contemplate, than likely to happen...

On reading this piece, James Waite sent me this picture of the Correo which he took on 3rd June 1977. James adds "It's on the diversion built in, I think, the 1950's made necessary by the flooding of the valley to create a reservoir."

Rob Dickinson