Canfranc International Railway Station, Spain – updated 14th April 2016 – see bottom of page.
It would appear that vanity projects are not a new thing in Spain! This absurd construction had a working life of just 42 years, from 1928 to 1970.
The present day station and train is dwarfed! More pictures of the whole place here. These were taken on 13th August 2013.
Canfranc is the Spanish side of a border crossing over (and now under) the Pyrénées mountains on the route between Pau and Zaragoza. In old times, you went over the top using the Somport pass. A railway tunnel was built in 1912 (tunnel breakthrough) to connect the French and Spanish rail systems. The railway station at Canfranc was opened in 1928 to act as a transhipment point between French and Spanish trains. France and Spain used different track gauges, therefore trains could not run on both systems with the technology of the time. The vast station site includes the monumental main station building, 240 metres long and several stories high, two huge freight transhipment sheds, a massive locomotive depot and sundry outbuildings. All are now redundant and decaying, except for the main building which has been re-roofed and is in a reasonable state of preservation as a national monument. (Guided tours are available in July and August, all were fully booked at the time of my visit so I have no interior shots.)
Miles of rusting track cover the site. French trains used to run through the tunnel into Spain, so there are some mixed gauge loops and sidings. To add to the air of dereliction several abandoned items of rolling stock are scattered here and there.
Amid all this mess sits the present day passenger station of Canfranc (pop 530) which has two trains a day to and from Zaragoza via Jaca and Huesca. The 215km trundle takes just over three hours. The little train seemed to be well filled with walkers and hikers, it seems to serve no other purpose. There is also a working grain silo with, at the time of my visit, a rake of eight wagons sitting in a siding. I have no idea how often freight trains run, but the rails were quite shiny.
The line’s brief history is the result of an accident on the French side in 1970. A freight train lost traction on slippery rails and stalled on a gradient. Train crew went to apply sand etc to the rails, but in the attempt to re-start the train the wheels slipped badly. The train´s motors burned out and somehow that caused a flashover in the principal power supply for the electrified line. The train lost all power, including brake power and the whole lot ran back down the slope, derailing at a bridge which was demolished. The French decided not to rebuild the bridge, the line was closed and overnight the reason for Canfranc International disappeared.
The tunnel now has two interesting functions. It runs parallel to the Somport road tunnel, opened in 2003, and is connected to it by a series of 17 galleries which would act as evacuation tunnels in the event of an emergency in the road tunnel. It also houses underground laboratories for a Spanish university, where they conduct experiments looking for those mysterious particles that make physicists get all excited.
There have been noises about re-opening the tunnel for rail use, the most recently in October 2012 when the regional governors on both sides of the border attended a ceremony to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the original tunnel breakthrough.
Some chance! Although most of the track formation (in fact even the track) on the French side is intact, it is a single track railway running through a thinly populated area. There certainly appears little justification for a cross border passenger service, demand for which is currently satisfied by three or four buses a day.
Update 14th April 2016 – this document in French provides a short pictorial history of the line, including the accident that resulted in its closure.
The short extension from Oloron Sainte Marie to Bedous is due to re-open to passengers on Monday 27th June this year.
The website of the local organisation working for that and the eventual re-opening of the whole route is http://creloc.intermodalite.com/