Thursday, November 26, 2015

Remainders of the great days of railroading (10).... FEVE

FEVE is spanish and stands for ferrocarriles españoles de via estrecha. The spanish railroad company RENFE has inherited a network of narrow gauge railways, mainly in the north of spain.

FEVE was originally created in 1965 to absorb private narrow gauge railroad companies which could not operate profitable any more. Originally, it absorbed railroads of various gauges, 1,435 mm, 1,067 mm, 1000 mm, 914 mm750 mm, whereby some were converted to 1,000 mm.
From 1978 onwards, with the introduction of regionalisation, FEVE also began transferring responsibility for a number of its lines to the new regional governments. This happened in Catalonia in 1978, in Valencia in 1986, with a part of the Basque network in 1979, and with Majorcan Railways in 1994.
You can go from the french border at Irun/Hendaye in the northeast all the way to the northwestern end of Spain in Ferrol. From the border to Bilbao via San Sebestian the network is operated by EUSKOTRAIN. There are frequent connections at least every hour, more in the rush hour. 
Even though the EUSKOTRAIN station in Irun only has two tracks you have difficulties to find out where to go. You will not find any indication of San Sebastian. Neither will your search for Donostia, its basque name, will bring you any further. The station is in the neighbourhood of AMARA ZAHARRA, and that is where you have to look for. 
EUSKOTRAIN is a modern enterprise but they also run a charming local railway museum in a place called Azpeitia. If you come at the right time before they close for a long siesta. If you are even more lucky you can have a ride on their beautifully restored steam train to near little Lasao. The whole line used to be a branch from the San Sebastian to Bilbao main line to the monastery of Loyola, the founding place of the Jesuit order. Now it is a fragment which can only be reached by road.
The FEVE station of Bilbao is next to the RENFE station and a far distance across the river from the EUSKOTRAIN station from San Sebastian. Nobody at the EUSKOTRAIN station will be able to give you any information about FEVE's or RENFE's schedule. In fact the RENFE line from Miranda del Ebro to Bilbao is not even in the official RENFE railway map of northern Spain even though Bilbao has direct trains to far away places like Barcelona or La Coruña. 
The best and most complete  map i found on the internet was from 1921. There are no flyers with FEVE schedules. If you search the internet, you will find a FEVE network map, but there is no hint where it connects to RENFE or EUSKOTRAIN. But they have a list and drawings of their locomotives and railcars. The man behind the counter in the station of Bilbao has nothing to do, but is not willing to let himself be disturbed by customers. So we find out ourselves that there is only one train a day from Bilbao to Leon and on the coastal line to Santander (about the same distance as to San Sebastian to where you have at least hourly trains...) there are merely three.
Bilbao has other interesting transportation sights. The Puente Biscaya, a combination of bridge, cable car and ferry, crosses the mouth of the river. In the town there are numerous elevators and cable cars to get from the valley up into the higher neighbourhoods. And there is of course the Guggenheim museum....
The FEVE lines enclose the Picos de Europa and in particular the line to Leon passes through the vast Castilian landscape with magnificent views. 
There is a luxury train between Leon, Bilbao and Ferrol , el Cantabrico, and for a sizable amount of money you can enjoy the trip from the window of your sleeper or the dining car with a gourmet meal and expensive wine. 
At Mataporquera the only train crosses with the train in the other direction. There is a big RENFE station across the tracks, but it is unclear how to get there without jaywalking - there are no signs.
The only train is well used. On the other hand, out of Bilbao towards Santander there are three passengers on the train... an English train spotter and the two of us.
And they still have an employee who sways out the only two daily trains.
Even though there are so few trains the lines are in excellent condition. The rails are new, the signalling is latest technology, the railcars are new, many of the station buildings are renovated.
The three hour legs out of Bilbao to the west are electrified and have regular commuter service up to the border to Cantabria. 
Out of Leon they are electrifying and rebuilding the line. However, it ends and begins in a suburb next to the university. For strange reasons they have built a bicycle path across it, which blocks the track into town. That does not prevent them from renovating and electrifying the part which is behind the blockade.
Leon is now the end of AVE high speed track from Madrid. They have built a functional, therefore ugly, new station while the old beauty next door is disfunctional.
All the tracks are still there, but guess what, they have built a road right across tracks, platform and all.
One of the reasons the lines are still in use might be the heavy industry around places like Bilbao, Oviedo and Gijon. We cross a couple of heavy steel trains between Bilbao, Santander and Oviedo which are hauled by several Diesel engines. The line from Gijon to Laviana passes through a heavily industrialised valley full of mines. In the 1970 they had still steam engines in these mines and Mr. Schambach has written beautiful articles about this area. Afterwards the line was converted from 1435 to 1000 mm, a quite unusual track conversion.
In Oviedo, for once, FEVE and RENFE share the same station. However, there are separate ticket counters and separate timetables. The old station is completely covered with a concrete upper deck which is used by some invalids of a rehabilition center for walking exercises. Otherwise it is, including the shops, basically deserted.