THE CERCEDILLA TO LOS COTOS RAILWAY
The completion of the Villalba to Cercedilla and Segovia railway in 1888 opened up an opportunity for thousands of madrileños to escape from the often overbearing midsummer heat of the capital to the cool, pine-clad slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama. One of the most popular points of access to the mountains was the village of Cercedilla, whence the direct main road to Segovia, built during the late 1700s, ascended steeply to the Navacerrada pass, at an altitude of 1,860 metres. Here, where the summer temperature rarely exceeded the low 20s, outdoor activities such as rambling and pony trekking could be enjoyed in comfort, while the combination of a warmish winter sun and heavy snowfall favoured the development of a winter sports industry.
As the number of visitors to the area increased, so did the need to improve access to the higher parts of the sierra. In an age when the private car was still the plaything of the rich, a railway was the obvious answer.
The first proposal for a railway linking Cercedilla and Navacerrada was submitted to the Ministry for Public Works in 1913 by the brothers Alfredo and José Moreno Osorio, and became lost within the mountains of paperwork in the governmental offices. The First World War then intervened, and by the time Alfredo contacted the Ministry in the summer of 1918 to find out what had happened to his document, another scheme was commanding more attention.
The Sindicato de Iniciativas de Guadarrama was founded on 5 June 1917 with the aim of developing leisure facilities in and around the sierra. It feared that if it did not act soon, the initiative would be seized by foreign entrepreneurs. Among its objectives were the construction of a hotel at Navacerrada, the promotion of real estate in the vicinity of Cercedilla, and the building of a railway between these two places.
One of the eight founder members of the Sindicato was José de Aguinaga, an engineer and keen mountain walker, who had travelled extensively in Switzerland. He was charged with the task of preparing a project for the railway. Although from the start what he had in mind was an electrified, metre gauge line with sharp curves, steep gradients and a minimum of civil engineering structures, modelled on what he had seen and travelled on in Switzerland, he first prepared a desk study for a conventional, 1,674 mm gauge line, with no gradients steeper than 1 in 50 (1.0%) and a length of around 35 km. Numerous tunnels, viaducts, cuttings and embankments would have been required. Journey time, with steam traction, would have been around 45 minutes, while the estimated construction cost was an unrealistic 40 million pesetas. The junction with the Segovia line would have been at Tablada, near the summit tunnel under the Puerto de Guadarrama, not at Cercedilla.
The desk study was really a ploy which Aguinaga used to convince other members of the Sindicato that the metre gauge alternative was the right one. The deciding factor was of course the construction cost – a mere two million pesetas. Public Works granted the necessary concession on 23 February 1919, and on 2 April that year the Sociedad Anónima del Ferrocarril Eléctrico de Guadarrama was founded, with Aguinaga as president.
Acquisition of land presented few problems, since most of the sierra is common ground, and only the first couple of kilometres of trackbed, through Cercedilla, had to be acquired via negotiations with individual landowners, Construction proceeded relatively slowly, though, since at the upper end of the line work was only possible during the summer half of the year. The winters of 1921 and 1922 were exceptionally severe, while the state of the national (and European) economy did not help matters either. Overhead wire electrification was provided, at 1,250 V DC, and two railcars and two trailers were ordered from the Swiss firms of Brown-Boveri of Baden and Schweizerische Waggon und Aufzugfabrik of Schlieren. These ran trials on the Bremgarten to Dietikon line, near Zürich, on 28 July 1922, and were then moved to Spain.
The inauguration took place on the afternoon of Thursday 12 July 1923, in the presence of Alfonso XIII and his wife, Victoria, who had travelled up from Madrid by car. The special train departed from Cercedilla at 18.00, and since the hotel at Navacerrada was still under construction, the customary banquet that accompanied inaugurations could not take place. Instead, the monarch and his wife made a cursory inspection of the unfinished buildings, attended the consecration of the chapel dedicated to the Virgen de las Nieves and San Bernardo de Menton, and then returned to Cercedilla by car.
There was then a thirteen-month hiatus until an Act dated 11 August 1923 authorised the start of public train services. While on weekdays these were sparse, on Sundays and public holidays there were eight train pairs, all connecting at Cercedilla with the Compañía de los Caminos de Hierro del Norte’s services to and from the capital. The Real Hotel Victoria was opened in 1924, and to commemorate this and to attract visitors from other parts of Spain, a publicity leaflet was published. This showed principal connecting train services. For instance, one could leave Gijón at 16.20 or Santander at 22.15, and be in Cercedilla at 07.04 or at 09.07 the following morning. A 14.30 departure from A Coruña resulted in an arrival at Villalba at 09.30 the next day, the full journey to Navacerrada taking all of 23 hours and 15 minutes!
Clearly, traffic soon reached acceptable levels, since in 1936 a further railcar and trailer were ordered from the two Swiss companies. At the start of the Civil War the line lay close to the Republican/Nationalist front, the rebel forces being in control north of the sierra and making frequent sorties in the direction of Madrid. The Real Hotel Victoria became a Republican base, its power supplies guaranteed by the railway’s substation at nearby Siete Picos. Although leisure visitors soon became thin on the ground, and weekend train services were suspended, Cercedilla village council persuaded the railway company to operate a daily train service to and from Camorritos, for schoolchildren and teaching staff. Trains occasionally ran as far as Navacerrada, too, either to supply the Republican troops or for infrastructure inspection and maintenance purposes. Republican efforts to push the insurgents northwards off the mountains were described by Hemingway in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, and on 31 May 1937 an important advance was made, the front being pushed back as far as the royal palace at La Granja. But it was a short-lived breakthrough, and four days later Colonel Moriones’s forces were driven back to the watershed. Remarkably, Madrid, a Republican island in a Nationalist sea, with only a fragile link to València (the base for the Republican Government) and the Mediterranean, held out until the spring of 1939 and the inglorious end of the conflict.
For reasons that have never been made clear, the passenger service between Cercedilla and Navacerrada was not restored until May or June 1940. In the confused situation following the end of the Civil War the precise ownership of the line was not clear, and there is a set of operating instructions, dated 25 February 1941, entitled ‘Caminos de Hierro del Norte de España – Línea de Cercedilla al Puerto de Navacerrada (Ferrocarril Eléctrico del Guadarrama)’, which could be interpreted that at some stage after 1936 the Norte had taken the line over. This is rather unlikely. But, as from February 1941 the line did, in spite of its gauge, become part of the nationalised RENFE network. It did not pass to the state-controlled Explotación de Ferrocarriles por el Estado (EFE), which since the early 1900s had been acquiring lines of various gauges whose original operators had gone bankrupt. EFE, from 1965, became FEVE, responsible only for metre gauge networks.
RENFE’s first actions – long awaited – were the construction of a proper station building at Navacerrada (completed in 1944) and the adaptation of the former Norte station building at Cercedilla so that it now served as a proper interchange between the two lines. But apart from these two positive steps, the railway entered into a long period of neglect, affecting both rolling stock and infrastructure. Nevertheless, traffic increased substantially during the 1940s and 1950s. The line from Madrid to Segovia had been electrified, services were fast and relatively frequent, and on Sunday mornings especially the trains heading north from the capital were crowded.
(Continued in Travelogue)
THE CERCEDILLA TO LOS COTOS RAILWAY (1)
The lack of a snowplough created problems in winter. There was a particularly embarrassing incident in February 1951, when an international ski competition, involving participants from Spain, Andorra and France, was held at Navacerrada. There had been a good deal of snow during the weeks leading up to the event, forcing RENFE to move in over 100 additional permanent way staff to the district from as far away as León, to ensure that the Navacerrada line functioned smoothly during this period of exceptionally heavy usage. On the final day of the event, the prizes were to be given out by Carmen Polo, Franco’s wife. Now, at that time Carmen was heavily pregnant. Literally in the last days of her pregnancy. While she was presenting the prizes, a blizzard enveloped the mountains, blocking the access roads and railway. The baby also announced its imminent arrival in the world. One of the local hoteliers, Manuel Ochoa Nieto, offered to take her on a horse-drawn sledge down the line as far as Collado Albo, where a special train was waiting for her. She gave birth a couple of days later. A large number of people had to spend the night trapped up at Guadarrama, and radio messages were broadcast to assure anxious families that everything was under control.
It was not until 1967 that RENFE acquired a snowplough for use on the line. Although the newcomer was much appreciated, there was one sector of the community which soon began to regard it as a nuisance. The vigour with which it sent snow flying onto the roof of the chapel at Navacerrada threatened to cause severe structural damage. Burnt by the Republicans in the summer of 1936, the chapel had been restored and enlarged during 1940/1. Complaints by worshippers prompted RENFE to accept responsibility for the snowplough’s actions and pay for the repairs, estimated to cost around 200,000 pesetas. However, nobody turned up to do the work. The priest, furious at RENFE’s indifference, pulled down the roof himself and drew up plans for further extension and modernisation of the building, realised in 1972.
From the very earliest days of the railway, projects for its extension were being discussed. The first proposal came from José de Aguinaga, who in a document dated 20 May 1925 detailed an extension in tunnel under the Navacerrada pass, followed by a descent to Balsaín and La Granja to the Norte’s station, a cul-de-sac terminus, on the southern outskirts of Segovia, and thence to a more central terminus in the Plaza de Azoguejo – in all about 31 km of new route. Unfortunately Aguinaga lost interest in the Segovia extension once he had set his sights on an even more ambitious scheme, but almost certainly the line, had it been built, would have been a money-spinner and a superb tourist attraction.
The Ferrocarril Directo de Madrid a la Sierra was the brainchild of Miguel Alcalá Martínez, and his project was evaluated by the Ministry for Public Works during 1928. This 1,674 mm gauge, electrified, double track main line would have originated in a subterranean terminus at Pirámedes, in the south of the capital, crossed the urban area in tunnel, and surfaced somewhere near where Chamartín station is today. It would then have run via Fuencarral and Colmenar Viejo to Miraflores de la Sierra, turned westwards, becoming single track, and scaling the flank of Las Pedrizas on a 1 in 5 (20%) gradient, thanks to the use of a rack, to reach Guadarrama. The estimated construction cost of 84 million pesetas was wildly optimistic.
On 5 January 1930 José de Aguinaga published his second project. Once again it involved an extension under Navacerrada pass, but then the line would have continued east along the mountainside, to Los Cotos, at an altitude of 1,830 metres. A long descent, on a maximum gradient of 1 in 20 (5%) would have brought the line down to El Paular (altitude 1,163 metres). The ensuing run down the Lozoya valley would have been an easy one, with gradients no steeper than 1 in 50 (2%), the line finishing at Gargantilla de Lozoya on the Madrid to Burgos direct line, then under construction. The length of the extension would have been 42 km, its construction was estimated to cost 25.6 million pesetas. Public Works commented favourably on the proposal, but the economic climate was not right, and moreover, the young railway company was still struggling to consolidate its position.
With traffic increasing steadily during the 1950s the extension proposals were revived and modified. The engineer Ángel del Campo Francés published a document on 28 February 1953 detailing the prolongation of the line as far as Los Cotos. Here there would be two short branches, one of 1,560 metres in length, the other of 2,390 metres. The first would terminate at Valdemartín, the second at the foot of Peñalara, at 2,429 metres the highest summit in Guadarrama. At both termini there would be cable car lines, one of these to the top of Peñalara itself. Construction cost was estimated at 33.5 million pesetas.
In the end Public Works decided to realise a simple extension to Los Cotos. An Act of 30 March 1954 enabled the Ministry to take over the line from RENFE for a specific period while construction was in progress. Work did not in fact begin until 1959, and proceeded slowly. By early 1963 the tunnel under Navacerrada pass had been bored and lined, but was already becoming a cause for concern, since its lining was not waterproof. By April that year a combination of dripping water and cold northerly winds had produced some spectacular ice accumulations. A second lining was provided during November and December 1964, but soon afterwards this developed cracks, necessitating further remedial work between 1965 and 1968. Between mid-January and mid-March of the latter year the northern portal was blocked by a huge mass of frozen snow. The extension was inaugurated on 29 October 1964 and for operational purposes the railway was handed back to RENFE, although on paper it still remained the property of Public Works.
In 1960 the line received six railcars and two trailers built by the Sociedad Española de Construcción Naval and Cenemesa. Their sojourn at Cercedilla was very brief indeed, since it was soon discovered that their braking power was insufficient for the line’s steep gradients. Three were stored at Cercedilla, and three at Madrid-Principe Pío, and there they languished until March 1969, when they were sold to Ferrocarriles Catalanes of Barcelona.
Traffic increased considerably after that, putting an enormous strain on the ageing rolling stock and worn infrastructure below Navacerrada. RENFE waited until the following decade before undertaking a wholesale modernisation. The line was closed and several of the sharpest curves below Navacerrada were realigned. At Cercedilla new platforms were built, closer to those on the Segovia line, simplifying connections. New catenary was installed, and the current raised to 1,500 V DC, the standard for metre gauge networks in Spain.
The question of new trains was also addressed, orders being placed with La Maquinista Terrestre y Marítima of Barcelona for six railcars and six trailers (Class 442). These were built in two batches of three each, in 1976 and 1982, and five railcar-plus-trailer pairs are still in service, one having been scrapped in Valladolid in March 1998. Of the original railcars, all withdrawn in 1982, 1 serves as a meeting room and exhibition centre at Cercedilla station. 2, together with a trailer, is at the Delicias railway museum, not far from Atocha (down the hill from there, southwards). 3 was probably scrapped.
The current service is a meagre four train pairs on weekdays, but eight at weekends and on public holidays, connecting with RENFE Cercanías services to and from Madrid (the Madrid to Cercedilla service is considerably more frequent than that northwards to Segovia). The line forms part of the area covered by the Abonos Turísticos Regionales de Transportes, the Zone T version of these latter rover tickets being valid on all public transport within the Comunidad Autónoma de Madrid (and covering Guadalajara and Toledo, too). A day out to Cotos thus costs just 5.20 euros from anywhere within the region covered, an excellent bargain. Two, three, five and seven day Zone T tickets are also available, and are on sale at newspaper kiosks, stations and tourist offices.
From the scenery point of view, much depends on the state of play regarding the coniferous plantations along the line – a bit similar to the situation on the Tatra metre gauge network, where glimpses of the mountains are few and far between. The first part of the run, through Cercedilla-Pueblo to Las Heras y Los Castaños, traverses a zone of older summer villas, each with its own miniature swimming pool (the latter more like glorified and deep tanks in some instances). Further up, through Camorritos, Siete Picos and Collado Albo, the view (when it opens up) westwards in the direction of the Valle de los Caídos, is quite impressive. The steepest gradient, an awesome 1 in 14.3 for about 70 metres, is just below Cercedilla-Pueblo; elsewhere the ferocious ramp is angled at between 1 in 15 and 1 in 20, with 1 in 200 or less at the two lower intermediate stations. Cercedilla station is at an altitude of 1,156.5 metres, Navacerrada at 1,764 metres. There then follows the tunnel under the Puerto de Guadarrama, 671 metres long, beyond which the line climbs only slightly, through Dos Castillas and Vaquerizas halts, to reach Los Cotos. On this stretch the views, trees permitting, are northwards, the north slope of Guadarrama forming a great escarpment visible on a clear day from as far distant as the Duero valley. Los Cotos, 18.3 km from Cercedilla, is 1,819 metres above sea level. Beyond, the line continues for about 120 metres into a blind tunnel under the main road (and the top of the pass). At just under 60 metres in length, this could serve to shelter a two-car train, and was either intended for such a purpose or as a ‘stake in the ground’ for the proposed extension to Gargantilla de Lozoya, interest in which was still aroused sporadically during the early post-Civil War period. Who knows? The coming fuel crisis may well put so much pressure on public transport services between Madrid and the sierra that it will have to be built to cope with the demand. And RENFE is already preparing plans for electrification of the Burgos line north from Colmenar Viejo to Soto del Real . . .