THE LEITZARAN VALLEY
"In the Footsteps of Hemingway (Lasarte - Pamplona)"
It is unlikely that in those halcyon mid-1920s days of real motoring, before the widespread introduction of inconveniences such as driving tests and licences, and when the dreaded breathalyser and spoil-sport speed camera were unheard of, a chap like the author of 'The Sun Also Rises' would have bothered with the train when staying at the Ayestarán hotel in Lekunberri, fishing in the local trout streams, and travelling frequently to and from Pamplona for the high life in the bars and the taurine thrills and spills of the San Firmines. But railway there was, and although it has long since been closed, a stretch of track has been relaid at the station platform, and the building serves as the reception centre for one of Spain’s pioneer Vías Verdes – and one of the most scenic at that: ‘El Plazaola’.
Even today, in its lower section between Andoain and Leitza, the Leizarán valley is for the most part a roadless, Arcadian haven, amid the high hills where the western end of the Pirineos merges into the eastern extremity of the Cordillera Cantábrica. Apart from a few isolated farmsteads, there is scarcely any human settlement; the hamlets are on higher ground, well away from the course of the river. In the late 1800s, however, the forested flanks of the valley were attracting a good deal of interest from a commercial point of view, while geological surveys had awakened the interest of mineral prospectors and industrialists. And in those days, wherever such folk roamed, talk of cutting down trees and boring mine adits was usually accompanied by talk of building railways.
A couple of days after it was posted, on 30 April 1898, a document landed on the desk of one of the functionaries of the Ministry for Public Works in Madrid. Prepared by a certain Francisco Hormaeche, it outlined a project for a 21.1 km metre gauge mineral line running up the Leizarán valley from the Norte’s station in Andoain to the hamlet of Plazaola, serving en route various embryo mining concerns. As was customary, the mandarins in Madrid took their time before pronouncing on the scheme, and it was not until 8 February 1901 that the granting of a concession was authorised. The mine owners at Leitza, Berástegi and Elduayen founded the Sociedad Anónima Leizarán to further their interests, Hormaeche transferring ownership of concession to the latter on 24 March 1902. Powers to build the line were granted on 22 September that same year. In the meantime, teams of navvies were hired, arriving at Andoain on 21 May, while work on the ground, supervised by the engineer Manuel Sacristán, started in June. Things did not go smoothly; by September the company was receiving complaints that its construction activities were blocking local country lanes, including the trackway up the Leizarán valley. A strike paralysed all activities between January and May 1903. An order was placed with Krauss for three 2-6-0T locomotives, these being delivered in 1903 and 1904.
Preparations were also being made up in the mining zone. The Sociedad Minera de Berástegui (also known later as the Compañía Minera de Guipúzcoa) bought the ferric carbonate mines at Biskotx and Orin, and built calcining kilns and a miners’ barracks on the valley floor, close to where the planned railway would run. At Mustar, an inclined plane was built up the hillside to facilitate the extraction of ore from the Explotación Antigua and Buena Estrella mines, and there were two calcining kilns here.
The railway, under the terms of whose concession passengers could also be carried, was inaugurated sometime in 1904, though some sources give the date as 21 April 1905. On 25 September that year the Leizarán mining company went bankrupt, its assets being bought up on 3 November 1906 by the Sociedad Minera Guipuzcoana, founded specifically for this purpose.
What is pretty certain is that by then most folk were agreed that mining in the Leizarán valley was not going to lead to riches – after all, at that time the industries on the coast could access iron ore deposits which were much closer to hand and somewhat easier to exploit. The railway as a mineral carrier was a costly white elephant. But the existing rail route between Donostia and Pamplona (the Norte’s line) was a very slow, roundabout one, and as yet schemes to build a metre gauge line up the Bidasoa valley from Irún to Pamplona were at the talking stage, unlikely to progress further. Here was a brand new railway which covered roughly a third of the distance between the two cities, while running from nowhere to nowhere. How about filling in the gaps?
The years from 1907 to 1910 were dedicated to project preparation, and the Sociedad Minera Guipuzcoana moved smartly enough to ensure that the railway was included in the list of the 1908 Ley de Ferrocarriles Secundarios y Estratégicos. The concession for the section from Plazaola to Pamplona was granted on 19 March 1910, and that for the northern extension from Andoain to the Vascongados line at Lasarte-Empalme, on 18 March 1911. It was estimated that this bold venture would cost around 15 million pesetas. Under the guidance of the engineers Luciano Abrisqueta, Manuel Alonso Zabala and Antonio Liaño, the section of line between Andoain and Plazaola was rebuilt and realigned, to eliminate some of the sharpest curves. Some very heavy civil engineering work was necessary on the new sections of line, which abounded in stiff gradients, and since by the second decade of the new century the risks of level crossings had been recognised, even though road traffic was mainly of the type drawn by natural horsepower, efforts were made to provide over- and underbridges for roads wherever possible. Some of these structures were of ingenious design – there are a couple of good examples to the north of Lekunberri on the climb to the summit tunnel at Huici. The engineer for the Pamplona to Latasa section of line was Fermín Marquina, thence to Huici Félix Oráa was in charge, and from the summit tunnel to Plazaola responsibility rested with Emilio Tobalina. Seven Engerth 2-6-0+4 locomotives with articulated tenders were acquired from Krauss (three) and Maffei (four), while CAF built the passenger and freight rolling stock.
While construction was under way, the Plazaola to Andoain section of line continued in use, in spite of the sparse traffic it was generating. The best year by far for mineral transport (18,500 tonnes) was 1907, to be contrasted with 1913, when a meagre 1,700 tonnes descended the Leizarán valley. As far as passengers were concerned there were few users of the trains other than the miners and their families. The best year was 1911, when 2,400 ticket sales were recorded.
Undeterred, the company pressed ahead with its extensions, obtained running powers from Vascongados between Lasarte-Empalme and Domostia-Amara, and the first test runs to Pamplona were made on 2 December 1913. Preparations were now under way for a grand inauguration of the 84.2 km single track line on 19 January 1914. The special train, hauled by one of the new Engerths, which was duly decked out in flags and garlands, pulled out of the Spartan facilities which for many years were all that Donostia-Amara could boast at 08.30 that morning, a raw, grey one, judging by photos of the event. At 11.00, having threaded the long summit tunnel, it arrived at Huici station, a few minutes before a second special arrived from Pamplona. On the snow-covered platforms an orchestra played Wagner marches, while the Bishop of Pamplona, López Mendoza, blessed the locomotives. In spite of the bitter cold, there were then the usual optimistic speeches, and no doubt after a session of foot stamping and hand clapping to get the blood circulation in motion again, the VIPs rejoined the trains, which now combined as one for a fast run down to Pamplona, reached at 13.00. At the new Pamplona-Ciudad station a huge crowd of people was waiting, and a band struck up a pasodoble, which was perhaps appreciated more than the earlier Wagnerian selection. The guests left the train and made their way to a hotel (the building is now the municipal library) in the Plaza de San Francisco for the traditional banquet, whose menu was described by the local press as being ‘very select’. The return train to Donostia departed at 17.00, but ran late on account of the huge number of people who turned out at each of the stations along the line to see it pass (and who no doubt strayed onto the tracks in its path), resulting in an arrival in the Gipuzkoan capital at about 21.00. In spite of the inclement weather, a good day appears to have been enjoyed by all. The public service started up on 25 January.
During 1914 83,900 passengers and 3,700 tonnes of freight were carried. Severe weather disrupted services during the winter of 1914/5, and the fuel crisis that set in over the next few years prompted the company to switch to wood to fire its locomotives. Timber was, of course, abundant, but it seems the Engerths were not happy running on it. Freight traffic peaked at 54,900 tonnes in 1918, while the mines in the Leizarán valley succumbed to the crisis of the early 1920s. The best year for passengers was 1921, when 135,900 ticket sales were registered, and for nine halcyon years (1916 to 1925) receipts actually exceeded expenditure, though only marginally.
(Continued in Travelogue)
THE LEITZARAN VALLEY (continued)
In the summer of 1917 there were three train pairs daily covering the entire length of the line and taking between 3h15 and 3h41 for the Donostia to Pamplona run. They would usually load to six carriages, thus requiring double-heading, and additional vehicles were kept at Andoain and Leitza depots to strengthen the formations en route should demand be exceptionally heavy. During local fiestas and the San Firmines in Pamplona rakes of up to twelve carriages were quite commonplace. In connection with the San Firmines (early July) a special train would leave Pamplona at midnight. On summer Sundays there were also beach specials to Donostia, and for those who preferred river bathing and trout fishing, to Latasa, in the Larraun valley.
The Sociedad Explotadora de Ferrocarriles y Tranvías, best perhaps referred to by its acronym of SEFT, was founded on 24 October 1923 by the managements of various railway and tramway concerns in Gipuzkoa, among them the Sociedad Minera Guipuzcoana. As its main objective it hoped to evolve into the sole operator of the various metre gauge lines in the province, and to supply the power for those systems which were electrified. Scale economies would be achieved, and share capital could be used for the acquisition of new rolling stock and the realisation of infrastructure projects. SEFT’s first acquisition took place just two days after its creation, on the 26th, and was the Sociedad Minera Guipuzcoana. Appropriately, the new concern had its headquarters in Pamplona.
But even SEFT was unable to halt the rot that set in after 1926. By 1934 the annual number of passengers had fallen to a paltry 47,100, while freight had dwindled to a mere 20,700 tonnes. By then there was plenty of road competition, with three bus companies, La Roncalesa, La Aresoarra and La Mugiroarra, covering the Pamplona to Donostia run in three hours, while the two daily train pairs still required between 3h10 and 3h35. The single fare by bus was 8.50 pesetas, while by train a single in first class cost 18.85 pesetas, 14.15 in second and 9.40 in third. As for freight traffic, the iron ore was by now just a memory, and what remained consisted of timber and livestock, the movement of the latter generating a frenzied burst of activity whenever an agricultural fair was held at Irurzun.
In an attempt to cut operating costs, in the mid-1920s SEFT decided to buy three diesel-electric railcars (the first with this type of transmission to be used in Spain) from Beardmore of England. Their purchase was financed by the State, under the Estatuo del Régimen Ferroviario of 1924, being sanctioned by Royal Order on 26 November 1927, and their cost came to 225,000 pesetas each. They were fitted with 12 first- and 18 second-class seats, a WC cubicle and a luggage space which could be loaded up to 500 kg. They were designed for a top speed of 70 km/h on level track, and were supposed to be able to haul two passenger carriages, or one carriage and a van. Although they were reasonably reliable (between 1 January 1931 and 30 June 1932 the trio covered a total of 205,834 km and clocked up between them 1,217 days in service), their lack of power (just 147 kW) meant that they were sluggish, fuel-hungry climbers, especially with another vehicle in tow.
In 1932 the mineral exploitation in the Leizarán valley was revived by the German-owned Sociedad Minera Aralar, which until 1943 mined copper in the vicinity of the hamlet of Aralar. During the Civil War the remaining iron ore was mined. Being of very good quality, it was despatched to the ordnance factories within the Nationalist-held parts of the country. Far more important that the iron ore, however, but contributing little to SEFT’s coffers, was the black market trade which was carried on along the line during those difficult years of food rationing and food shortages. In Andoain and in surrounding villages it was said that folk managed to survive the war and the early 1940s thanks to ‘El Plazaola’. Groups of women from the district used to travel daily by train to Pamplona to do their shopping, both conventional and in liaison with suppliers of comestibles which were strictly rationed. Returning in the afternoon with their baskets laden, they ran the risk of being apprehended by the Guardia Civil or Inland Revenue inspectors, who would carry out spot checks on passengers at stations. When such a check was anticipated, the stationmaster would phone down the line to warn his counterparts at neighbouring stations, The message was relayed to the passengers on the train, who thus had time to jettison, through the windows, any of their purchases that might arouse suspicion, before arrival. Presumably they would walk back to collect them later. Coffee was said to be the most difficult comestible to smuggle, on account of its strong smell. Things did not always go quite according to plan. At Leitza the line runs on an embankment near the station, and on one occasion bags of goodies ended up on the patio of the local Guardia Civil barracks. The Benémerito1 said nothing, since it was a commonly known fact that they were most likely to organise checks whenever they themselves needed a few edible luxuries. On another occasion a baby, well-wrapped and thus well protected, went flying out of the window along with the shopping. The train was braking for the next station, and the infant landed unharmed. Babies tend to bounce.
In 1946 a new terminus was opened in Pamplona, and here ‘El Plazaola’ and ‘El Irati’ (see the next chapter) shared the facilities. The optimism of this period, when all the local railway companies were experiencing substantial increases in traffic, was reflected in SEFT’s proposals to completely renovate the track, to refurbish six carriages and 20 wagons, and to buy five powerful diesel railcars. An estimate for the latter was requested from MACOSA of Barcelona. With the whole renewal project costed at rather more than 16 million pesetas, hope was expressed that the various municipalities along the line would help finance it. A new mining concern, Potasas de Navarra, expressed interest in sending its mineral to Pasaia (for export) by rail. The summer 1950 timetable offered the best ever timings – 2h40 from Pamplona to Donostia (mainly downhill, of course) and 3h02 in the opposite direction, for both train pairs. There was also a short return working between Leitza and Pamplona.
Rising operating costs resulted in a deficit of 1,894,331 pesetas in 1951, and from the financial point of view things could only get worse. But before they could, Nature decided to intervene, cruelly. On 15 October 1953 very heavy rain produced a spate of landslides, and the rivers ran high. Near Irurzun a bridge over the Larraun was washed away, and a Donostia-bound train only just managed to stop in time. Such was the damage all the way along the line that SEFT had no option but to suspend services – indefinitely.
On 19 February 1954 representatives from the municipalities served by the line met in Lekunberri to discuss petitioning the Diputaciones of Navarra and Gipuzkoa and central government for financial assistance to restore the train service, though they were careful not to commit themselves to any financial obligations. From Madrid came the suggestion that ‘El Plazaola’, like the neighbouring Urola line, should be managed by the Diputaciones. But the situation was complicated by the fact that within SEFT the Sociedad Minera Guipuzcoana still retained its own identity, and had managed to accumulate debts amounting to over six million pesetas. All it wanted to do now was to clear its hands of the whole business and wind itself up. Not even EFE showed any interest in taking over what was clearly a dying railway, put off no doubt by the considerable cost of rebuilding the damaged sections of line. From the Ministry for Defence came a more positive comment – the line might form a useful strategic route for the movement of troops and equipments in a national crisis (as indeed had been the case during the Civil War), and it advised against over-hasty tracklifting.
The documents which formalised the closure of ‘El Plazaola’ were handed over to the directors of the Sociedad Minera Guipuzcoana at the Pazo de Meiras, General Franco’s Galician residence, near A Coruña, on 5 September 1958. That was not quite the end, since the 10 km section of line between Olloki and Andoain remained in use until 1960 for the movement of timber down the Leizarán valley. It was one of these freights which on 28 June 1957 ran down the parish priest of Andoain, Rosendo Recondo, who was out for a stroll along the infrequently used track. A plaque on one of the tunnel portals commemorates this incident.
Over half a century later, a surprising amount of ‘El Plazaola’ can still be walked or cycled, thanks in part to the fact that it ran through such isolated rural areas, and thanks also to the tremendous efforts made since the early 1990s by those directing the Vías Verdes programme. Between Pamplona and Muguiro most of the trackbed has either been ploughed up or eradicated by road building programmes, although Gulina viaduct survives, a little incongruously, amid the fields. But then from Muguiro to Andoain the whole route, including the long Huici tunnel, can be explored with ease. Lekunberri station has been restored as a reception centre, and there is even a short stretch of metre gauge track in front of the platform. A fate somewhat better than complete death and oblivion for one of Spain’s most scenic metre gauge railways.
The Pamplona terminus shared by ‘El Plazaola’ and ‘El Irati’ was located close to the city centre, on the southwest side of the Plaza Principe de Viana and at an altitude of 448 metres. From there the line descended on gradients steepening to 2.00%, bordering the exterior fortifications of the Ciudadela, to cross the Arga at an altitude of 409 metres a short distance upstream from the Norte’s station, situated on the far bank. Today, the upper part of the descent is the Avenida Sancho el Fuerte, and most of the lower part is the Calle Biurdana. Beyond the river bridge (which still exists) there was a short ascent at 1.64% (now forming part of the Calle Bernardino Tirapu) to Pamplona-Empalme station, a short distance from that of the Norte and the junction, from 1946, for the line to Sangüesa, which headed off to the northeast.
Striking westwards across the undulating arable fields, ‘El Plazaola’ climbed steadily on gradients between 1.50% and 2.00%, parallel to the N 240, to reach a 510 metre summit between the peaks of Vizcay and Sandaña. There was then a steep drop at 2.00% to Gulina viaduct, at an altitude of 468 metres, and a further tough climb at 1.90% to reach 502 metres in the 607.0 metre long tunnel just before Irurzun station. The panorama at the elevated location of the west portal was an interesting and spectacular one – the great canyon followed by the Arakil between the Sierras de Andía and Aralar running westwards almost as far as Vitoria.
But this view was a brief one, for immediately beyond Irurzun ‘El Plazaola’ swung to the north, to keep close company with the N 130 and the tumbling waters of the Larraun through the limestone gorge known as the Paso Dos Hermanas (it would be interesting to know the connection between the defile and the two sisters – what on earth could they have done there?). Crossing and re-crossing the river on numerous occasions, the railway ascended to Lekunberri on gradients steepening to 1.95% beyond the latter station, which is situated to the south of the old quarter of the village, but nevertheless within easy walking distance of the well-appointed Ayestarán I and II hotels (on either side of the former main road – see the section on exploring the region). Beyond Lekunberri the line climbed high above the river, clinging to the hillside, to reach Huici station, situated alongside the road to Leitza and at the southern portal of the 2,630.0 metre long summit tunnel, inside which was the highest point on the route, 650 metres above sea level.
On the northern side of the Huici pass, the railway emerged high on the hillside in the Erazote valley, and descending steadily at 1.90%, immediately executed a tight horseshoe curve in order to lose altitude. A similar curve took trains a short way up the Tellería valley, crossed on an attractive stone viaduct, before they reached Leitza, the station overlooking the tiled rooftops of the village.
At Leitza the Erazote and Tellería merge to form the Leizarán, the railway and the road to Toledo keeping close company for the first few kilometres as far as Plazaola. And it was here that the most fascinating part of the journey began, with the hills, rising to nearly 1,000 metres on either hand, closing in, and the roadless valley narrowing and becoming increasingly sinuous. The line cut across the smaller meanders, there was an abundance of tunnels and river bridges, but with gradients as fierce as 2.80% in places it would have been impossible to build a straighter line (with more of the route underground) without creating an impossibly steep ramp for southbound trains. Fortunately, the whole route has been conserved as a Vía Verde, though as a train journey it must have ranked among one of the most delightful anywhere in Europe. There are locations where traces of the even more twisting route of the earlier mineral line can still be seen, including the tunnels used by the latter.
Andoain was the equivalent of Azpeitia on the line down the Urola valley. Here were situated the main works and depot, and there was also a transhipment siding and platform, alongside the Norte’s tracks. Both Norte and ‘Plazaola’ stations were situated at a higher level than the urban area, on the right bank of the Oria (into which the Leizarán flows just south of the town). The metre gauge tracks, however, lay some eight metres higher than those of the Madrid to Irún main line, and since it was built on such a steep hillside, the ‘Plazaola’ station building was of four storeys, with the platforms, waiting room and stationmaster’s office all at third floor level!
The route followed by ‘El Plazaola’ north of Andoain was not the most logical one. The shortest and easiest way to Lasarte would have been down the Oria valley. Alternatively, the shortest and easiest way to Donostia would have paralleled the Norte’s line via Hernani in the Urumea valley. Illogically, the Sociedad Minera Guipuzcoana chose a compromise between the two, and a route which took the line well away from any significant centres of population – there was not one station between Andoan and Lasarte-Empalme, not even in Lasarte itself! Leaving Andoain (altitude 65 metres) on a 1.60% ramp, the railway climbed to an 84 metre summit just beyond the 341.6 metre long tunnel which took it under the watershed between the Oria and Urumea valleys (and, incidentally, over the 1,004.0 metre long tunnel on the Norte’s line), then through a 541.9 metre long bore which returned it to the slopes high above the Oria. There then followed a fairly precipitous descent, as steep as 2.00% in places, to just 22 metres above sea level in Lasarte, where there was a junction with the Vascongados branch serving Lasarte-Pueblo, followed by a final stiff climb at 2.00% to Lasarte-Empalme. Around 500 metres of the ‘Plazaola’ trackbed into Lasarte are now occupied by the EuskoTren branch inaugurated in 1998.