Sunday, December 16, 2012

Canfranc International Railway Station

Canfranc International Railway Station lies on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees at 4,000 feet above sea level in the province of Huesca in Aragon. The station is at the end of a five mile long tunnel blasted and bored through the Pyrenees. On the western side of the station the Spanish trains came and went, in fact they still do. On the eastern side of the same station French trains, on French gauge rails, passed in and out of Spain.

The Station was opened in 1928 by King Alfonso XIII – the current King's granddad. He abdicated the Spanish throne in 1931. He left behind a country in turmoil and it was that  chaos which was to cause the failure of this huge railway scheme. The whole project took nearly 20 years to complete and involved building three viaducts, changing the course of a river and building twenty four tunnels as well as laying the railway lines in and out of the enormous station.

Whilst the whole project is impressive there is little doubt that it is the main building that catches the eye even after years and years of neglect. If St. Pancras is big then Canfranc is bigger. The station is over 750 feet long – long enough to park three full length passenger trains – it has 75 doors on each side and over 350 windows. It looks like an Art Nouveau palace with its high roof crowned by three domes, one at each end and one in the middle.

The French eastern platform, diplomatically French soil, with an ornate roof supported by decorated iron pillars and new fangled electric lighting, was exactly mirrored by the Spanish western platform where Spanish trains ran on their outsize gauge. There were two identical customs halls with high, ornate, zinc faced ceilings beneath which passengers waited at mahogany counters for their luggage to be inspected by customs.

The line prospered briefly but Europe, in the period of the 1930s and 1940s, was not a settled place. The tunnel closed in 1936 as tensions between the French and Spanish Governments grew during the Spanish Civil War. It re-opened just before the start of the Second World War. First Jewish refugees, fleeing from the repression in Germany and then France, passed through Canfranc hoping for safe harbour in Spain. Later Spanish tungsten ore, destined to strengthen the armour on Panzer tanks, travelled north on the same rails that brought Nazi gold south into Spain as repayment. Around the same time British spies moved information and people through the supposedly neutral station and when the war was over and the Axis defeated Nazi war criminals slipped through Allied hands on the same railway lines.

The fortunes of the station waned from the late 1940s onwards and when, in 1970, a French train plunged from a bridge it was just the excuse the French operators needed to close their part of the line. The Spanish side remained open but fewer and fewer trains used the station and it just withered away. It's still possible to take the train from Zaragoza to Canfranc though the main building is now a rotting shell and the local trains use a platform on what was once a small siding.

When we went it was raining. The cloud hung on the mountains. The rumours that the station my one day reopen seemed very remote.

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