The Abandoned Canfranc Railway Station

Incredible By Garry Polmateer |

Sitting at the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains on the Spanish side of the French-Spanish border is an immense railway station. Built with iron and glass, the station’s art nouveau building stretches a quarter of a kilometer long, and its façade is decorated with more than three hundred windows. Inside the building there was once a luxurious hotel, an infirmary, a restaurant and living quarters for customs officers. Aside from the platform and the main building, there was a large locomotive depot, two sheds for the transshipment of freight between French and Spanish trains, various other outbuildings and an extensive layout of tracks. The station was nicknamed the “Titanic of the Mountains”.

Photo credit: thierry llansades/Flickr

The Canfranc International Railway Station was part of a larger plan to open up the border between Spain and France to enable more international trade and travel. The ambitious project involved dozens of bridges and a series of tunnels drilled through the mountains. The dream finally became reality in 1928, when the Spanish King Alfonso XIII and French President Gaston Doumergue inaugurated the newly built railway station— the second largest in Europe.

Unfortunately, the railway line never became profitable. Immediately after the line opened, Europe sank into an economic crisis, and things got worse when Franco ordered the tunnels sealed during the 1936’s Spanish civil war to prevent Republican opponents from smuggling weapons in. For the short period the station operated, it saw as few as 50 passengers a day.

The biggest flaw with the railway link was that gauges used by both countries were incompatible with each other. The French rail standard gauge was of 1,435 millimeters, while the Spanish gauge was of 1,672 millimeters. This meant that when passengers arrived into the station from one country, they had to change trains to continue their journey forward. Likewise goods and freight had to be unloaded and reloaded into another train. The process was excruciatingly slow.

After the end of the Second World War, the French lost interest in the line and allowed it to deteriorate. When a train derailed on the French side in 1970, the authorities saw it as a good pretext and closed the line for good.

But since the last few years, things have been in motion again. Some years ago, the Aragon government bought the place and promised to transform the building into a hotel. The plan is to build another station right next to it and relaunch rail service through the achingly beautiful Pyrenees. Already there are two trains bringing tourist and urban explorers from Saragossa to Canfranc every day. The French regional government based in Bordeaux is also eager to reopen the line on its side.

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