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Bertan > Bertan 10 Gipuzkoako trenak > Ingeles bertsioa: The Urola railway

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The Urola railway

61. A ticket for the Urola Railway.
61. A ticket for the Urola Railway.

In the previous chapter we made no mention of one of the most unusual metre-gauge lines in the territory of Gipuzkoa, the Urola train. The omission was deliberate, since this railway has a series of factors which differentiate it from the others, meaning that it deserves a chapter of its own.

Unlike the other railways in the province, and in the rest of the state, the Urola railway takes its origin from public initiative. Moreover, it was the last railway to be built in the province, and also the last to be closed. Its meticulously chosen route, engineering works or the splendid architecture of its stations also make it worthy of a closer look.

The first project for a railway between Zumárraga and Zumaia was drawn up in 1887 by the famous engineer Pablo de Alzola on order by the town councils of the Urola valley. Given the strictly local nature of this line, it was Alzola himself who recommended that be built with a metre-gauge track, in spite of the fact that he was well known, as we saw in the previous chapter, for his role as the main advocate of standard-gauge lines.

The projected railway hugged the difficult of the Urola valley as closely as possible, and proposed bends of up to 60 metres in radius, similar to the line running from Durango to Zumárraga, a stretch which later caused the Vascongados company enormous problems due to its extreme harshness.

62. The inside of a 1st class carriage from the Urola Railway.
62. The inside of a 1st class carriage from the Urola Railway.
63. The Urola Railway. Zumaia station.
63. The Urola Railway. Zumaia station.

In spite of the fact the project was cheap, the small population of the valley and its limited industrialisation didn't seem sufficient to guarantee the survival of a railway, and it therefore failed to attract capital.

In order to break the isolation into which the Urola valley was sinking at the beginning of this century, a request was made for an electric train from Azkoitia to Zumaia, but this was yet another project which never came to be.

64. A railway coupon in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Urola Railway.
64. A railway coupon in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Urola Railway.

In 1908, the Secondary and Strategical Railway Law came into existence, with a guarantee of interest on invested capital and interesting subsidies, a plan which included the railway from Zumárraga to Zumaia.

In 1910 the Vascongados Railway Company entrusted the engineer Manuel Alonso Zabala (who had participated in work on the Topo and Plazaola lines), with the drawing up of a new project, more gentle than that studied by Alzola.

After approval of the project in 1915, an invitation to tender was issued to grant its concession, but the lack of capital meant that no tenders were presented, not even by the Vascongados company, which had shown great interest until then.

The Gipuzkoa County Council had always considered this railway as essential for completing the provincial railway network, after termination of the work on the Vasco-Navarro line, in which it actively participated. At that time, the Urola was the only valley of importance in the province not to be served by the railway, with villages as important as Azkoitia, Azpeitia and Zestoa, and centres of touristic attraction such as the Loiola Sanctuary and the Zestoa spa. It therefore publicly offered important grants and subsidies to the company who took charge of the concession. But these efforts were made in vain, and the capital continued to show no interest in the subject.

65. A model of Azkoitia station, by Javier Miguel Echeverria.
65. A model of Azkoitia station, by Javier Miguel Echeverria.

In view of the lack of interest incited by the line among private companies, and in the face of the danger that the Urola railway might never be built, the County Council decided to take the initiative and apply for the concession to build and construct the line itself. One of the driving forces behind this initiative was Julian Elorza, from Azpeitia, who was then President of the Council.

A Royal Decree issued on 5 th October 1920 granted the concession to the Council, putting Manuel Alonso Zabala in charge of the works.

The line was given the best possible route at all times, meaning, in view of the roughness of the land, that 20 bridges and 29 tunnels had to be built on a line measuring only 36 kilometres in length. The minimum radius of the bends was 120 m., double that anticipated by Alzola. This factor made its operation easier and permitted higher speeds.

66. A transformating substation from the Urola Railway, recovered by the Basque Railway Museum.
66. A transformating substation from the Urola Railway, recovered by the Basque Railway Museum.

Compressed air machines were used to bore the tunnels. Present-day portable compressors didn't exist at the time, therefore requiring the installation, between Urretxu and Azkoitia, of six central compressors joined by a pressure pipe line with an air intake every thirty metres.

Although it was first anticipated that the line would function with steam traction, the constructors soon understood the interest of applying electricity, not only in order to avoid annoying smoke in the tunnels, but especially because the electric units could be handled by one single person, with the subsequent savings in personnel, since the stoker therefore became unnecessary. This investment was extremely interesting for a railway which did not expect a high income.

Finally the great day arrived. On the morning of 22 nd February 1926, King Alfonso the 13 th arrived along the Northern Railway lines to Zumárraga to open the new line. After having mounted the modern electric units, built in Saragossa and Beasain, he set out on the journey to Donostia, stopping at all of the stations along the way, where both the King and the new means of transport were applauded by the population. In Azpeitia, the authorities visited the offices, sheds and the electricity power station, where they unveiled a magnificent commemorative plaque which can still be seen today. The procession then made its way to Zumaia, where the Urola motor was replaced by a steam engine, since the Vascongados Railway Company still didn't have electric lines.

67. An inaugural plaque from the Urola Railway, now housed in the Basque Railway Museum in Azpeitia.
67. An inaugural plaque from the Urola Railway, now housed in the Basque Railway Museum in Azpeitia.
68. A Gipuzkoa County Council shield from the Urola Railway.
68. A Gipuzkoa County Council shield from the Urola Railway.

On arriving in Donostia, the steam engine was replaced by another electric engine belonging to the Topo line, which pulled the convoy along the local Hernani train line to the Plaza the Gipuzkoa. A series of speeches were made in the County Council building following which a banquet was offered with a menu well worth repeating here:

Mixed Hors d'oeuvre

Poached eggs, Regent-style

Salmon from the Bidassoa River

Tartar Sauce

Liver pie Holy Alliance-style

Home-cooked fresh peas

Chicken Urrestilla-style

Italian Salad

Fruit Salad

Millfeuille tart

Varied sweetmeats

This was all washed down with 1904 red wines from the Upper Rioja region and 1913 Cordon Rouge champagne, not to mention the coffees, liqueurs and cigars.

The opening ceremony was suitably fitting in size to the work that had been carried out. An extremely favourable stretch of line that can still be seen, which underlined the difficult passage between Azkoitia and Urretxu where, while the road snakes along the banks of the river, the railway follows a straight line, overcoming the difficulties of the land with a neverending series of bridges and tunnels.

69. A 3rd class carriage from the Urola Railway.
69. A 3rd class carriage from the Urola Railway.

The stations were also at the height of the circumstances. Each one was different, and they were all designed by the famous architect Ramón Cortazar in a typically Basque style. The electrification, the tracks, the trains, in short everything, was of unquestionable quality. The County Council spared no effort in making a narrow-gauge railway which was exemplary in many aspects.

However, the best installations are not in themselves sufficient to guarantee the future of a railway. Appropriate investment must also be made in its future maintenance. Unfortunately, this was not the case and, in 1986, the year the line was closed, the same trains as sixty years earlier were still running on worn tracks that had been lain in 1925.

On the other hand, income from the line was always scarce and it was extremely unusual to find a year where the financial balance wasn't in the red.

70. A 1st class ticket.
70. A 1st class ticket.

Due to approval of the Historical Territories Law in 1985, the Gipuzkoa County Council transferred a moribund Urola railway to the Basque Government. A fast decision had to be taken with respect to its future, since its trains no longer met even the most basic conditions for running a service with minimum safety.

The dilemma was complicated. Either the railway had to be modernised, thereby implying its total reconstruction and hence strong investment, or replaced by a road service at a lower cost.

71. An oilcan from the Urola Railway.
71. An oilcan from the Urola Railway.

Finally, in spite of initial hesitation and the timid modernisation works carried out in 1986, and in spite of opposition from wide sectors of the population, it was decided to close the railway.

Today a different decision might have been taken, but the Urola train unfortunately ran for the last time on 16 th July 1986. Its final closure came about on 5 th February 1988.

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