The great nationalisations of Euro rail travel

Episode 2 – Spain

After our first instalment on the nationalisation of the Italian railways at the start of the twentieth century, right after the Kingdom of Italy was founded, this time we’ll be focusing on Spain. It’s a rather unusual case, as the country was for a long time very behind when it came to the development of the railways, and would soon go through an extended period of political instability, what with the Spanish civil war and Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. And it was his regime, in fact, that would wind up nationalising the rails.

As we mentioned in our article on the life and times of Gustave Eiffel, the French railways blossomed and boomed during the nineteenth century. But in neighbouring Spain, things were very different. The country hadn’t experienced similar levels of economic growth, and was in fact among the poorest countries in western Europe. The first train line was only built in 1848, linking Barcelona and Mataró, both in Catalonia. Though it should be noted that another line already existed on the island of Cuba, which was still part of the Spanish Empire.

So the Spanish government made a number of legislative decisions aiming to encourage foreign investment in the Spanish railways from the 1850s. Over two decades, dozens of lines were constructed, forming the very core of the country’s rail network. To begin with, these were concentrated in the hands of very few private (and often very small) private companies. Starting in the 1870s, however, several large railway businesses would begin to reshape the industry thanks to a series of mergers and takeovers.

Among these businesses were a couple that belonged to two companies which we’ll no doubt mention again in this newsletter. The first was the Compañía de los Caminos de Hierros del Norte, owned by the Pereire brothers, which started out in 1856 operating the Madrid-Irun line. The second was the Compañía de los ferrocarriles de Madrid a Zaragoza y Alicante, created by the Rothschild family, which merged with the Compañía de los ferrocarriles de Tarragona a Barcelona y Francia on January 1 1898. Most of these companies operated in the East, historically the richest part of the country.

In the West, things were different. Several businesses like the Compañía del ferrocarril de Medina del Campo a Salamanca, the Ferrocarril de Medina a Zamora y de Orense a Vigo, the Compañía del ferrocarril de Salamanca a la frontera portuguesa, the Sociedad del ferrocarril de Madrid a Cáceres y Portugal and the The West Galicia Railway Company Limited shared a market that was geographically enormous and rather poor. That led the Spanish government to nationalise them all in 1928, uniting them as the Compañia nacional de los ferrocarriles del Oeste de España, because several were on the brink of bankruptcy.

But this wasn’t the first interventionist act by the Spanish government in the railway sector. In 1897, it had created a technological and administrative division which would temporarily run lines that had been neglected by private operators. In 1924, there were four of these divisions, two in Madrid, one in Barcelona and one in Malaga, all aiming to ensure services kept running for locals. Two years later, in 1926, a new organisation called the Jefatura de Explotación de ferrocarriles por el estado (EFE) was founded to put all lines under state control.

The next stage in the nationalisation of the Spanish railways took place after the civil war that ripped the country apart between 1936 and 1939 and led to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. From 1941, the new regime decided to completely restructure EFE, eventually handing over all its responsibilities to Renfe, which still has the same name today. It should be noted that this nationalisation took place in two stages, owing to differences in gauge widths. The wider lines passed under state control in 1941. It wasn’t until 1951 that the narrower ones, used mainly in mountainous areas (and other places that were less easy to access), were fully in the hands of the Francoist state.

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