Bermeo is an important fishing port on the northern coast of Spain, facing the notorious Bay of Biscay. Located about 25-KM north east of the city of Bilbao as the crow flies, the coastal town is situated at the end of a winding 29-KM-long single-track metre gauge branch line from Amorebieta, which is characterised by sharp curves, steep gradients, and tunnels. An unassuming single-platform terminus station sits below street level in the shadows of blocks of flats to the west whilst, to the east, are the boat slipways into the harbour’s water. At Amorebieta, the branch line makes a connection with the railway running between Bilbao (Achuri), San Sebastian (Amara), and the French frontier town of Hendaye.
In 1842, faced with a multitude of applications from groups proposing to build railways, the Spanish Government ordered a report to be made by the engineers of the Public Works Department. This was completed in 1844 and, in the same year, the Government published a Royal Decree that incorporated most of the fundamental parts of the report, which included the recommendation of all future railway concessions in Spain being built to a Broad Gauge of 6 Spanish Feet, equivalent to 5-foot 6-inches in Britain (1.668-metres). A common belief over the years has been that this gauge was adopted by Spain on the basis of a strategic requirement by the then Minister of War; however, in The Railways of Spain (1923), by George L. Boag, it was remarked that there was no foundation in fact for such belief. The report of 1844 stated the importance of gauge uniformity throughout Spain and remarked on the variety of track widths then currently in use in multiple countries; subsequently, 6 Spanish Feet was recommended as the most suitable width between the rails.
The first railway constructed in Spain was that between Barcelona and Mataró, along the Mediterranean coastline. Broad Gauge and 28-KM in length, it opened on 28th October 1848 (ref: The Gentleman's Magazine, Sylvanus Urban, Volume 30, July to December 1848). Whilst Broad Gauge was similarly adopted for those railways radiating out of the Spanish capital of Madrid, lines built to such dimensions would be much more difficult — if not impossible — to lay on the mountainous region of Northern Spain, which was characterised by steep ridges and sharp drops down to the sea. As a result, a metre gauge (3-foot 3⅜-inches) was settled on, which would be better suited to the uneven and dramatic terrain. One such system in the region built to metre gauge was that of the “Vascongados Railway” (“La Compania de Ferrocassiles Vascongados”), which was the amalgamation of three erstwhile independent metre-gauge lines running from Bilbao to Durango (opened 1880), Durango to Zumarraga (opened 1889), and Elgoibar to San Sebastian (opened 1901). The merging of these railways was successfully negotiated in November 1906 (ref: Diplomatic and Consular Reports: Spain, Report for the Year 1906, H.M. Stationery Office, 1908). Curves on the Elgoibar to San Sebastian section had a radius as small as 196-feet (ref: The Locomotive Magazine, 5th September 1903).
In 1888, a 14-KM single-track metre gauge branch line opened from Amorebieta, on the Bilbao to Durango railway, to Guernica. Built under the auspices of an independent concern by the name of “Compañía del Ferrocarril de Amorebieta a Guernica y Pedernales” (“Amorebieta to Guernica and Pedernales Railway Company”), an extension to Pedernales (10-KM in length) was reported in September 1893 as having been laid and opened (ref: Bradshaw’s Railway Manual and Shareholders’ Guide, 1894). The first steam locomotive to work the branch line from Amorebieta to Guernica (and subsequently to Pedernales) was imported new from Britain in 1888, having been manufactured by "Sharp Stewart & Co. Ltd." at its Atlas Works, Glasgow, in that year. Comprising an 0-6-0 wheel arrangement, numbered “1”, and bestowed the name “Zugastieta”, this engine plied the route — alongside Spanish-built locomotives — until withdrawal in 1956 (ref: The Railway Magazine, March 1975). Based on your author’s research, the “Amorebieta to Guernica and Pedernales Railway” remained a separate entity to that of the Vascongados.
A railway link to Bermeo had been proposed as long ago as 1917; plans had been called up by the Spanish Department of Public Works in that year for a metre gauge railway from Munguia to Pedernales and Bermeo, worked by electric or steam traction (ref: The Board of Trade Journal and Commercial Gazette, 3rd January 1918). However, nearly four decades were to elapse before an extension of the branch line from Pedernales to Bermeo was realised. In the publication World Railways, 1954-55, Third Edition, by Henry Sampson, it was stated that “construction of the last section, Pedernales - Bermeo, is in hand”. The same publication remarked that five steam locomotives were in operation at that time, thirty-six carriages, thirty-seven wagons, and a service car. Passenger trains had a maximum permitted speed of 25 MPH (40-KM/H) and freights 18.6-MPH (30-KM/H). The 30th September 1955 edition of The Railway Gazette reported that the Bermeo extension had been completed; it was five miles in length and comprised eight tunnels.
In the 31st August 1923 edition of The Electrician, it was reported that the Vascongados Railway of Bilbao had requested authorisation to electrify its lines — then totalling 158-KM — and had commenced negotiations with certain firms in order to obtain estimates. Subsequently, the company placed an order with "Brown, Boveri & Company Limited" of Baden, Switzerland, for ten Bo-Bo locomotives capable of developing a one-hour, tractive effort of 5,900 KG at 36½ km/h, with a weight of 44-tons in running order. The locomotives were driven by tram-type axle motors and were destined for the 110-KM Bilbao to San Sebastian section of line (ref: The Brown Boveri Review, Brown, Boveri & Company Limited, Baden, Switzerland, January 1928). Powered by 1,500-volts D.C. overhead wires, these electrics were required to haul trains on gradients as steep as 1 in 49 (ref: Science Abstracts, Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, 1933). Electric traction displaced steam between Bilbao and San Sebastian in 1928 (ref: Steam on the Sierra, Allen/Wheeler, 1960), but the branch line between Amorebieta and Pedernales — which was not part of the Vascongados Railway Company — retained steam-haulage. Carriages on the line between Bilbao and San Sebastian had started being lit by electricity in 1908 (ref: The Electrician, 20th November 1908).
In 1941, the “Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles” (RENFE; Spanish National Railways) was established as an autonomous public enterprise, which absorbed 80% of Spain’s railway mileage — about 8,000 track miles. This encompassed all Broad Gauge lines, but the metre gauge railways of Northern Spain remained as private companies (one of the metre gauge railways, running between Cercedilla and Los Cotos — about 50-KM northwest of Madrid — did become part of RENFE (ref: The Railway Magazine, September 2003)). The metre gauge lines were eventually absorbed into another public body by the name of “Ferrocarriles Españoles de Via Estrecha” (FEVE: “Spanish Narrow Gauge Railways”) in 1965. However, the branch line from Amorebieta to Pedernales had been taken over by the State in 1934 (ref: World Railways, 1954-55, Third Edition, Henry Sampson).
By 1959, the line between Amorebieta and Bermeo used both steam and diesel locomotives (ref: The Modern Tramway, October 1959). Electrification of the branch occurred in 1974, although by that time the services were being worked by two-car diesel multiple units and, occasionally, a diesel locomotive (ref: The Railway Magazine, March 1975). Electrification used the same 1,500 volts D.C. overhead wire system as that between Bilbao and San Sebastian. A depot for electric multiple units was built at Guernika, adjacent to the station there, on a site formerly occupied by sidings.
In 1979, the 156-KM line from Bilbao to San Sebastian and Hendaye, the 29-KM branch from Amorebieta to Bermeo, and the 66-KM Bilbao suburban railways were devolved from FEVE to the Basque autonomous community (ref: Railway Gazette International). “Eusko Trenbideak / Ferrocarriles Vascos” (ET/FV) was the organisation created in 1982 to operate these railways, and the “Euskon Tren” brand — still in public ownership and controlled by the Basque Government — was used (ref: Jane’s World Railways, 2008-2009, K. Harris).
The terminus’ somewhat cramped, low-level site is exemplified in this north westward view towards the buffer stops depicting three-vehicle 3500 series electric multiple unit No. 3510. Units in the 3500 series were built in two batches by CAF and Babcock & Wilcox, and three-vehicle sets were delivered when the suburban lines around Santander were electrified in October 1981 (ref: The Railway Magazine, July 1986). In the March/April 1981 edition of the "Electric Railway Society’s" journal, it was remarked that new stock had then been introduced on local services from Bilbao to Bermeo and Durango, and between San Sebastian and the French border — your author presumes this must be referring to the 3500 series units. Functional single-storey flat-roof masonry buildings are provided, complete with a plain canopy of about 40-metre length. The main entrance, behind the buffer stop, is accessed via a set of stairs descending from street level. Out of view, beyond the right of the picture, is the end of a single electrified siding; by reversing into this, trains can access a 1-KM-long single-track non-electrified line running virtually the entire extent of the harbour’s southern side. Your author does not know when the harbour line was last used. An excerpt from the September 2003 edition of "The Railway Magazine" mentioned proposals for developing new freight-handling facilities at Bermeo — did that ever happen?
© David Glasspool Collection