On February 22, 1926, the Urola railroad, linking the towns of Zumarraga and Zumaia in Gipuzkoa, was inaugurated by the Spanish king, Alfonso XIII. It was the first electrified railroad in the Spanish state and operated until 1986, closing definitively in 1988.
It was originally envisaged as both a passenger and freight line, connecting key towns in the nascent industrial and demographic growth of this river valley in Gipuzkoa. Starting at Zumarraga, a station on the main Madrid-Irun line, this narrow-gauge railroad followed the Urola River, stopping at towns like Azkoitia and Azpeitia, as well as important destinations for many visitors like Loiola (the birthplace of St. Ignatius of Loiola and home to the Sanctuary bearing his name) and the Zestoa spa, before finishing at the port town of Zumaia.
In its early years it was transporting just under 400,000 people annually, and during its most successful period in the 1950s and 1960s, 800,000 people used the line annually (with a record number of just under a million in 1962). As regards freight, it transported around 55,000 metric tons annually until the mid-1950s, when freight services began to decline in part due to improved road connections (by the end of its lifetime the Urola line was only transporting 2,000 metric tons annually).
In the 1980s, a Basque government report stated that, without significant investment, the line would have to be closed (to be replaced by a bus service for passengers). Despite significant protest, including a 1988 demonstration involving 7,000 people, the line was ultimately closed.
Today, however, the Urola railroad is enjoying a new lease of life, at least in part, through the auspices of the Basque Railway Museum in Azpeitia. Here, as well as visiting the impressive collection, enthusiasts old and young alike can enjoy a charming ride to Lasao and back (a 10 km/6 miles round-trip) on an old steam train. Having done this myself last year, I’m still not sure who enjoyed themselves more on that ride, the kids or the drivers!
Modern railroads, and especially the new project for a high-speed train service in the Basque Country and beyond, are central to Nagore Calvo Mendizabal’s argument in her compelling study, Building the Basque City: The Political Economy of Nation-Building. If you thought that railroads and nation-building were a relic of the past, of nineteenth-century industrialization and growth, think again. Railroads are still a highly political, as well as economic, issue, and impact people’s very group identity, as adeptly demonstrated in this remarkable work.