Middle of the 19th century, southwest of France, Pyrénées-Atlantiques department. The mid-19th century idea of linking the French (Béarn) and Spanish (Aragon) sides of the Pyrenees by railway was marked by multiple fruitless attempts, in large part due to the difficulty of traversing the mountain range.
Many objections to this project were voiced, particularly because a railroad track had already been built some 1864 kilometers from there, following the Basque shore, which avoided the technically difficult crossing of the Pyrenees mountains.
Yet work started in 1904 after the signing of a treaty between France and Spain. The construction of this railway marked an enormous challenge to the railway engineering and building methods of the day.
Dream finally became reality. On the 18th of August 1928, Spanish King Alfonso XIII and French President Gaston Doumergue celebrated the inauguration of the railway with great pomp. This was the official opening of the International railway station of Canfranc and of the underground Trans-Pyrenean tunnel, measuring 7875 meters in length! The cities of Pau and Saragossa via Oloron-Sainte Marie (France) and Canfranc, Jaca and Huesca (Spain) were now linked by rail.
More than 80 bridges, 24 tunnels, 4 viaducts and huge deforestation works would be necessary to cross the very steep and tight Aspe Valley on the French side.
About 50% of the railway on the French side would consist of engineered structures built using massive dressed stone.
The line was never profitable. 1929's Great Depression, 1931's large fire and 1936's Spanish civil war would condemn the railway to official disuse. The trans-Pyrenean tunnel would even be bricked up to prevent access by French invaders. With the start of the 2nd World War, activity would restart, with Germany taking advantage of the railway link. The Resistance would even dynamite some of the railway bridges on the French side in 1944.
1948 marks the relaunch of non-military trans-Pyrenean traffic. As it would never become a profitable enterprise, the rail line would only survive until the accident of the 27th of March 1970. On this day the brakes of a loaded freight train would fail, destroying the bridge 'of the Estanguet'. The runaway train would come to rest in a mountain stream without killing anyone.
SNCF (the French National Rail Company) were never really committed to reopening the line. The accident was a good pretext for closure and repairs, estimated to cost too much, were never done.
2003 was the year of the inauguration of the trans-Pyrenean road tunnel, topic of much debate, after more than 10 years of work. Its opening put an end to the hope of an eventual relaunch of rail activity between the cities of Pau and Saragossa.
The construction of this building, created by Spanish architect Fernando Ramírez de Dampierre, lasted from 1921 to 1925. The structure would feature a total length of 241m, with 75 doors on each side and 'more windows than days in a year'! In 1928 this was the largest train station in Europe.
The building is bordered by the French pier on one side and the Spanish pier on the other. The style is a mix of classicism and Art Nouveau with French influence.
Materials used were the usual for this time period: concrete, glass, steel and marble.
The length of the building may be surprising, but it should be noted that it is also three stories high, with many small windows strewn across the upmost level.
The main passengers’ hall exhibits much splendor: 3 story high ceilings, white marble stairs, wooden counters...
Also found in this station was a luxurious international hotel, custom offices, an infirmary, bars and restaurants, as well as SNCF and RENFE (the French rail company’s Spanish counterpart) offices.
Waiting time was usually long, and it was thought that passengers deserved a high level of comfort to offset the inconvenience.
Until 2006 this place was open to all, both to Urban Explorers but also to taggers and burglars. It became more and more difficult to identify the last remains of a once grand building.
Damage was extensive, and the fate of the beautiful station was unfortunately becoming more and more uncertain... Since then, it has been renovated to a luxurious hotel and leisure center. New life for Canfranc!
- The Canfranc Project : beautiful site of 2 German photographers. Do not miss 'The Nazi gold' story...
- Le transpyrénéen Pau-Canfranc-Saragosse: in French only. Very complete and detailed story of the station and the line. Thanks to this site's author for the use of his old photos (spiral tunnel, accident photo and sign showing the 'temporary' interruption of the line).
Thanks to Lisa for the english translation! Check her website here.
Travelled through 2018, on my ourney along the length of the Pyrenees. Taking public transport only. Crossing every border road. Very few public transports went into the other country, Spain or France, so forced to hitchhike a number of times. Currently writing the story as "Border and Soul". Visiting Canfrance was a plesure when I have been very familiar with Pau and Jaca.
Not quite renovated yet, but they're working on it and there is definitely tourist potential and official will. You can do a guided tour, if your Spanish is up to it.
We walked here in Oct 2014 from Orloron via the Somport Pass on our way to Pamplona following the Ancient pilgrim way to Santiago .
you can visit the station on a guided tour for a few euros , the town itself and surrounding mountain paths are well worth a visit .Many good value restuarants and a super new hostal open to non pilgrims for only 10 euros per night.
In november on our way back by train and bus we had a longer look at this amazing building then got the bus back to Orloron .
On the way up from Orloron we came across workers clearing the mass of vegetation on the line in preparation for its reopening to Bedous, it will never again go all the way to Somport but al least some of this slendid infrastrure will be put to some use .
It is heartbreaking as you walk up the valley to think of the now wasted labour that went into the tunnels and viaducts. I would call all of it works of great industrial art .
I agree with another comments here that say "please turn it into a cycle and walking path".It would be nothing less than wonderful and as more and more "Pilgrims" walk the way or Camino to Santiago I believe it could have a great future . The way of St james is a linear world heritage site , the original path eaten up by the road the disused railway is PERFECT and would become a major touristic infrastructure benefiting the valleys on both sides . Heres is hoping !!
Paul Furlong email@example.com please mail me if you want to get involved or agree with me .
Hi to everyone!
Yesterday I watched the new movie " El Rey de CanFranc " which I recommend to everyone interested in this wonderful train station. I enjoyed every moment of it, it is full of history involving CanFranc.
Visited the site on 13th August, 2013. Guided tours to the main building are available in July and August, through the local tourist office. All were fully booked!
The remainder of the railway site is accessible throughout, despite signs saying 'No Pasar' which were totally ignored by everyone.
You can go inside the huge roundhouse locomotive depot, the transhipment sheds and various other buildings. All are now long since disused and falling down.
Text and visit photoshttp://wp.me/p16mGY-tm
Trains run to Canfranc twice a day from Zaragoza, there are infrequent train / bus connections from Pau (France) via Oloron St Marie and a local bus service from Jaca.
I visited the station Canfranc in 2008, at that moment they where busy to renovated the main building.
Today 18 April 2013, was my second visited. the complete roof is renovated. At the outside. The train is running again.
But there is NO single sign, that this most beautiful building will be restored again.
The rest is of the buildings are almost down.
A bloody shame!
VFL Park Australia is/was the Canfranc of football stadiums in the world and was to be the biggest in the world. Opened 1970 closed 2000. See youtube "Remembering VFL Park!!!"
I visited this station in June 2012 and there's no evidence of its being "renovated to a luxurious hotel"!
A fascinating description of the Canfranc station is found in Margaret Vail's book "Yours is the Earth" which describes the escape of both herself and her four-year old daughter over the Pyrenees to get away from the Nazis, in November of 1942. Anyone interested in the Pyrenees escape routes should get a copy. She was afraid she would take the wrong door to leave the restaurant and end up back in France.
Thanks for putting together that information. I've been sorting old pictures and wanted to caption my Canfranc photos from 1999 before uploading them to flickr. The more I read, the more fascinating the story! What amazes most is that 'they' should have built the 'largest station in Europe' there – it seems so totally out of place!
We stumbled over this magnificent rail relic last week, and like Suzy, were delighted to find great work done to restore the roof of the main building. However, I do hope that it does become a hotel. We were not able to even get in to the main building. There is nothing wrong with making a building like this work for its living, and it will still be available for the public to see. Anyone can take tea at the Ritz Hotel in London and look around the public rooms!
I would like to learn more about the operation of the railway during its heyday. It must have been a fantastic experience to arrive here on a train from France, and go through Customs and then change trains for Spanish destinations.
We also followed the line of the old track north of the tunnel in France, and stopped briefly at Urdos station. What a beautiful journey that must have been on the train!
I would like to tell everyone here that I have just been to Canfranc station and right now the roof has been repaired which is very positive but nothing else has been done. The main building is closed but you can still wander around this fantastic place. I do hope it will never become a hotel.
Just wanted to say I'm impressed with your site and with the information you provide. Nice work!
I traveled over the Somport pass into Spain December 2006 and was blown away by the breathtaking beauty of the area. I´ll be passing tho´again in May 2009 and plan to spend some time exploring on mountain bike. The weather should be warmer, I hope. Just a thought: It seems such a shame to let the fantastic civil engineering feat that is the disused railway line through the pass crumble and rot. Obviously, it´ll never be used for trains again. How about reusing it as a walkway come cycle path like the Via Verdes in Spain. Now would´nt that be a great weekend destination.
We visited the station in May, 2008, not much work seemed to be in progress, but the modern clock was working, I do not suppose the station will ever be finished !
There was an article in one of the magazine supplements to the Sunday paper yesterday, 25 Jan 09, and a pic of CANFRANC but it was barely mentioned in the text. The pic of the obviously once magnificent / now abandoned place intrigued me and I googled it.
My wife and I thought this kind of dereliction only happened in Africa! (not really, people are people but such dereliction in Europe surprised us).
What a fabulous place and the use of the Titanic as a simile by someone was just perfect. Also, what a waste of infrastructure to leave the line closed on the French side! The whole thing could be a revenue earner if they put steam trains and other vintage trains on the lines for the enthusiasts!!
You should go to Mocambique and Angola and see some once fabulous places and how they have been destroyed!
What you describe as a luggage room may have been a customs room - where luggage and documents were inspected before crossing into the next country.
Back in 1975 i took the train to the end of the line from Zaragoza and ended up at this station. It was winter and i hicked up into the hills and camped out for the night. Middle of the night it starts to snow very hard so i hick back to the station and slept next to one of the hot water radiators. The guardia civil came in and checked me out and let me stay. That old building was something else to see back then .... unbelievable..!!
I visisted Canfranc at the end of May 2008, the main building is indeed being renovated, so no access to the inside. It seems it will be a hotel/conference centre. The rest of site, buildings, tracks, abandoned carriages, is still untouched, you can just walk around the station bulding. I have made of pictures of the site and will post a link when I have them online. Btw. the Zaragoza line to Canfranc is still running with a simple railbus. The european union also granted a subsidy to reopen the french side, but the they seems unwilling ...
Although somebody has suggested turning the station into a hotel is a negative result I have to disagree. I passed through Canfranc in May 2000 whilst cycling from Gibraltar to Uk and again the following year by car it was one of the highlights although be warned mid ski/summer season offers little in the way of hotels or Hostals. My wife and I then considered the fate of the derelict station the most appaling example of State vandalism imaginable as a rail enthusiast I believe it is the most incredible piece of architecture and well worth a visit if only to marvel at the size and detail in it's construction. We both thought it should be preserved and I have to admit that it can never return to it's original use as a railway station or at least as a border crossing/ customs post so to learn that something is being made of it rather than see it slowly fall down or be set on fire is a relief. Thanks for creating this page.
I cycled from Oloron to Col du Somport today (7th May 2008), which means I pretty much cycled along this railway line until the Spanish border. I think it is tragic that the system has been abandoned because so much engineering work was put into it. I only saw the French part of it, but bridges built over gorges, tunnels and lines cut into the mountain face.... all this abandoned with its fate sealed with the conversion of the station into a hotel?! Unbelievable....
Very Nice Site, thank you, I stumbled upon Canfranc Station with two friends in 1991, like Kate below. We explored the place for a few hours but we couldn't get it out of our systems and we went back a couple of weeks later and spent most of a day there. Words fail me. This is a truly truly amazing place. It's beautiful. It's in a place of stunning natural beauty and it's steeped in sad loneliness. Walking around it feels sort of like visiting the Titanic, but you don't need a submarine. I realise that probably the only people who visit this website will be people who have already been to Canfranc and that's sad too. I take about 150 flights a year and I get to see a lot of things, but I've seen nothing else to rival Canfranc Station. Thanks for sharing your photos and words. I'll be in Spain in a few weeks and I'm planning to drive 2 hours out of my way [and back] just to have the chance to live and breathe the place again. A question for Brian below: Brian, when you visited in '06, were you still able to access the interiors of the buildings and the tunnel walkways? Greg Kane, Dublin
Thank you for the many questions answered in your site. Several friends have asked me to write up my story of traveling this route in 1971, and it is now posted in my website: "Berlin 1969" (found in Google). I traveled from Berlin to ride this rail line, based on the train schedules still published in the DB's "Ausland Kursbuch" and the French "Indicateur Officiel Grandes Relations" with no reference to the bus. Local people were wonderful, but it was a shock to find out that a year after the line's closure, information about the "bustitution" had not been circulated.
I visited Canfranc in 1991 whilst interrailing. The train took hours to wind up from Zaragoza to the immense station in the middle of the mountains with 21 railway tracks and sidings. And a bricked up tunnel. I spent two days wandering around Canfranc station, and it burnt its way into my imagination. It is a sad place, full of faded glamour and past glory, and is an incredibly incongruous place to find in the middle of the mountains. I always wondered whether the tunnel would be reopened for rail traffic, and now I know otherwise, which is quite sad. I am hoping to visit Canfranc with my husband later this year. Now he will get to see what I have been going on about for so many years.
I visited the site on 01/09/2007 and it has now lost its former glory due to the development of the site(which means no close access) and the fact no trains now get this far. The site is being developed into a hotel from what i could gather though the frontage may be restored to its formwe glory as part of the scheme
A bit with a feeling of "welcome to the Canfranc-Estacion fanclub", I'd like first to thank the website's authors for its excellent content and design. This forum's given me some food for thought, too. I wonder if anyone knows how long the station was in use as the end station for the Zaragozza line after the 1970 accident? Kate wrote she'd been there (changing trains?) in 1991. A piece of information I'd like to share with you is about the old railway tunnel: as far as I know it's used by the Zaragozza University as a location for their particle physics laboratory.
Just like Greg Kane, I stumbled upon Canfranc Station - but just 2 days ago! Unfortunately, I don't have all the details but I can tell you the site is most definately being developed and it is not possible to get into the building itself. I could kick myself for not taking a photo of the information board there, explaining exactly what the develpment involved. From recollection it is a government funded project to restore the Station to it's former glory. The roof has been completely removed & the whole structure is now swathed in scaffolding & covered by sheet metal & plastic sheeting. I took several external photos of the structure as it now stands & will get them posted online in the near future. When I do, I'll pop back here & post a link to them.
Very interesting. Hope your page encourages people to visit Canfranc. I went this summer amd found it fascinating. Work has started on converting part of the station into a luxury hotel, and there's a new book out in Spanish called "La estación espía" about all the clandestine activity in the area during World War II. I recommend the Casa Marieta pension for a comfortable stay and gourmet food.
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