Pau–Canfranc railway

Pau–Canfranc railway
Status Open: Pau-Oloron-Sainte-Marie
Closed: Oloron-Sainte-Marie-Canfranc
Termini Pau
Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Operational)
Planned opening 1883
Opened 1928
Closed 1985
Reopened 2016
Owner Chemins de fer du Midi (1874-1937)
SNCF (1938-1997)
RFF (1997-2014)
SNCF (2014-present)
Operator(s) TER Aquitaine
Electrification 1928 (1500v DC)
Partial Closure 20 March 1970
Closed to passengers 30 May 1980
Line length 93 km (58 mi)
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard gauge
Pau–Canfranc railway
Route map
TBR & TGV mainline north to Paris
TBR & TGV mainline south to Tarbes/Lourdes
La Croix du Prince
South East to Laruns
North to Pomérols
West to Mauléon-Licharre via Montory
Pont de l'Estanguet
Lescun Cette-Eygun
Tunnel du Somport (7,875 metres (25,837 ft))
Gauge change to Iberian
South to Zaragoza

The Pau–Canfranc railway is a partially closed 93 km (58 mi) long international single-track standard gauge railway line connecting Pau in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region of France, climbing via the Gave d'Aspe valley and under the Pyreness to Canfranc in Spain. The line is part of the transport infra-structure between Bordeaux and Zaragoza, which now bears the modern name of the Goya Line, for the painter Francisco de Goya who was born near Zaragoza and died in Bordeaux.

Opened in 1928 and electrified in 1928, it was closed south of Bedous after a major derailment accident on 27 March 1970, which destroyed the L'Estanguet bridge south of Accous.[1] Closed to passengers from 30 May 1980, the line from Oloron-Sainte-Marie to Bedous remained open for freight traffic until 1985.

The residual 36 kilometres (22 mi) section between Pau and Oloron is still used by TER Aquitaine passenger trains, with a branch to Arudy from Buzy. Buses run from Oloron-Sainte-Marie to Canfranc, and trains still run from Canfranc International Railway Station, departing south to Jaca and Zaragoza. In August 2014, SNCF began work on a reopening project to Bedous, with the line reopening on 1 July 2016.[2]


The northern French-side entrance to the Somport railway tunnel, 2010
The southern Spanish-side entrance to the Somport railway tunnel, 2006

Proposal to build

The legal title to build the Pau to Oloron-Sainte-Marie section was given to the Chemins de fer du Midi, on signing of a memorandum between the company and the Minister of Agriculture, Trade and Public Works on 10 August 1868. The agreement was approved by an imperial decree on the same date, and declared a public utility and definitively granted by a law on 23 March 1874. After completing construction, this section came into operation in 1883.

On 17 July 1879 a law was passed (the Freycinet plan), covering 181 ranking railway lines of general interest. No.178 was a line from "Oloron in Bedous (Lower Pyrenees)", and further a line from "Oloron to Puyoô in Saint-Palais, by the Gave Oloron Valley". Subsequently, on 17 July 1886 No.179 was legally titled to the Chemins de fer du Midi by a separate law. The Oloron to Bedous section was declared a public utility, with the concession confirmed on 27 June 1897; the latter proposed section to Puyoô was never built, cancelled by a law on 8 July 1900.

International section

The international section from Bedous into Spain, was the subject of an international convention between France and Spain signed on 18 August 1904. Approved by a French law on 10 January 1907 and promulgated by a decree on 6 February 1907, the concession to build was granted to the Chemins de fer du Midi after an agreement with the Minister of Public Works was signed on 20 June 1907, and declared a public utility by a law 2 August 1907.

The Franco-Spanish convention was amended by a protocol signed on 15 April 1908, which provided that the required Somport tunnel would be equipped with a 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) track, and that the Spanish government would fund a suitable interchange station on their border. The protocol was enacted by a decree on 25 January 1909.

Construction of the Somport tunnel was inaugurated on 12 July 1912, and after delays in its construction due to World War I, completed in 1915. Spanish project engineer Ramírez de Dampierre began construction of the Canfranc International Railway Station in 1923, and it was formally opened on 18 July 1928, in the presence of King Alfonso XIII of Spain and the president of the French Republic Gaston Doumergue.


On full opening, the line converted immediately to Overhead line electrification at 1500v DC. The line is built to 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in), but on connecting to the Iberian gauge at Canfranc, the enlarged station there allows for suitable interchange facilities.

From Pau, the line follows the Gave d'Aspe valley, reaching Bedous (altitude 405 metres (1,329 ft)) in a relatively flat terrain. After this it climbs into the Pyrénées Mountains, with an average gradient of 25mm/M to Etsaut, and then 43mm/M to the tunnel at Somport, where the line reaches its maximum altitude of 1,211 metres (3,973 ft). To reach this point from Bedous, the steeply climbing line traverses both sharp curves, and passes through 14 tunnels including the helical tunnel at Forges-d'Abel.

Due to the Franco-Spanish international convention under which it was built, the Somport tunnel and quasi-French control of the French-side of Canfranc international railway station continued during World War II. The Spanish authorities came to an operational agreement with the German Nazi Wehrmacht authorities, where by passenger train services continued, with freight-trains carrying mined Tungsten north, and French grain plus trans-shipped Swiss gold south.


On 20 March 1970 a nine-car corn train left Pau for Canfranc (where there is still a large regional grain terminal), headed by two SNCF BB Midi locomotives, No.4227 and 4235. Having passed the station at Lescun Cette-Eygun, they started to climb the Aspe valley towards Etsaut and Urdos. However, with the substation at Urdos not working, resulting in the voltage dropping from 1500vDC to 900vDC, the train lost traction on the icy tracks trying to climb the line on the steeper slopes south of Etsaut. The two allocated drivers tried to regain traction through use of sand, and then with the train braked and at a halt, got down to track level to apply more sand directly. However, at 06:45 the trains brakes failed, and even though the drivers tried to apply braking ballast behind the wheels, the train began to accelerate back down the line towards Oloron-Sainte-Marie. Consequently, the substation at Forges-d'Abel peaked and blew its circuit breakers, leaving the unmanned train with no dynamic braking, only hand-applied braking. The train passed through Lescun Cette-Eygun station at more than 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph), leaving no time for the automatic road crossing to close. On reaching the bridge at Estanguet, with the train moving at over 280 kilometres per hour (170 mph), the resulting movement of the cars put them out of gauge. The first car consequently hit the bridge and derailed the whole train, destroying the bridge. No one was killed or injured in the accident.[1]

The accident, happening two weeks before Good Friday, resulted in the railway service being replaced on a temporary basis with connecting buses from Bedous. Although the bridge was replaceable, the SNCF, with major operating and balance sheet debts, argued against replacement, and hence have terminated services since at Bedous.[1]

Due to its length of 7,875 metres (25,837 ft) and resultant cost of maintenance, the Somport railway tunnel was converted after the line was partially closed in 1970, and rebuilt like a tramway. The railway lines were removed, and track-sections inset into a hard road-like surface, allowing for joint-passage of both trains and road vehicles. During the construction of the Somport road tunnel, 17 passageways were cut into the railway tunnel, to allow for escape should a fire ever break out when traffic is going through the tunnel.


The main stations on the line are:

Name Image PK
Distance from Pau
Status Notes
Pau 215.7 0.0 Open Connections to Bordeaux, Toulouse and Bayonne
Buzy 376.0 Open Trains to Arudy, buses to Laruns
Oloron-Sainte-Marie 250.6 34.9 Open Buses to Canfranc
Lurbe-St-Christau Open (reopened 2016)
Bedous 275.3 59.6 Open (reopened 2016)
Urdos Closed
Canfranc 308.5 92.8 Open Buses to Oloron, trains to Jaca and Zaragoza

Renovation and reopening

In present economic development, the transport route beneath the Aspe peak via the Gave d'Aspe valley is turning from a relatively unknown into a major transport channel. This is not only due to the regional pressure between Bordeaux and Zaragoza (which on the Spanish side alone has a regional population of 1million people), but also the importance of the international route between Paris and Valencia. These economic pressures - in part driven by the General Motors plant located in Zaragoza - have in recent years resulted in heavy truck and car traffic on the roads of the upper Gave d'Aspe valley, and increased accidents.

As a result, the French government placed pressure on SNCF to reopen the route to at least Bedous, to allow the safe opening of the upper valley to tourists and also servicing regional passenger traffic. This would then allow due economic discussion to take place between the French and Spanish governments over opening the residual section to Canfranc, something which SNCF considers not in best modern operational interests, taking into account the loading gauge restrictions of the helical tunnel at Forges-d'Abel. However, supporters point out that at no point does the current line infrastructure fall below a radius of 300 metres (980 ft), and that minimum clearance up to the helical tunnel is a minimum of 6 metres (20 ft), well in accordance with modern secondary-line criteria.

Following a landslide on the RN 134 in January 2008, and the resultant need to use the Sens tunnel near Etsaut, in May 2008 president of the Aquitaine region Alain Rousset invited SNCF President Guillaume Pepy to the line, during which Pepy agreed in principle to support reopening the line.

Pau to Oloron-Sainte-Marie

The Pau-Oloron-Sainte-Marie section during renovation, 2010

In September 2008, the major electrical substation which supplied power on the Pau to Oloron-Sainte-Marie section was turned off and removed, due to the commercial expansion of an industrial estate. In September 2010, the line was closed for six months to allow major works to be undertaken, both to the infrastructure and environment. The entire line infrastructure, including all ballast and the redundant Midi-catenary, was removed, the road ways cleared and new drainage built. Then new ballast and lines were installed, laid out to allow later possible electrification. Finally, TER Aquitaine replaced the previously used SNCF Class X 2200 railcar units with modern SNCF Class X 73500.

Agreement to reopen to Canfranc

Since the mid-2000s, the Aquitaine region has supported the lines reopening. On 15 March 2013 Alain Rousset (President of the Aquitaine region) and Luisa Fernanda Rudi Ubeda (President of the Government of Aragon) signed a Memorandum of Understanding, for a plan of cross-border cooperation up until 2020. The memorandum sets a timetable for reopening of the line in two phases, the Oloron section Bedous in 2015, then Bedous section of Canfranc in 2020. Subsequently, the Autonomous Community of Aragon acquired Canfranc station from RENFE, with a plan to restore and develop it as a catalyst (tourism, academic, economic) for the region.

After signing the memorandum, the Aquitaine Regional Council (ARC) commissioned SNCF to undertake preliminary studies on opening the 25 kilometres (16 mi) section from Oloron-Sainte-Marie to Bedous, and to survey the whole line to Canfranc. The study found that all tunnels on the line were in good condition, except for the sidewall of Peilhou tunnel that had collapsed. Similarly, the bridges are still in place, except south of Bedous towards Canfranc there are three major areas of work required:

Despite an unfavorable opinion from both the public enquiry and the Commission of Inquiry, ARC declared the project a public utility by the signing of the decree 19 February 2014.

Reopening of Oloron-Sainte-Marie to Bedous

SNCF were commissioned by ARC to undertake full costings and present a project plan for the reopening of the Oloron-Sainte-Marie to Bedous section. The SNCF reported that substantial work was required, including the replacement of 12 bridge decks, rebuilding of all road crossings to modern unmanned standards, and full renovation of all stations. Further, SNCF stated the requirement of modern landslide protection along the line. The ARC announced that the project was valued Eur122M, with Eur100M coming from ARC's budget and a minimum of Eur30M coming from other sources, mainly the French federal government and EU grants.

Following delays in agreeing the budget funding, SNCF began work on 26 September 2014 with a projected opening to Bedous by March 2016. In a replication of the project to renovate the Pau to Oloron-Sainte-Marie section, the project includes: removal of all line infrastructure; renovation of all earthworks and bridges; removal of two road crossings, renovation of all others to modern unmanned standards; installation of the required landslide protection and matts; and then relaying with new ballast, concrete sleepers and steel rails.

SNCF propose installation of Automatic Block restricted permissiveness signalling between Oloron and Bedous. There will be three sections: Bidos, Lurbe-Saint-Christau and Bedous.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 History of the Pau–Canfranc railway (French)
  2. UK, DVV Media. "Pyrénées line reopens". Retrieved 2016-07-08.
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