Along Broad Lines: The Economic History of Spanish Railways, 1973-96

Article excerpt

The 1844 decision to adopt a gauge of six Spanish feet (167 m) acted as a 'supplementary Pyrenees' in hindering foreign trade and travel by rail, to the advantage of other means of transport, maritime and airborne, the latter in the present century. Except for the breakthrough recently achieved by the Talgo technology of extending bogies, this gauge has prevented the physical integration of the peninsula into Europe.1

Somewhat ironically, research into the impact of the railway on the nineteenth-century economy of Spain has served as a vehicle for the transmission of the New Economic History to Spanish economic history.2 Moreover, the railway mania which invaded Western academic circles in the 1970s spilled into Spain ten years later to generate an impressive amount of research.3 Attention has focused mainly upon the development of the railway network and its attendant economic effects. However, most of the published research has avoided making explicit use of counterfactual hypotheses or of economic models. Historians have been more prone to description than to quantification. Even so, we have today a vast array of data bearing on the financial history of railway companies and on traffic flows. In spite of the substantial inroads made into railway history, a large number of issues have escaped historians.

This article is divided into three sections. In the first I discuss the views on railway development put forward by economic historians in the early 1970s when debating the backwardness of the Spanish economy in the nineteenth century. Secondly, these issues will be confronted with specific research on railways undertaken after 1973. In the final section I concentrate on books and articles which refer to minor railway companies serving local demand.

Railways and the backwardness of the Spanish economy

For a long time, accounts of the development of Spain's railway network in the second half of the nineteenth century were confined to a couple of titles. Both provide a catalogue of detailed information on the origins of railway development. First to be published was a set of illustrated volumes to celebrate the creation of RENFE when private railway companies were nationalised in 1941.4 The event nearly coincided with the centenary of the first decree bearing upon railway matters. Indeed, the 1844 decree is seen as a landmark for the beginning of the history of Spanish railways. The second book is a comprehensive account of the origins of the major railway companies. The network's configuration, the electrification process and the models and types of locomotives are among the topics included in its index.5

Spanish historiography lacked an explicit account of the role of railways during the industrialisation of the country until the early 1970s.6 Because the voluminous information provided in the two works mentioned is highly unsystematic, economic historians had to rely upon assessments from contemporaries. Railway history was therefore tangential to the general debate about the failure of Spain to emulate material progress in the most advanced nations. On that topic, historians have established a profoundly pessimistic assessment of the performance of railways.7 I wish to emphasise four aspects.

In spite of a thirty-year gap compared with railway building on the Continent, it has been argued that lines were built ahead of demand in Spain.8 Excess capacity in the railway industry yielded poor returns which were at the root of a railway crisis in 1866. The collapse of railway companies ended in a financial crisis closely linked with political and social upheaval in the late 1860s. Government railway policies implemented after 1855 were blamed for diverting capital towards railways to the detriment of industry. Government was thus blamed for pushing industrialists to compete for scarce capital at a high rate of interest.9

This last assertion was exemplified by the iron industry. …