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Bilbao: First line is just the beginning

Northern Spain's first modern tramway has opened for business, with more track to be commissioned over the next year. Michael Taplin reports.

Few western European countries have seen such a major transformation as has occurred in Spain during the last 30 years. The restoration of the democratic monarchy, membership of the European Community and the adoption of the Euro have all contributed to making modern Spain one of the powerhouses of the world, and nowhere is this more evident than in the countries vibrant cities. Even a decade ago the Basque city of Bilbo (Spanish Bilbao) was scarcely on the tourist radar, but the opening of the Guggenheim museum, investment in tourist infrastructure and the rise of low-cost airlines have changed all that, and the former industrial city (population 372 000) is now a weekend destination for thousands of visitors.

Now readers of this magazine have a further reason to join them. Northern Spain’s first modern tramway was inaugurated on 18 December 2002, and is scheduled to reach its full length in 2003/4. Of course Bilbo has had trams before. Horse trams from 1876 and electric trams from 1896 (beating Madrid and Barcelona), but all had gone by the end of 1964, mostly replaced by trolleybuses that served the city’s streets from 1940 to 1978. This left electric traction represented by the RENFE broad-gauge (1672 mm) and suburban metre-gauge Eusko Tren lines to the east (reaching Donostia-San Sebastian).

Left: The restored 1932 Bilbo tram at the Basque railway museum. (J. Ibanez
Below: This map of the Bilbo tramway from EuskoTran publicity shows the tramway in green (double and single track), the metro in red, RENFE in black and FEVE in purple.
Click picture for larger map.
The media look on as the Bilbo tram makes its first trials in November 2002. (EuskoTren

A metro had been on the agenda since 1924, but it was not until 1977 that a construction plan was approved by the Consorcio de Transportes de Vizcaya and 1988/89 before construction work started on line 1, which took the Eusko Tren Lutxana–Plentzia metre-gauge line and extended it in subway under the city centre. Operation was inaugurated on 11 November 1995, to become Spain’s fourth metro. Line 1 has subsequently been extended and a branch opened to create a line 2, giving a 28-km network, due for further extension.

The transport plan for the Basque region adopted in 1998 set out proposals for the return of the tram to Bilbo, providing a surface link between two suburban rail/metro stations on a route around the north side of the city, passing the Guggenheim museum, the congress centre and the Arriaga theater. The decision to go ahead came on 9 March 1999, and represented a partnership between the Basque regional government (64.75%), city government (11.75%), the public sector company Bilbao Ria-2000 SA (23.5%), the metro engineering company Imebisa and Eusko Tren. The percentage figures represent the contribution towards the financing of the EUR 20.4 million infrastructure costs. Rolling stock costs of EUR 18 million were financed by Eusko Tren.

The ceremonial start of construction took place on 27 May 1999. If this timescale makes some of our British tramway promoters reel back in astonishment, it is only fair to record that thereafter things did not go quite according to plan, since the evidently rushed consultation procedure later threw up alignment problems which took a few months to resolve, and delayed the planned opening from spring to winter 2002. Archeological investigations also had to take place prior to construction. Nevertheless, it is a pretty amazing achievement.

The tramway under construction is a metre-gauge 4.4-km line from the Eusko Tren station at Atxuri (terminus of the line from Donostia-San Sebastian) to the RENFE/metro station at San Mamés. Subsequently approved, for completion in 2004, is a 480-m extension from the latter point to Hospital de Basurto, close to the FEVE station of the same name. 3.1 km from Basurto to Pio Baroja on the banks of the river Nervion will be double track. The remainder through narrow streets and across the Puente Arenal is single track with a passing loop outside the theater. End-to-end running time will be 15 minutes.

The 750 V dc electrification is fed from two sub-stations. The small depot facility had to be squeezed in beyond Atxuri terminus on a strip of land between the 1500 V dc Eusko Tren tracks and the river.

Tenders for the seven 24.4-m double-ended low-floor air-conditioned articulated trams went out in spring 1999, and attracted bids from Adtranz, Alstom, CAF and Siemens. The order went to local builder CAF Beasaín of Irun in a contract valued at EUR 18.056 million. The decision to add the Basurto extension led to the order being increased to eight cars. Electrical equipment was subcontracted to another Basque enterprise, Grupo Ingeteam. Each tram has seats for 52, and can take 140 standing passengers.

Specification of Bilbo trams 401- 408
Length (m)24.4
Width (m)2.4
Height (m)3.3
Floor height (mm) 
      At doors300
      Interior 74%350
      Interior 26%520
Bogie centres (m)9.0
Unladen weight (kg)34 600
Maximum speed (km/h)70
Maximum gradient8%
Minimum curve radius (m)15
Motors (kW)2 x 196
Acceleration (m/s/s)1.08
Braking (m/s/s)1.2
Emergency braking (m/s/s) 2.35

The new tramway was inaugurated on 18 December 2002, after just a month of trials, by the Vice-President of the Basque government, Idoia Zenarruzabeitia, in the presence of the mayor of Bilbao Iñaki Azkuna. The ceremony took place at 12.00, and after the inaugural run the band of the city of Bilbo performed a short concert, while the local speciality of Txistorrada popular (sausages in home-baked bread) was handed out to the crowds, together with free tickets for a ride. At 21.30 the day concluded with a firework display.

Initial service is between Atxuri and Uribitarte, the first six stops. The tram should be serving the Guggenheim this spring, and reach San Mamés in the autumn. At present there is a single fare of EUR 0.60, with a day ticket for EUR 1.80 and a weekend ticket for EUR 3. When the line reaches San Mamés the corresponding fares will be EUR 1/3/5. There are also through tickets to and from the suburban trains of Eusko Tren. Tickets must be purchased off the tram;, stops have ticket issuing/validating machines. Service runs from 05.30 to 23.20, every 15 minutes.

The city of Bilbo has not forgotten its tramway past in the excitement to build and inaugurate the new line. In the background, but likely to make an appearance on the new line soon, is restored 1932 Carde y Escoriaza tram U-52. After 35 years of service in Bilbo, the motor tram was sold to the Sollér tramway on Mallorca, where it ran as their car 4 until June 2000 (and was displaced by ex-Lisboa stock). Sollér acquired the tram fitted with a Brill 21-E truck, but when it was decided to bring the tram back to its home city, under the auspices of the Museo Vasco del Ferrocarril, it was possible to source a 79-EX1 truck from Lisboa to make the restoration authentic.

The author is grateful for Javiér Palacios of Grupo MBN for assistance with material for this article.

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