Taking the slow train across Northwestern Spain

Every summer, at least in “normal” times, hundreds of tourists pay thousands of euros to spend five days and nights travelling by train, in old-fashioned and luxuriously appointed coaches reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel, on a narrow-gauge railway line along the north coast of Spain. But, for those of us who want to make the journey without spending a fortune, and who prefer to sleep the night in hotels with proper-size beds rather than cramped cabins, it’s possible to make the same trip, seeing the same scenery, on regular trains, for a pittance.

Spain may have more high speed trains (AVE) then any other European country, but not here; the tracks are narrow gauge, and the trains are slow. Indeed, to travel the whole route it’s necessary to make overnight stops and change trains twice; first (if one is going east to west) travelling from Bilbao to Santander, then on from Santander to Oviedo, and finally from Oviedo to Ferrol. I’m no great train enthusiast myself, but am a frequent visitor to Oviedo, and have always said that one day I would make the journey. So one grey and wet Sunday in June last year, I travelled just the third leg of the journey.

It’s very cheap; the regular fare is 25 euros, but with a railcard it’s just half that. One has to rise early, though, as there’s only one train a day in each direction.

The westbound train leaves Oviedo at 7.30am prompt. 7 hours and 15 minutes, 89 stations and 250km later, it chugs into the terminus, Ferrol in Galicia.

Oviedo station indicator board
Oviedo station indicator board

I can’t imagine many good reasons that anyone would want or need to travel between the two cities, but those who do would probably choose to go by car. That takes less than 3 hours, and one can travel when one wants.

So who does take the train? Not many, as I discovered. There were only three people on the platform at Oviedo apart from us; two of them uniformed railway workers, I suspect going home after a night shift, plus a middle-aged man lumbered with a big rucksack and a pair of Nordic walking sticks, who we guessed was skipping a section of his Camino de Santiago walk after the incessant rain of the previous few days.

My fellow traveller on a near-deserted train
My fellow traveller on a near-deserted train

The weather is perhaps the biggest problem with the whole of this route, as it is with any tourist visit to the region. The northern coastal plain is lovingly described by the tourist office as “green Spain”. It’s green for a reason; it rains a lot, every month of the year. Skies are grey more often than not. When they clear, the scenery is stunning; when the clouds cover the mountains, as they do to a greater or lesser extent nine days out of ten, there’s not so much to see. The photos that accompany the tourist literature for the scenic train are, as you’d expect, all taken on sunny days. Lucky the luxury Transcantabrico tourist who sees such clear blue skies on even one or two days of his five-day journey.

The rain in Spain falls mainly in the Northwest
The rain in Spain falls mainly in the Northwest

Whilst I wouldn’t choose to spend several days travelling the entire coastal route, I was surprised how much I enjoyed my one day covering a third of it. Despite the weather. Rain for the first hour or two. Once it stopped, it never became sunny, but the cloud lifted enough to see the fields, the villages and the coast.

Looking at the map, the track appears to hug the coast the whole way, but in fact almost all of it runs a few kilometres inland, so when one does see the sea, it’s usually from quite a distance. On the other side is a long mountain range, spanning the entire north coast, the foothills starting about 50km inland. It’s usually all referred to as the Picos de Europa, though in fact that’s only part of the cordillera. The view is magnificent when the sky is clear and the sun is shining, but most days, including the one of my trip, you’d never realise that the mountains reach as high as 2600 metres, simply because the cloud cover starts much lower.

There’s a lot of forest along the route, and the track goes through a lot of cuttings. So much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if those who pay thousands for the trip feel somewhat short changed in terms of sightseeing. No doubt the gourmet cuisine and plentiful wine dulls their senses.

The regular train is in no sense historic or luxurious. It’s a fairly modern two-car diesel “multiple unit” train. Although the track is narrow gauge, the carriages are wide enough, and they didn’t strike me as being any narrower than those of a regular gauge train. Unexciting maybe, but it’s quiet, reasonably comfortable and has a toilet, which is just as well for such a long journey since the longest stops are only two or three minutes, and, as far as I could tell, none of the intermediate stations have any facilities. That means you have to take your own picnic with you; there’s no food or drink on board.

A renovated station - no ticket office or waiting room any longer
A renovated station – no ticket office or waiting room any longer

Some stations have a building, a relic of old and grander days. A few are falling derelict, but the better ones have been turned into houses. I don’t think any of them have a ticket office or anybody staffing them, and most stations comprise nothing more than a platform and a small shelter. At some points, having travelled through dense forest for maybe ten minutes after the last stop, the train may pull up at a lonely platform. Despite the station having the name of a village or town, looking out from the train on both sides, one sees no houses, no road, and no obvious way of reaching the station other than walking through the forest. Most stops were pointless; no-one got on or off. But rarely, at a remote station, there was a solitary individual standing on the platform, waiting for the train. Who was he? How did he get there? Where was he going?

A lonely station in the midst of forest
A lonely station in the midst of forest

The last question is pertinent because, as a public transport service, the train makes little or no sense. In theory, it provides an essential connection from all those remote villages to the (not very) big cities. However, with just one train a day in each direction, both leaving their terminus very early, and crossing paths at one of the few intermediate stations that have two tracks and platforms, it’s not the sort of service one could use to go to work or go shopping or to the hospital, for example. There used to be two trains a day, one morning, one afternoon, but the afternoon one was axed at the start of the pandemic and there appears to be no plan to reintroduce it.

o and Vegadeo - where Galicia meets Asturias
Ribadeo and Vegadeo – where Galicia meets Asturias

So now, whilst at the “local ends” of the line there are one or two additional trains during the day that might make a round trip feasible, the long middle section is only served by that one train. So travel from any station to Ferrol, which isn’t a major city anyway, or in the other direction to Oviedo, and you’ll arrive mid-afternoon, almost certainly too late to do anything useful. To get back, you have to stay overnight and catch the train early the following morning.

When we travelled, few others got on or off. Since the train is just two conjoined cars, one can see from front to back, so I’m sure that the maximum number of passengers at any time was 10 including us. A couple of times, someone got on the train with a bicycle and got off a few stops later; that would be one way of getting back home, of course, though since it was a Sunday and they were attired in lycra, those young men were probably just out for exercise. And cycling in Asturias and Galicia is for the fit; if the road is not going up a mountain, it’s ascending a hill.

You don’t need to do the math to see that, with such low fares, the train is a subsidised novelty, and since getting from A to B is slow at best, and getting back from B to A on the same day is impossible, it’s hard to imagine the service will survive much longer. While it does, though, it makes for a surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining – and slow – day of travel.

The train doesn’t stop at every one of the 89 stations, by the way; a few of them are halts, only stopped at when requested by passengers. But our train did stop at 81 of them. At most, nobody got on or off. They might as well make all stops on request. I suppose they stop just to stay on timetable.

The slow train reaches Ferrol
The slow train reaches Ferrol – a huge but totaly deserted station

There aren’t even many buses as an alternative – just two a day between A Coruna and Oviedo (for Ferrol you have to change) – but they take little more than half the time of the train. But it’s a much less entertaining journey.

If you’re inspired to make the same journey, details of timetables and fares are here

If you prefer the idea of the luxury Transcantabrico service, check here