The ‘Tren dels Llacs’

NB – sadly the train service  was drastically reduced in 2013 due to the financial crisis – the times below are correct – so these notes are not applicable now. But I’m leaving them here in the hope of a resumption of ‘normal service’ one fine day!

Both Lleida and Balaguer offer good destinations for a day out by train from Tremp. It also offers spectacular scenic views as the line passes through the Congost de Terradets. Tickets are bought from the conductor on the train itself and the single fare to Lleida is: € 7.00. Although the return fare is double the single it is worth getting a return ticket on the train as otherwise you will have to use the booking office at Lleida or Balaguer.

Although it is an essential communication link (not least for me as I ‘commute’ on it en route to our home in Tarragona all winter! SR) the line is very much based on tourism. For this reason it is promoted under the banner El Tren dels Llacs, ‘The Lakeland Train’. This includes a weekly historic special train which is steam hauled for part of the run! NB The steam locomotive only operates between Lleida and Balaguer, hence the time to change engines there – but it is worth looking out for on a motoring trip to Balaguer’s Saturday market! Note also that it is possible to do the whole day trip by train from Tremp – as long as you don’t mind an early start!

A few travel hints

  • The best views are from the windows on the left at you ‘face the engine’, i.e. back towards Tremp town centre.
  • The seats are reversible, i.e. tug the back to make yourselves a ‘compartment’ and to arrange the seats with an uninterrupted view from a window.
  • The train gets very crowded between Lleda and Balaguer, so don’t worry if you can’t get a good seats right away on the home journey.
  • Make sure you won’t need to use the loo on the train!

Travel Glossary

English Spanish Catalan
One-way (single) Ida Anada
Return Ida y vuelta Anada I tornada
Station/stop Estación/parada Estació/parada
Platform Via Andana
Timetable Horarios Horaris

Times

La Pobla de Segur – Lleida Lleida – La Pobla de Segur
La Pobla de S. 12.56 Lleida 9.10
Tremp 13.11 Balaguer 9.23
Balaguer 14.16 Tremp 10.44
Lleida 10.44 La Pobla de S. 11.00

NB on Sundays the down (to Lleida) leaves La Pobla at 5.30pm approx. Note too that the ‘official’ timetable for the Tren dels Lacs seems to have the wrong time for the actual historic train’s return to Lleida – it sets off at a safe distance ahead of the later regular train!

Historic train –  Saturdays  from May to October

Lleida – La Pobla de Segur La Pobla de Segur – Lleida
Lleida 10.30 La Pobla de S. 16.30
Balaguer (arr/dep) 10.55 – 11.00 Balaguer (arr/dep) 18.00 -19.00
La Pobla de S. 12.30 Lleida 19.30

For Train Buffs

The Lleida – La Pobla de Segur line finally opened in 1951 after over 70 years in the making! In fact it’s not finished by a long way, as the original plan, which still exits in theory, was to connect with France! It is not really fair to say that things move slowly in Spain, it’s just too much of a generalisation, but from the planning to the first actual train to run on the line took forty-four years, and for a train to reach the present terminus at la Pobla de Segur another twenty-seven years! The railway is now owned and operated by the Catalan government under the auspices of its transport operator, FGC. It is planned to augment the tourist potential with special viewing cars and more trains, however at present the actual trains are on loan from RENFE, the Spanish National Railway Company.

Vital statistics

The present line from Lleida Pirineus station (altitude, 160m) to the terminus at La Pobla de Segur (510m) is 89 kilometres long. There are two important intermediate stations with passing places: Balageur (K26: 220m) and Tremp (K77: 500m), and twelve other stations.  Having crossed the river Segre directly after leaving Lleida Pirinius station the first section of the line to Balaguer is almost level. Shortly to the north of Balaguer the line re-crosses the river and leaves the Segre valley altogether to join the course of the Noguera Pallaresa. From here on the line faces the seemingly impenetrable barrier formed by the Serra del Montsec, whose sixty odd kilometre length is almost exactly bisected by the river is a series of spectacular ravines. The line has twenty-two tunnels and numerous bridges, the most important being the 3.5 kilometre long tunnel of Santa Linya, which passes beneath the Serra de Montroig (the first massif of the Montsec ranges), the bridges over the Segre just north of Balaguer and the long crossing over the barranc (gulley) de l’Espona which is now an inlet of the Terradets reservoir.

A Tentative Beginning

The first meeting took place in Tremp in 1880 to plan a route following the river Noguera Pallaresa, the outcome of which was a Royal Commission inaugurated by King Alfonso XII in 1884. The following year an agreement between France and Spain was signed for a line following the course of the Noguera Pallaresa, tunnelling under the high peaks and finally emerge at Salat, on the French side of the border. On the Spanish side of the mountains there were three options ranging from a long tunnel (14.5 km) beginning at Esterri to the shortest (16.5 km), which would have begun near Alós d’Isil, i.e. nearly at the source of the Noguera Pallaresa itself! The final links to each country’s main line rail networks were to be at Lleida and St. Girons.

In 1889 the legislation to start construction of received Royal Assent, by this time at the hand of the Queen Regent Maria Christina. Nothing much happened, however, and by 1891 none other than L’Associació Agricola, Comercial i Industrial de la Conca de Tremp demanded that the government kept its promise and start building! It was never going to be as simple as that, however, as Spain’s railways development had, and indeed still has, a special peculiarity.

National ‘standards’

The Spanish ‘standard’ gauge of six Spanish feet (1.67 metres) between the rails had been adopted in 1844 following a royal commission and prior to opening of the first railway in Spain, the Barcelona – Mataró in 1848. This was an engineering decision based on the limited technology of the day and failed to take into consideration both the adoption of the European ‘standard’ gauge (1.43 metres), and the cost implications of constructing lines to the broader gauge. Although the essence of a national rail network, with lines radiating out from Madrid, had been established by the 1860’s, and two dominant companies, the Norte (north) and the Madrid – Zaragossa – Alicante (MZA) had emerged (both largely French owned), many individual railways were promoted to serve local needs and their local backers tried to reduce costs by opting for narrower gauges, including European standard gauge for which by this time the rolling stock, i.e. locomotives, wagons and carriages, was available almost ‘off the shelf’ from foreign manufacturers. In fact Spain only ever had two important locomotive manufacturers, ‘Maquinista’ (Maquinista Terrestre y Maritimo, S.A.) of Barcelona, which, as the name implies made all kinds of steam engines as well as steam locomotives, and Babcock and Wilcox of Bilbao, which was merely a subsidiary of the British firm. The 1877 Ley de Ferrocarriles (Railways Act) prevented too much fragmentation of the system by formally defining the ‘national’ network and insisting that new lines that clearly formed part of it be built to the Iberian standard gauge. As the Lleida – Francia line fell into this category it was specified to be built to standard gauge even though in its initial – and final as it turned out – stages it was clearly of more importance locally. The law made funds available to cover the extra costs but these were subject to government spending controls as well as the availability of private capital. As a result the building of this and other came about in distinct phases depending on the politics of the day and other outside factors especially the two World Wars.

Thus it was that even though all the enabling legislation to build the line as far as the tunnel was passes in 1892 work still didn’t begin until an international consortium led by the Toulouse Chamber of Commerce committed the finance, a matter of some 700,000 pesetas, in 1908. Even then the first section between Lleida and Balaguer wasn’t begun until 1912, nor was it finished until 1924, when the line was opened. The Great War was an obvious hindrance to completion, especially as much of the French finance would have dried up. Spain, which remained neutral in the war, had a booming economy during those years due in no small part to its manufacture of arms and military equipment to both sides (Barcelona’s textile industry benefited greatly from making soldiers’ uniforms and kit). Many other large projects flourished as Spanish capital became available and in several cases Spain’s infrastructure was considerably enhanced, for instance the Sallent hydroelectricity scheme (see the Vall Fosca Guide and the History folder) was not only finished on schedule but the electricity, which was originally planned to be taken to Paris, ended up supplying Barcelona’s burgeoning energy needs. So considerable blame must accrue to the malaise that characterised the reign of King Alfonso XIII who ascended to the throne in 1902 at just sixteen years of age. The monarchy finally capitulated in 1923 after numerous woes and Alfonso was obliged to establish a Dictatorship under General Primo de Rivera.

Running on Time?

This is not the place to debate the finer points of Spain’s political history, apart from to note that the Primo de Revera government is credited with getting the line to Balaguer finished and beginning the not inconsiderable civil engineering works needed for the crossing of the Serra de Montsec. All things must pass, however and the Primo de Rivera regime collapsed under the weight of social unrest in 1930, leading to the establishment of the Second Republic  (1931-39). Work was abandoned during this period and didn’t begin again until after the Civil War (1936-39). Progress was slow, however, due not only to the economic catastrophe following the war but the devastation of the railway infrastructure itself, both of which lead to the nationalisation of the main line railways and the foundation of the Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles (RENFE) in 1941. By any fair consideration, RENFE’s management of the railway system has been a remarkable success, notwithstanding its reputation for slow, dirty trains and abominable lavatories, it was able both to modernise and expand the railways in spite of very severe financial and technical limitations. The statistics with regards to the Lleida – La Pobla de Segur line speak for themselves: the most challenging section from Balaguer to Cellers, just north of the Montsec, was opened to traffic in 1949 and the rest followed shortly after, Temp in 1950 and finally to La Pobla de Segur in 1951.

The line’s chequered history is evidenced at various points along the route: the terminus at La Pobla had major facilities of which much remains, e.g. the engine shed and turntable, just to the north of the present station and the goods yard alongside the platform. In nit’s heyday La Pobla had a very extensive facilities, occupying much of the present residential zone beyond the station. This was based on the timber industry. The station buildings, although closed at present, share the same rather austere architectural style with those of Tremp, which have been renovated and converted to house a bar-restaurant.

In contrast the station at Cellers, which is now an auberge or youth hostel run by an outward-bound adventure company, is built in stone to an attractive ‘rustic’ style design, common to all the wayside stations on this section of the line. Moreover, some of the facilities located there during its time as the temporary terminus remain, i.e. the water crane for the locomotives and the foundations of a turntable. It also has more platforms and passing loops, now removed, that a small wayside station really deserves.

The station at Balaguer was also built as a terminus and was intended to be so for a long time, twenty-five years in the event. Here the buildings and platforms reflect the importance and size of the town but there is also a small engine shed of the old-fashioned ‘roundhouse’ design snugly built around its turntable and sized to fit the small engines that were suited to haul trains on the short, level route. Although it is still standing, the building is disused and neglected, at present being occupied by squatters. Also of note at Balaguer is the use of brick in the structures, concrete hadn’t come into general use at the time of its building.

Main-line Connections

In contrast to the homely nature of the la Pobla line, Lleida’s main line station, now renamed Lleida Pirineus is very grand and is sumptuously maintained as befits its status as a station on Spain’s latest High Speed Train network. The present building dates from 1930, when the station was shared by the Norte and MZA (Madrid – Zaragossa – Alicante) lines, two of Spains’ ‘Big Four’ pre-nationalisation companies. The railways to Lleida first arrived in 1860 with the opening of the Norte’s link to Barcelona via Manresa. The MZA, who’s link to Barcelona was via the ‘direct’ route between Zaragossa, Reus and Tarragona, opened a line from Reus in 1879. The ex-MZA line is much more direct and is used by the present day Regionales middle distance trains. Although the ex-Norte route is still in use, its Regionales to Barcelona are incredibly slow, taking four hours for the journey as opposed to just two hours for the apparently less direct route via La Plana-Picamoixons. The opening of the Norte line was more important for Tremp, however, it became possible to travel to Barcelona in just two days! This was done by the use of a stagecoach, called the Diligència, which went via the village of Sant Salvador de Toló, where the horses were changed (and the passengers stayed the night on the return journey) and on to Artesa de Segre for the outbound night’s stop. After an early start the Diligència connected with the railway at Tàrrega from where passengers faced a leisurely five hour journey to arrive in Barcelona by  the evening. On the return journey the passenger stayed the night at Sant Salvador de Toló after a ten-hour stint from Tàrrega in the Diligència during which they had to get out and walk up the steeper sections!

The Diligència disappeared in 1908 with the arrival of the first regular motor coach service, which used Hispano-Suïssa cars of 16 Horse Power and had twelve seats. By 1923 a through coach route was opened to Barceona and this is still in use today, which the new coach station at Tàrrega being an important ‘hub’ for a network of coach lines throughout the western region of Catalonia (known as ‘Ponent’). Meanwhile, the Tàrrega rail connection retained a vital role for the construction of the two great hydroelectric projects at Talarn and Sallent. Special sidings were built at the station to unload the giant machinery, turbines, etc. as well as other imported materials. Spectacular road trains consisting of up to four trailers towed by both steam and gasoline traction engines transported these items, sometimes ‘double heading’ the larger pieces!

The Destinations

The city of Lleida was founded by the Romans under the name of Ilerda. After the fall of Rome it was colonised by Visigoths but fell to the Moorish invasion of 711. It was recaptured in 1149 and its magnificent transition period cathedral, built on the commanding hilltop site of the mosque was founded in 1203. The cathedral’s most striking feature is the octagonal bell tower that dominates the plains landscape from as far as the eye can see. Apart from the Romanesque structure and Gothic details it is noted for its large cloister, which is considered to be one of Catalonia’s riches architectural treasures. La Seu – the seat (of the Diocese) – has had a blinkered history, however, as it was used as a fortress from the end of the Spanish War of Succession in 1713. A new cathedral in the lower town was built between 1760 – 81 in the neo-classical style and now La Seu Vell (old) is a cultural centre and museum. Shrapnel marks from the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) can be seen on the building, which by then was used as a military hospital for the Republican army. It was here that George Orwell was first treated after being wound whilst fighting for the International Brigade on the Aragon front.

The very grand railway station is close to the city centre and all the amenities. As you leave the building follow the wide boulevard straight ahead until you reach the road bridge across the river. From here turn right and walk through the arch and up into the city’s main plaça, San Juan. From here an escalator leads up to the Cathedral, called La Seu Vell, which is clearly visible from just about everywhere in the city. The pedestrianized street on the left, Carrer Mayor, is the main shopping thoroughfare and has the tourist office in the Palau Paera. Palace,and Museum.

Balaguer was the frontier town of the Moorish occupation and it still retains strong links with its past. The modern name derives from the arabic ‘Madîna Balagî‘. The walls of the Moorish castle, which was built during the 9th Century, dominate the townscape. They have recently been restored and there is a museum. After the re-conquest by the Count of Urgell in 1105 a new town sprung up below the walls on the west bank of the river Segre. This is now the town’s medieval centre, which is noted for its charming market square and many vaulted streets, very typical of domestic architecture of the Gothic period. Balaguer’s Saturday market is not to be missed. The new town on the east bank of the Segre has many shops and a fine rambla which leads from the railway station to the ‘new’ bridge over the river into the old town. Tourist office is the Ajuntament (town hall) in the main square, Plaça Mercadal, 1

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