1 February

Next Monday 1 February marks the 125th anniversary of the first railway vehicle that was propelled by a brand-new type of power at that time – electricity –, instead of being driven by the force of stream or the more rudimentary ones that were pulled by draught animals. Therefore, the Basque Government and the Basque Railway Museum run by Euskotren are organising different activities to showcase this historical milestone, when the Bilbao to Santurtzi Tramway was the first in Spain to use electric traction.

Six years later, the Bilbao Tramway between Durango and Arratia, another company that is part of Euskotren’s DNA, was also the first to run its tramways in a completely environmentally-friendly way, when it harnessed the power provided by the Garai and Maguna hydroelectric plants. At a time when there were no great producers and distributors unlike today, all the electrification of all the tramway lines had restored to using steam engines as their own central generators.

The aim of the different dissemination activities, which will be organised by the Basque Government’s Ministry of Territorial Planning, Housing and Transport and the Euskotren Basque Railway Museum throughout 2021, is to remind Basque society of the importance of electric traction for trains, underground and tramways, and the trail-blazing role that the Basque Country played in its development. That is even more so the case as it is also the European Year of Rail. 

Euskotren, as a publicly-run company of the Basque Government, operator of the modern Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz tramways, manager of the Basque Railway Museum, and the heir to the Arratia Tramway, the country’s first eco-friendly mechanical transport, will address the following points regarding those first 125 years of sustainable mobility:

•    The Basque Country as a trail-blazer in electric mobility: first electric tramway on 1 February 1896. Furthermore, Gipuzkoa’s first electric tramway – the Donostia/San Sebastián to Renteria tramway – came into service on 29 October 1897.

•    Pioneers in electric mobility: first eco tramway, from Bilbao to Durango and Arratia (1902); and the commitment to using hydroelectricity to run tramways, in Donostia urban centre and the interurban one between San Sebastián to Tolosa (1903-1912).

•    Leading the way in electric trains: first electric railway, up Mount Ulia in Donostia (1902); second electric railway, running between Donostia and Hernani (1903); first electric cable car in Spain, up Mount Ulia in Donostia (1907); the Basque Country’s first electric funicular railway up Mount Igeldo (1912); new electric railway between Donostia and Hendaye, popularly known as the “Topo” (1912); opening of the Urola railway (1926); first electric railway of Bizkaia, from Bilbao to Algorta (1928); first electric-traction connection between two provincial capitals of Spain (Bilbao and Donostia, in 1929); first electrification of a wide-gauge railway, with the Compañía del Norte line from Irún to Altsasu (1929); arrival of electric traction to Álava, with the Vasco-Navarra Railway Company line from Vitoria-Gasteiz to Lizarra-Estella (1929); the Basque Country, leader in electric traction, with 39.5% of rail electrification in Spain (1903-1912). Furthermore, in the case of the “Topo”, the section between the Amara and Loiola stations in Donostia, which was originally part of the San Sebastián to Hernani railway, is Spain’s oldest electrified train line, which came into service on 2 August 1903.
•    From tramway to trolleybus: Spain’s first trolleybus lines, in Bilbao (1940); and the coming into service of the San Sebastián trolleybuses (1948). Decommissioning of all Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa tramways, as was the case in other countries (1940-1964).

•    Difficult times for electric mobility: public transport was pushed into the background by the rapid development of the car (1960s); Decommissioning of all Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa tramways, as was the case in other countries (1940-1964); and disappearance of the trolleybuses in the Basque Country (1965-1978), which were replaced by diesel buses.

•    Focus on clean and efficient public transport: setting up of Sociedad Pública Eusko Trenbideak-Ferrocarriles Vascos, S.A., thanks to the recovery of self-government (1982); opening of the Metro de Bilbao underground (1995); opening of the new Bilbao Tramway (2002); opening of the Vitoria-Gasteiz Tramway (2008); and the Basque Country’s first 100% electric bus coming into service in Donostia (2014).

The Basque Country now has one of the greatest densities of electric railways in the world, surpassed only by Switzerland. Its services are an increasingly cleaner and more efficient mobility alternative. Electric mobility is the most sustainable alternative. And the railway – whether high speed, freight trains, suburban railways, underground or tramways – is, undeniably, the most efficient means of transport. 

Minister Arriola stressed the importance of the occasion, “a historical achievement, trail-blazing in its day and highly relevant today”. “The Basque Country is firmly committed to sustainable mobility,” he explained, “we have one of the greatest densities of electric railways in the world, surpassed only by Switzerland, and whose services are an increasingly cleaner and more efficiently mobility alternative”.