Costa del Sol Railway

Costa del Sol Railway

by Chris Chaplow

With a population over 100,000, Marbella is the largest town in Spain without a train station. While you could argue that many of its well-heeled inhabitants would prefer to get around in their own private vehicle, plenty of locals as well as visitors would appreciate public transport to travel up the coast to Malaga, with its excellent national and international connections: a busy airport with flights to many European destinations, and railway station with AVE high-speed trainservices to Cordoba, Seville, Barcelona and Madrid, and beyond to France – a direct AVE service from Madrid and Barcelona to Paris and other French cities started in December 2013.

Tunnel constructed in Estepona around 1894. © Michelle Chaplow
Tunnel constructed in Estepona around 1894.

Marbella would clearly benefit from a train service linking the town to the provincial capital. However the cost of building a railway along the Costa del Sol appears to be prohibitively expensive due to engineering complications caused by challenging geography, as well as the cost of land acquisition.

In addition, looking further along the coast beyond Marbella to the Campo de Gibraltar, the possibility of building a railway line linking Malaga and Algeciras (the line currently stops at Fuengirola) – the “Costa del Sol Railway” - is an issue which is frequently raised by local politicians. In recent years a number of studies have been carried out, and even construction contracts awarded, but no work has been undertaken as yet.

The latest of these viability studies was announced in February 2014, with potential passenger numbers being examined for a shorter distance than previously considered - from either Estepona or Marbella, to Malaga. This study, by an engineering consultancy, is looking at possible route and financing options.

History of the Costa del Sol Railway

While much of Andalucia was well-served by railway lines from the latter part of the 19th century, along the coast communications were very poor. Travelling overland from Gibraltar to Malaga would take three days in the summer and was not possible in the winter due to the number of rivers to be forded. As late as 1922 the transport company Portillo was still crossing the River Guadiaro by raft.

The origins of the Costa del Sol line go back to 1891 when the concession was first awarded. Predating this, the ‘Ley General de Ferrocariles 1855’ (1855 Railways Act) provided for a planned network of lines to be built from Madrid to the major cities near the coast, including Malaga and Cadiz, both via Cordoba.

The ‘Ley de Ferrocariles 1877’ (1877 Railways Act) provided for connections to the Bay of Algeciras, considered strategically important for protecting Spanish territory in North Africa following the war of 1859-60. The two tranches to be allocated by concession were Malaga to Campamento (the Spanish town closest to Gibraltar at the time, now part of San Roque) and Cadiz to Campamento. Algeciras was a small village without a port at this time. The Compañia de Ferrocarriles Andaluces was founded on 30 May 1877.

It is interesting to note how carefully regimented the Spanish economy was in the 19th Century. These railway routes were awarded by government concession to commercial companies who received a substantial 60,000 pesetas (around 360 euro) per km grant for works completed. By contrast, in Great Britain entrepreneurs would propose their own routes, and as long as they could gain parliamentary approval, the lines were constructed. This led to a much denser railway network, and one which proved uneconomic in rural areas by the middle of the following century.

It is also worth noting that the British Government was interested in ways to link their outpost colony Gibraltar to the Spanish rail network, to Madrid and beyond to Europe. Although there was no direct intervention, private British capital was often behind the projects.

Cadiz to Campamento

Royal Decree of 31 December 1877 allocated the construction of the Cadiz - Campamento line via San Fernando, Chiclana, Vejer, Tarifa and Algeciras, to Don Andrés Antero Perez. In 1879 he transferred the rights to a British-financed group namely: Don Alejandro Irving, Don Emilio Balignac (a French engineer based in Gibraltar), Don Francisco Engelbach and Don Carlos Smith.

The following year they requested a change to an inland route - from Jerez, via El Portal, Arcos, Algar, Tempul, Jimena, Castellar, San Roque, Los Barrios, and Algeciras - arguing that this route would be more useful, passing areas with larger populations and more extensive agricultural land. Work began but the company didn’t have sufficient financing and was wound up. These assets, and the early construction work already carried out on the line, formed part of the ‘Henderson Railway’ from Algeciras to Ronda and Bobadilla later concession of 1887.

Link for map

Railways in Andalucia 1935

Railways in Andalucia 1935.©Manuchansu

Malaga to Campamento

Royal Decree of 3 April 1878 allocated the construction of the Malaga - Campamento line via Churriana, Fuengirola, Marbella, and Estepona to Don José Casado. The line was planned to be 120km long, linking the iron ore mines of Marbella with the ports of Malaga and Gibraltar.

Behind Jose Casado was the Malaga and Gibraltar Railway Company of 46 Lombard Street, London. The company directors were Frazer Mackintosh (also director of the Caledonian Banking Company Ltd.); Morgan Lloyd (also Director of the National Bank of Wales Ltd.); James Goodson, W Moldsworth (also Director of the Heston Railway Company) and Ernest Openheim. On the Spanish side there were Don Eduardo Huellin (Malaga bank Huellin & Huellin); Don Filipe Neri Casado (from Malaga Bank and Garvey & Casado of New York); Don Miguel Calzado (British Vice-Consul in Marbella and agent of the Marbella Iron Ore Company); Don Francisco Mitjana (Malaga factory owner); Don Manuel Luna y Maura (Madrid public works contractor); and Don Luis Molini (also Director of the Almansa, Valencia and Tarragona Railway).

The company was formed with a share capital of £600,000, to which was added the Spanish Government subsidy of £286,000. In 1882 the Malaga and Gibraltar Railway company issued 6% interest bonds totalling another £342,500.

Presumably this capital call did not progress well, and the company’s fortunes went from bad to worse when five years later, in 1887, the Algeciras to Bobadilla concession (for connection to Malaga) was announced. The much-loved ‘Henderson Railway’ which cuts through the mountains to Ronda, and on to Bobadilla, may have been the final nail in the coffin for the Costa del Sol railway.  The Cordoba to Malaga line with its difficult terain at El Chorro had been inaugurated in 1865 and a link from that line at Bobadilla to Granada opened in 1874. This would have made Bobadilla an alternative 'target' for conection to Malaga.   

Despite acquiring a four-year extension to the concession in 1894, the “Malaga and Gibraltar Railway Company” had only constructed one kilometer of line in Malaga, earthworks in Fuengirola and the preparatory works of a 400m tunnel between Estepona and Manilva, that can still be seen today in Bahia Dorada urbanisation.

In 1912 the concession for the entire Malaga – Algeciras – Cadiz was re-awarded to José Nagel, who only managed to construct the Malaga to Fuengirola section. This opened on 7th September 1916. Other attempts to build the line ended with the Civil War in 1936.

current situation

Land adjacent to the current Malaga-Fuengirola line is reserved for twin-track expansion in planning law. In the last decades numerous studies have been commissioned.

A project known as El Corredor Ferroviarial de la Costa del Sol (the Railway Corridor of the Costa del Sol) is supported by the regional government (Junta de Andalucia) and Ministerio de Fomento (Ministry of Development). In January 2008 the Junta de Andalucia awarded a 17m euro design contract for stations to architects Joao Alvaro Rocha y Francisco Mangado Beloki. In 2009 the Junta de Andalucia awarded a construction contract for a 4km tunnel in Mijas from La Lagunas to Cala de Mijas with expected cost of 160m euro, but their annual budget for 2010 was just 5m euro.  The Ministerio de Fomento’s budget for studies into the Costa del Sol Corridor for 2014 was 500,000 euros.

There are three main and differing proposals: Iberian Gauge high-speed, European Gauge High-speed AVE, and freight. The routes in Andalucia would be mainly inland, linking Almeria and Granada, Bobadilla and upgrading ‘Henderson’s Railway’ to Algeciras. The Costa del Sol section would form part of the Corredor Mediterráneo (Mediterranean Corridor), a railway route which would run along the entire Spanish Mediterranean coast from the French border to Algeciras, carrying an estimated 100 million passengers per year.

The Mayor of Malaga supports an alternative route, part of plan proposed by pressure group Ferrmed which advocates establishing a vast European rail network to carry goods, and possibly passengers too, from Scandinavia to the western Mediterranean. With an estimated cost of 7.5 billion euro, the Malaga-Algeciras section of this line would follow Costa del Sol Motorway and would include nine tunnels and 10 viaducts. The President of RENFE announced in June 2013 at the La Zagaleta Forum that a government feasibility study was being carried out. Malaga newspaper Dario Sur wrongly interpereted this as posetive news in its headlines the following day. By spring 2017 various civil society groups including hoteliers AECHOS have started campaigns for the existing line to be extended from Fuengirola to Marbella and Estepona. In July 2017 Ministro de Fomento, Iñigo de la Serna, at a breakfast meeting in Malaga, admitted the government should try to publish studies by 2018. «Tenemos que iniciar la parte que necesitamos para el estudio informativo y el estudio de impacto ambiental y tratar de publicarlo en 2018» 

Meanwhile Marbella remains the only city in Spain with a population over 100.000 that is not connected by a railway.  

(Acknowledgement for historical information from a paper presented by Pedro Sierra de Cózar, Un Projecto Fallido: The Malaga and Gibraltar Railway Company, at the IV Congreso Historia Ferroviario.)