The SECRETS OF THE RAILWAYS series looks at railways constructed during turbulent times, and how they were connected to horrific events in human history.
The first episode was really informative as it revealed the story behind Canfranc Railway Station and its association with Nazis gold shipments to Spain, and the construction of the Trans-Pyrenees railway line which served it.
It took forty years to build the railway due to the mountainous terrain. It was still being built through the first world war and didn’t become operational until 1928. Many lives were lost in its construction, as dynamite was used to blast through rocks and mountains in this remote region between France and Spain.
Canfranc’s construction itself posed problems for the engineers as they struggled to protect the station from avalanches and rockfalls and flooding from the river. Millions of trees were planted and some defensive walls built to stop the snow and rocks and the river was diverted away from the station. All this we are told took forty per cent of the overall construction budget of the railway.
The station itself was a magnificent building boasting a huge luxury hotel, French and Spanish post offices, bureau de change and French embassy, but soon fell into disuse. We get to see its neglected grandeur and decaying buildings.
Unlike many other stations, the short history of Canfranc revealed in the documentary through eyewitness accounts and historians shows how it contributed to the darkest period in human history, the Second World War.
It became not a border railway station between France and Spain for travellers, but a place where blundered Nazis gold was exchanged for Tungsten for Germany’s war effort. A staggering eighty-six tonnes of gold from European banks and concentrations camps inmates crossed from occupied France into Spain through here.
Canfranc became a building where intrigues and resistance flourished. Nazis hosted parties where spies collected information for the allies, railway workers divulged secrets gained whilst spying on the Nazis, Jewish children were smuggled to safety through here to Spain and resistance fighters sabotaged trains. And when the war was over, it became a place where German soldiers and senior Nazis escaped with Spanish help.
This documentary has revealed the station and railway line’s forgotten past, and showed its brighter future. The Somport tunnel now houses a state-of-the-art science laboratory searching for dark matter, and Canfranc itself attracts more visitors to its faded beauty and mystery than the number of passengers who used it when the station was open. We learn it may one day become a luxury hotel for tourists who travel along the parts of the railway line still in use.
What we come away with is a sense that the ingenuity of the human race to construct a railway against overwhelming odds can also be turned towards committing the most horrific acts.
- You can catch up on UKTV Play.