In this trip report, we will travel by FEVE train on the narrow-gauge railway line between Santander and Bilbao in Northern Spain.
Along the entire northern coast of Spain, from the border town of Hendaye on the Franco-Spanish border near San Sebastian in the east all the way to Ferrol in the west, you can find a narrow-gauge railway network.
Train services on these lines are operated by two different companies. Euskotren holds the concession in the Basque Country on all the lines east of Bilbao, while FEVE operates the lines from Bilbao to the west, connecting such cities as León, Santander, Oviedo, Gijon, Avilés and Ferrol.
FEVE, an acronym for Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha – which literally means Narrow-Gauge Railway Company in Spanish – has been operating trains on the northern coast of Spain since its creation in 1965.
Since the beginning of 2013, FEVE was merged into national railway operator Renfe and is now officially known as the subdivision of Renfe Feve, although people in northern Spain still refer to the narrow-gauge railway services by its original name of FEVE.
Travelling on Spain’s narrow-gauge network is not for those who prefer speed above all else. Most distance can be covered far more quickly by bus. For this, you can check out the website of bus operator ALSA.
That said, there is nothing much fun about travelling by bus. Going by train is not only much more relaxed, comfortable and adventurous, but you also will see a lot more of the countryside from the railway tracks than from the motorway.
The journey I was about to take on the Spanish narrow-gauge network from Santander to Bilbao is an excellent example. By bus a trip between these two cities takes about one-and-a-half hour, while the FEVE train takes twice as long due to the meandering railway tracks.
But as you will see from the little trip report below, it is a journey which is certainly worth it.
I had already flown to Santander two days earlier, giving me plenty of time to explore the delights of this surprisingly pleasant city.
As the capital of Spain’s Cantabria region, Santander is a lively port city with a couple of interesting sights and some great tapas bars which will please every foodie.
Santander FEVE station
After two days of sampling the delights of Santander it was time to move onward to Bilbao. The broad-gauge Renfe station and the narrow-gauge FEVE station are located right next to each other on the same square.
It’s extremely straightforward to buy your train ticket at the station. As FEVE tickets are fixed-price according to distance travelled, there is no need to book your ticket in advance (nor is it really possible online).
Given that the FEVE train services aren’t the most frequent, you are however well-advised to check timetables online before you embark on your journey.
Check the Renfe FEVE website for details and don’t rely on other railway booking websites as most don’t have the FEVE timetables and prices loaded in their system and might even reroute you on a much longer (and more costly!) detour using Renfe’s broad-gauge network.
For my one-way ticket, I paid just 8.90 EUR, which is a great deal for a journey of three hours.
Santander to Bilbao by FEVE narrow gauge train
Departure: 2pm – Arrival: 5pm
Duration: 3h – Distance: 117 kilometres
Costs: 8.90 EUR
Boarding the train
To reach the platforms of Santander station, you have to open the automatic barriers with your ticket. The train departures and platforms are posted on electronic boards which you can see right behind these barriers.
If you have some time to kill before your departure it is best not to cross these barriers yet, but to remain in the station hall where there are more facilities such as a bar.
Seating on FEVE trains is free-for-all. There is no seat reservation, so you can select any seat you want.
If you travel between Santander and Bilbao by FEVE train, I’d suggest you take a seat on your left hand side as you will have some nice views from this side of the train over the Ría de Treto about halfway the ride and of the Nervión River and Bilbao’s skyline upon arrival.
Departing from Bilbao to Santander that means selecting a seat on your right-hand side in the direction of travel.
The train to Bilbao
While some of the FEVE narrow-gauge trains were fairly long, I was surprised by just how small my train to Bilbao was!
Fortunately, the train would never really get crowded on its way from Santander to Bilbao. Only during the last few stops in the greater Bilbao area did the train fill up quite a bit.
The seats in the FEVE train (second class only, first class is not available) were fairly comfortable. One big advantage of this more modern train were the large panorama windows, which allowed for great views over the countryside on the journey east to Bilbao.
However, don’t expect any modern amenities such as power sockets and on-board WiFi.
Right after departure from Santander the train first passes along the suburbs of Cantabria’s capital city.
Some of the towns and houses on the Spanish northern coast have a decidedly different character than those on the popular Spanish Costas in the south and east of the country. With their red bricks, you might even mistake some of the buildings for your typical British terraced housing!
It doesn’t take long for the urban areas to give way to Cantabria’s verdant, green interior. The climate on Spain’s northern coast is relatively wet, allowing the grasslands, fields and forests to flourish.
Ría de Treto
One of the most scenic parts of the narrow-gauge railway between Santander and Bilbao is about halfway when the train crosses the Ría de Treto inlet.
There are some fabulous views here over the surrounding wetlands and mountains.
Into the Basque Country
Soon after, the FEVE train leaves Cantabria behind and heads into the Basque Country (called Euskadi in the mysterious Basque language). To be precise, we enter the province of Biscay (called Bizkaia in Basque and Vizcaya in Spanish).
It’s not only a geographical, cultural and linguistic border. The landscape is changing too as the terrain becomes more mountainous and wild.
Arriving in Bilbao
The last bits of the railway line follow the course of the Cadagua River, which will eventually stream into the Nervión River to form the Bilbao Estuary. On this side of the journey, the best views are from the other (right) side of the train.
Just before the river confluence, the railway track makes an almost 180-degrees turn to the right and aligns itself with the course of the Nervión River. The skyline of Bilbao can be clearly seen ahead if you look out of the window on your left-hand side.
Bilbao has three main railway stations. Bilbao Abando station is the main long-distance station and is served by broad-gauge Renfe trains such as those to Madrid.
Atxuri station used to be the Bilbao terminus of the Euskotren network further east to San Sebastián (called Donostia in Basque) but is now solely used by the Euskotren Tranbia urban tram system.
Nowadays, Euskotren uses a couple of underground stations in Bilbao’s city centre such as the Zazpikaleak/Casco Viejo station which serves the old town.
The FEVE narrow-gauge railway lines from Santander and León however terminate at Bilbao Concordia station, an elevated railway station which is just a stone throw away from the mainline Abando station.
If you get out of the train, the station might not seem very impressive. However, that cannot be said of the Bilbao Concordia’s Belle Époque exterior, which is simply magnificent. Don’t forget to look back over you shoulder to admire this sight!
The station is smack bang in the middle of Bilbao’s commercial centre and the old town is just a short walk away.
Travelling on Spain’s narrow gauge railway lines might be slow, but it’s cheap and great fun. The ride is more comfortable than by bus and the views from the window are much better.
Passing through towns, villages, farms and fields, wetlands and mountains, you will see much more of green and verdant northern Spain than from the motorway.
The FEVE narrow-gauge trains might not be the most luxurious or fastest ever, but they are perfectly comfortable and will get you to your final destination.
If you prefer slow travel and would actually like to savour the views and surroundings, I can highly recommend travelling by train instead of bus on your travels through Cantabria and the Basque Country.
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