The weeds, burgeoning in the rainy spring, do not quite cover what remains of the massive public works, built to meet an exceptional challenge: Franco's siege of Republican Madrid. Seventy-five years have passed since this auxiliary railway between Madrid and Valencia was constructed in a little over three months in 1937. Now forgotten, it was decisive in prolonging the Republican resistance to Franco's near-encirclement of Madrid during the last 20 months of the Civil War.
The line - which runs 91.3 kilometers from Torrejón de Ardoz, just east of Madrid, to Tarancón in the province of Cuenca - crossed the southern part of the Madrid region to join the Valencia railway, which, in its first stages east of Madrid, had been cut off by Nationalist forces. A hundred days after the work began, thousands of people, trainloads of cattle, tons of supplies, arms and victuals were moving along this track, traveling at night in creaking trains often drawn by two engines to cope with the steep gradients on the hastily built line.
The tracks were made of rails taken from frontline areas such as Las Matas. There were 10 tunnels, some of them 150 meters long; three bridges; three stations and a handful of whistle-stops. Many of its installations, well built, are still in a reasonable state of repair. The line was called the Vía de Negrín (the Negrín line), in reference to Juan Negrín, the head of the Republican government who pressed for its construction, which involved "between 8,000 and 12,000 people," explains Andrés Graña, municipal councilor in Villar del Olmo, who has spent three years preparing the book El tren de los 40 días (or, The 40-day train). "Two-thirds of those who leveled the way were prisoners, many of them monks; the rest were volunteers and troops of the Republican Army's Fortifications Batallion." Few of them are alive today.
Because it involved religious prisoners, Franco's air force refrained from bombing the line during its construction"
Preceded by the dynamiters and drillers who dug the cuttings and tunnels, the captive laborers were provisionally lodged in temporary barracks, or at one stage in the palace of Nuevo Baztán, constructed as a model village in the 18th century by Juan de Goyeneche, the prime minister of Philip V. In the chapel a plaque reminds the visitor of the former occupants. "The Gentlemen of Nuevo Baztán in remembrance of their captivity / May 1937 - March 28, 1939." Some, too, were lodged in the nearby palace at Ambite.
"Because it involved religious prisoners and those disaffected by the Republic, Franco's air force refrained from bombing the line during its construction," says Graña.
The line was the project of Negrín himself and his communications minister, Bernardo Giner de los Ríos; work was entrusted to the engineers Emilio Kowalski and Andrés Arrillaga de la Vega. At the end of the war in 1939 the line, uneconomic due to its extreme gradients and tight curves, was abandoned; its ties and rails were lifted up and returned to their previous uses on other lines.