The International Steam Pages

The Rio Tinto Railway, 2009

James Waite reports:

We visited Rio Tinto and Tharsis on 5th and 6th April 2009.  5th April was the last steaming day of the Rio Tinto loco until next November.

The copper mines there were worked by the ancient Romans (who left some impressive remains) and the concession was acquired by a British company in the early 1870s.  They built the railway (1067mm gauge) from Rio Tinto to export the ore at Huelva about 80km away, opening in 1875.  The mines were worked on a huge scale with over 120 locos in use at the peak of operations.  The place was a constant source of friction between the British and Spanish governments, especially after Franco came to power in the 1930s and the Rio Tinto company sold out to a consortium of Spanish banks in 1954.  Today it's the huge international conglomerate whose mining interests in north western Australia and elsewhere are vastly bigger than anything they achieved in Spain.  Most of the steam locos were withdrawn in the 1970s and the line ceased commercial use in 1984.  The last opencast mining took place in 2001.  There are 11 surviving locos, some preserved and some just dumped, around Rio Tinto and 11 more are preserved in and around Zaragoza in northern Spain, mostly at the Industrias Lopez Soriana yard, see for some pictures, also James' article on this site..

The preserved line is about 14km long, the first stretch through the remains of the mining complex and then in the river gorge to the south.  It runs every day with diesel locos and they steam no. 14, (Beyer Peacock 1439 of 1875, one of the locos supplied for the opening of the line) on the first Sunday of the month in November, December, February, March and April - and also on the first Sunday in January unless this falls on January 5 or 6, the Spanish Epiphany holiday.  It's only allowed to run within the mining area and not into the gorge because of the fire risk, this being a very dry area.  There's a good museum, housed in the old company hospital built in 1929.  There's lots of other historic material around the place including a small settlement of British-style houses, built with little concession to the hot weather or to Spanish ideas on housebuilding.  One of them has been opened to the public and furnished as it had been in the 1900's including Union Jacks and paintings of Salisbury Cathedral on the walls.

We spent the night at Rio Tinto (the steam loco doesn't start running until 4.30pm in April), looked at the museum and the old British houses on Monday morning before setting off back to the airport, calling at Tharsis on the way.  Tharsis was another copper mining operation run by the British and had a 4ft gauge line which predated the Rio Tinto railway by several years or so and didn't close until 1999.  Unfortunately most of their steam locos, large and impressive machines, were scrapped soon after 1970 when 6 large Alsthom Bo-Bo diesels arrived and took over the services.  They are still in the workshops at Tharsis, a huge abandoned place nowadays and much of the track is still in place.  Two of the original 0-4-0 shunting tanks are preserved locally, both dating from the 1860's.  There's supposed to be a third one which was restored to working order but we couldn't find it despite searching through the numerous depot buildings thoroughly (CRJ 171 reports that no. 7 is in the Mining Museum).  We did find the 6 Alsthom Bo-Bo diesels in various states of disrepair including two which appeared to have had a head on crash and not to have been separated.  Surprisingly each one had at least one plate in situ so they were easily identified. There are three 0-6-0T's at the Lopez yard in Zaragoza.

The photos are:-
K class 0-6-0T no. 106 (NBL 18028/1907) in the museum.  The railway had 37 of this class of locos, mainly for use on the main line.

This luxurious coach was built as a metre gauge vehicle for India, supposedly as the private saloon of a Maharajah.  It never reached India and was bought by the Rio Tinto company in connection with a royal visit to the mines and converted to 1067mm gauge. It's reckoned to be the only narrow gauge sleeping car in Europe! (Jeffrey Wood points out that this ignores the FEVE 'Transcantabrico' tourist train - with two train units in service they have at least 10 sleepers. RD)

0-4-0 crane tank no. 150 in the museum (Hawthorn Leslie 3785/1930), one of two crane tanks at Rio Tinto, the other (138) seems to have been scrapped.

B electric no. 1 (General Electric, USA 5503/1915).  The railway had nine of these locos mainly for working through the exit tunnel from the main opencast pit, Corta Atalaya, to the main line at Naya, which was 5 km long.

K class 0-6-0T no. 110 preserved in a park at El Campillo, a village 2kms west of Rio Tinto which used to house many of the miners.

C class 0-6-0T no. 14 with one of the line's original coaches at Rio Tinto station.

200 class 2-6-0's no's. 203 and 205 (RSH 7702/1953 and 7704/1953) dumped in Naya yard.

No. 14 at Naya station. 

200 class no. 200 (RSH 7699/1953) (although it may actually be no. 201 (RSH 7700/1953) with no. 200's tender) dumped in Naya yard. (One of these locomotives numbered 201 is now repainted and on a roundabout in Rio Tinto, reports Ken Livermore 16th October 2012.

Naya signal box.  Note the typical Rio Tinto signal - no brackets - operating by the top and left rule, i.e., the top arm controls the track farthest to the left etc.

No. 14 at Rio Tinto station.

No. 14 at Naya yard.  The big shed building was put up for the line's diesels in the 1970's.

2-6-2+2-6-2 Garratt no. 146 (BP 6561/1929) at Naya yard.  The Rio Tinto had two of these Garratts. One was scrapped in the 1960's and this one has been stored for many years after that.

No. 14 climbing over the line from Corta Atalaya by the exit from the long tunnel (in the foreground, with some dumped mine trucks).

Views of the pit at Corta Atalaya with I class no. 50 (Dubs 1515/1881) dumped on one of the levels.  It's been stuck there for many years - trapped by a rockfall which no doubt accounts for its survival!

Tharsis 0-4-0T no. 1 "Odiel" (Dubs 231/1867) at Tharsis. It has since (noted 16th October 2012) been moved to outside the recently restored Corrales station building across the river from Huelva. Alsthom Bo-BoD 69 is now here with two bogie ore wagons. 

Courtesy of Ken Livermore, (23rd June 2015) this is "Odiel" in its new location:

Also from Ken, this is one of several small diesels plinthed around the town:

Tharsis 0-4-0T no. 5 "Saucita" (Dubs 309/1869) at Tharsis, outside the Town Hall.

Rob Dickinson