Last step, underwater: the Spanish railway line devoured by the sea | Coastlines

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Jhe sea glistens and laps against the shore of the Maresme coast, north of Barcelona, ​​as the train skirts it, past the few hopeful spring bathers and surfers. In some places, the oldest train line in Spain passes so close to the shore that it feels like traveling on the sea itself.

Last Sunday, it could well have happened. Strong waves took a giant bite out of the coast, threatening a section of the track with collapse and forcing the rail company to set up a bus service between La Pineda and Malgrat de Mar.

It was not the first time and it will not be the last: coastal erosion and rising sea levels have jeopardized the future of the famous Maresme line. In January 2020, Storm Gloria hit the line with 3.6-meter (12-foot) waves, causing extensive damage and knocking several sections out of service. Adif, the company responsible for the rail infrastructure, has spent €12m (£10m) to repair and consolidate a 1.4-mile (2.2km) stretch of track and replace a bridge. Smaller beaches have been completely washed away, even removing the thin buffer between trains and waves.

A passenger braves the fury of Storm Gloria in 2020. Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters

“One more Gloria and it will be the end of the train line,” says Antoni Esteban of Preservem el Maresme, an umbrella organization representing 115 community, conservation and other groups in the region.

Inaugurated in 1848, the Maresme line connects Barcelona to Blanes, 70 km away, on the edge of the Costa Brava. The service was designed to transport the Barcelona bourgeoisie to their summer residences.

Since the 1970s, the population of the Maresme has grown exponentially. The train now passes through 16 growing cities with a combined population of around 500,000. There are 37 beaches and five marinas along the way. On weekdays around 100,000 people use the service, and in the summer the trains are packed as Barcelonans head to the beaches.

However, the rapid urbanization of the towns of the Maresme has aggravated coastal erosion. According to Joan Manuel Vilaplana, a geologist at the Observatori del GeoRisc research institute, human activity and the channeling of rivers that flow into the sea means that less sediment is deposited, leading to greater erosion.

The five marinas along the coast are also a contributing factor, says Vilaplana: “Ocean currents move sand from north to south as part of a natural process of beach regeneration, but marina docks act as traps sedimentary.

A €50 million plan to install 28 breakwaters, each 150 meters long, on the coastline can only make the problem worse. And, although it was agreed in 2015 by Adif and central, regional and local governments, it seems unlikely to be implemented.

Critics point out that in Barcelona, ​​where a series of breakwaters have been built to reduce erosion, less sand is reaching the beaches than ever before.

“Hard solutions such as breakwaters and dykes only make the erosion problem worse, so the cure is worse than the disease,” says Vilaplana.

Greenpeace’s Pilar Marcos agrees: “Building breakwaters is a huge waste of public money that won’t solve anything in the long run as storms get stronger and more frequent. It’s just a band-aid. »

The Maresme railway line in Sant Pol de Mar near Barcelona.
The Maresme railway line flirts with the sea at Sant Pol de Mar near Barcelona. Photography: Jordi Sans Galito/Alamy

Not only are the storms getting worse, but rising sea levels mean waves are penetrating further inland. “Over the past 30 years, the sea level on the Catalan coast has risen by 3.3 mm per year,” says Vilaplana. “We have to rethink what we do. Nature is doing its job and climate change is accelerating it.

Marcos says local fishermen complain about the impact on marine life from the constant dredging of the seabed for sand to replenish beaches after each winter’s storms.

Joan Campolier, the mayor of Santa Susanna, halfway between Pineda de Mar and Malgrat de Mar, has called for a definitive solution, even if it means closing the line for longer. His La Pineda counterpart, Xavier Amor, agrees, saying there’s no point in trying to fix the problem by patching it up.

Vilaplana thinks the only long-term solution is to move the line inland, parallel to the highway. Not only would this ensure the safety and viability of the train – he says it was just luck that there was no serious accident – ​​it would free up land which would allow for wider beaches, which , according to research, is the best defense against erosion. .

Although there is broad consensus that the line should move inland, he says the plan has been stalled by a lack of political will and, at an estimated cost of 30 billion euros, cash.

“It’s hard to justify doing nothing for economic reasons when they’re spending millions on high-speed rail links that nobody uses,” says Vilaplana, a reference to Spain’s high-speed rail network, which is the second behind China in terms of distance. covered but struggling to find enough passengers to be financially viable.

While moving the line inland may be the best environmental solution, thousands of commuters will lament the loss of the curious yet joyful feeling of being on a train that appears to be traveling by sea.

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