Los caminos de la era industrial: la construccion y financiacion de los ferrocarriles en Cataluna, 1843-1898

Los caminos de la era industrial: la construccion y financiacion de los ferrocarriles en Cataluna, 1843-1898

Olivares, Javier Vidal

Pere Pascual Domenech, Los caminos de la era industrial: la construccion y financiacion de los ferrocarriles en Cataluna, 1843-1898, Fundacion de los Ferrocariles Espanoles/Gestor de Infraestructura Ferroviaria/Edicions de la Universidad de Barcelona, Barcelona, 1999, 510 pp.

The year 1998 marked the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first railway system in the Iberian peninsula. The Fundaci6n de los Ferrocariles Espanoles commemorated the event with a set of publications which included a book on railways in Spain and this volume, dealing with railways in Catalonia before 1898. In that year the last railway to be built in Catalan territory, mainly with Catalan capital, was taken over by one of the largest of the Spanish companies, mainly French-owned. The take-over meant the end of expansion for the Catalan system, which had been built up by local effort and investment within a framework of development conceived in 1830, when the cotton textile industry was beginning to take off using modern techniques.

Pere Pascual’s book concentrates on detailed analysis of each of the lines planned and built in nineteenth-century Catalonia. It begins with the very first, Barcelona to Mataro, on the coast, and ends with the merger between the MZA and the Tarragona-Barcelona-France company, finalised in 1898. The opening chapter familiarises the reader with the historiography of the role of railways in the evolution of the Spanish economy. The author discusses the most relevant material published in the 1980s and 1990s, and explains traditional forms of transport in pre-railway days. A detailed account is given of the economy’s need for a transport infrastructure in the first half of the nineteenth century. The various stages in the construction of the network are outlined. The initial phase between 1843 and the mid-1860s demonstrated the enthusiasm of Catalan finance for building lines to Aragon. Another motive was to link Barcelona with the economic areas served by its port. The aim was to lower mill workers’ cost of living by linking the textile districts with the cereal-growing areas of Aragon and Castille, and to find the coal supposedly hidden in the foothills of the Pyrenees which would make Catalan industry independent of British supplies. The end of the British monopoly would be particularly important to the textile industry and the embryonic metallurgical sector.

The economic crisis of the mid-1860s slowed and finally halted the boom in construction which until then had held the interest of investors and Catalonia’s bondholders. Most of the railway companies served only a small area and had little prospect of increasing their freight or passenger traffic. Their financial instability made them vulnerable to any recession in the national economy. The slow-down of the 1870s was followed by a resurgence which lasted until 1894. Broad-gauge lines were built, weathering the difficulties of the mid-1880s stock market crisis or `gold fever’. The MZA take-over of the Tarragona-Barcelona-France company in 1898 left the network of small interconnected lines in the hands of the two largest, mainly French-owned, companies, the Norte and MZA itself.

The core of Pere Pascual’s book describes and analyses the routes, the concession and construction processes, the operating problems, the financial setbacks, the shareholders and their motives, and the mergers. His contribution to our understanding of how capital was raised during the second half of the nineteenth century, of the way firms worked as transport companies and of their relation to the socio-economic environment, is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. The conclusion tentatively explores the way the national network operated in the later nineteenth century, although it is somewhat deficient as regards pricing policy and the functioning of agreements. There is also a detailed account of the 1898 MZA take-over of the Tarragona-BarcelonaFrance company, masterminded by Rothschild’s. In the final section Pascual reveals new information about the negotiations between the companies’ executives and the role played by the bondholders. It demonstrates conclusively the relevance of modern agency theory to mergers and acquisitions.

The book is the fruit of years of research and its publication is due to the efforts of public institutions whose aim is to encourage the use of railways as a means of transport. Unfortunately it includes neither a bibliography nor an index. There appears to be no reference to the relation between the railways and their stimulus to local railway industry, that is, to the possible effects of backward linkages, which were of great importance in Catalonia. Nonetheless the book is an important contribution to the history of railways in Europe, especially as regards the differences from the Spanish experience. Railway development in Catalonia seems to have been more akin to the French or English model as regards local involvement, not only in terms of investment but in terms of concessions and incentives.

Javier Vidal Olivares, Universidad de Alicante

Copyright Manchester University Press Sep 2001

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