Of the cases registered in our database on railway dwellings built during the study period: 19,015 dwellings and 253 developments, 94% of the dwellings and 91% of the developments were built in what we know as cities, i.e. in population centres with more than 5,000 inhabitants. This percentage drops to 68% and 60%, respectively, if we look at medium-sized and large cities (more than 50,000 inhabitants) and is even lower if we only look at large cities, with 45% and 29%, respectively, of the dwellings and developments built. In other words, the construction of railway housing in this period was a clearly urban phenomenon, typical of the period, but in which medium-sized cities also played a leading role: we must bear in mind that in many cases these were provincial capitals (Ciudad Real, León or Granada, among others) or important railway hubs (Miranda de Ebro, Alcázar de San Juan or Águilas, among others). There is, therefore, a more balanced distribution of housing, related to the characteristics and needs of the railway operation, although Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona, in that order, account for 30% of the housing built.

For an economic activity as peculiar as railway operation (a network industry with great geographical dispersion), this change is significant. It has to do with the logistical and operational transformation of the railway, through a progressive centralisation of resources, new organisational methods, and process automation, which was common in other national railway systems.

Housing development had a clear evolution from the corporate sector (RENFE and other narrow-gauge companies), where the construction of rented housing, the abundance of building cells and the transfer of the company’s hierarchy to the distribution of housing (the family was not always the referent), which was dominant between 1949 and 1965, to a second phase dominated by the railway cooperatives’ developments of owned housing, the new paradigm.

With regard to its chronology (graph 1), the data also correspond to the general parameters of social housing construction in Spain, growing but limited momentum during the 1950s and early 1960s, and a big jump in the second half of the 1960s and the beginning of the following decade, coinciding with the great boom in housing construction in Spain.

Graph 1. Evolution of railway social housing construction by type of developer

Housing was built under three laws: the Law of 19 April 1939, the Law of 15 July 1954 and Decree 2114/1968, of 24 July, which established, respectively, the regulations for the promotion and construction of subsidised housing (VP), low-income housing (RL) and subsidised housing (VPO), in which private promotion was successively given more prominence. In general terms, the housing protection regime established financing through soft loans (for example, even at 0% in the case of RENFE and other industrial companies through the INP and INV), non-refundable subsidies of around 10% of the investment for private buyers or developers, and easy access to land at regulated prices.

Who owned the land on which these dwellings were built? To a significant extent to RENFE and other railway companies, since not only when they built rental housing for their employees, but also during the process of transferring land to the cooperatives, the latter resorted more frequently to railway land than municipal land, due to the better price and the proximity to the workplace, which is why it was not uncommon to find, alongside the RENFE social housing developments of the 1950s, railway cooperative developments built ten or twenty years later. Only when this railway land was denied to them or was not available, they looked for plots at reasonable prices among the new urban development plans that were being carried out in Spanish cities, where railway developments were in the new neighbourhoods that were opening up on the outskirts of the growing city.

The transfer of railway land for housing construction was not a simple administrative matter, as the companies always tried to keep this huge reserve of land available for the railway operation itself or for larger urban development operations in negotiation with local councils. In the case of company-built housing, this land was usually valued at the 10% that companies were obliged to contribute to housing development under the 1939 and 1954 laws, while in the case of the cooperatives, the land was sold by the companies to the cooperatives on a compulsory basis and reinvested in social affairs, although land value swaps were allowed, for example, in exchange for commercial premises or company office space.

Also, as we have indicated, but to a lesser extent, the city councils provided land within the successive partial or general plans that were approved in these years in almost all Spanish cities. Among the most active cases was the Ciudad Real city council, which developed a new neighbourhood (Pío XII) in the vicinity of the old station of the first railway line in the city and which, together with other constructions of the “Obra Sindical del Hogar”, allowed the development of three large housing developments by the railway cooperative with a total of 604 dwellings. There was also an important grouping of railway housing in the four developments that RENFE carried out in the district of Tetuán between 1958 and 1966. The lack of suitable railway land, or the difficulties in transferring it, meant that the company had to buy these four plots from the Madrid City Council to house 400 families of railway workers.

From an architectural point of view (graph 2), most of the constructions followed the open building style, which allowed greater flexibility in the distribution of spaces, favouring landscaped and open areas around the buildings (Pérez Igualada, 2012). Some cases of closed blocks were maintained, either due to previous tradition or because they were in already consolidated areas where the rules established in the area had to be followed.

Graph 2. Evolution of descriptive typology of railway dwellings

Another obvious fact is that dwellings were becoming increasingly larger. In the case of railway dwellings, they grew as the developments expanded: in the 1950s, dwellings of less than 85 m2 built (just under 70 m2 usable) predominated, while in the following decade it was already more common to see dwellings approaching 100 m2 built (80 m2 usable). The last dwellings of the 1970s and 1980s already exceeded 100 m2 and are clearly related to the developments of some cooperatives.

In the case of building typology, linear development is dominant over the construction of isolated towers or solutions between party walls. The linear blocks are in a precarious balance between regulations and land speculation, for which a multitude of solutions are sought which are merely variations on the same concept and a search for the greatest possible cost savings: parallel rectangular blocks, comb shapes, L, U, C, etc. (Paricio Ansuátegui, 1973).

On the other hand, towers (free-standing blocks without linear development) appear sporadically in our study, associated with large cities, where more cost savings are implemented, with the reduction of façades and vertical communication cores. Among the cases studied, due to its height and singularity, the Abando cooperative building, next to the Bilbao station of the same name, is one of the best examples.

In the case of solutions between party walls there are the types of juxtaposed H blocks, which link several buildings together, such as the Carlos Roa cooperative in Huelva, or the RENFE dwellings in Malaga, which end up enclosing an entire block and were given the descriptive name of “El fuerte” (the fortress).

Another clear process of evolution that can be observed in railway housing, in parallel to what was happening in the rest of social housing construction, is that of the materials used in the vertical structures of the buildings. With a complete predominance of brick between 1950 and 1965, if only with some examples of mixed structures with the minimal incorporation of reinforced concrete in beams and girders, while from that moment onwards reinforced concrete will take over. This process is neither anecdotal nor casual, as it responds on the one hand to the restriction of supplies derived from the autarchy and on the other hand to the promotion of a supposed Spanish building tradition based on ceramic bricks. In the mid-1960s, economic openness led to the reintroduction of techniques and models that accelerated the process of industrialisation of housing in Spain, with a greater presence of prefabrication and concrete.

Moreover, as time goes by, the city gains height (graph 3), and this can also be seen in the railway constructions, of up to five storeys in the first phase, coinciding with company developments, characterised by greater availability of land, simpler architecture, avoiding the installation of lifts, and growing since the irruption of the cooperatives, especially those that are installed in the new densified districts of the large cities (such as Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Valencia or Bilbao), where even more than ten storeys can be built.

Graph 3. Evolution of the number of floors built in railway dwellings

Finally, we also find a peculiar element in the distribution of the built spaces that informs us about the construction period quite clearly: the use of the ground floor of the buildings, which was mostly used for housing until 1965 and from then onwards for commercial premises, which, on the one hand, brought in significant income for the communities of owners of the cooperatives from the sale of these premises, and also helped to build a neighbourhood by establishing small shops in this space that gave economic vitality to the area.


PARICIO ANSUÁTEGUI, I., 1973. Las razones de la forma en la vivienda masiva. Cuadernos de arquitectura y urbanismo, no. 96, pp. 2-18.

PÉREZ IGUALADA, J., 2012. La introducción de la edificación abierta en Valencia. Del Plan General de 1946 al Plan Sur de 1958. Cuadernos de Investigación Urbanística CIUR, nº 85, pp. 1-75.

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