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Spain powers ahead with high-speed rail

January 2010

Spain has the third largest high-speed rail network in the world, behind Japan and France – and it’s about to undergo yet another growth spurt, as Ron Smith explains

Over the past 10 years, Spain has modernised its railway network, with a view to bringing fast reliable rail services within reach of most of the population. The aim is that by 2020, 90 per cent of the population will be within 50km of a 10,000km high-speed network. This should take away the traffic from the internal airlines.

The formula is simple – provide high quality services, frequently, at a good price, at a speed that is unbeatable. The success of this is proved by the results achieved. Spain is now number three in the world league of countries with high speed (300kph or more) lines. The time savings are impressive. For example, a recent trip from Madrid to Segovia by the conventional route, on a Cercanias (commuter) train, took two hours. The return on the high-speed line took 26 minutes.

In February 2008, Barcelona was brought into the network with the opening of the 350kph line via Tarragona, Lleida and Zaragozato Madrid. Fifty-two trains per day (26 pairs) cover the 628km route in two hours, 38 minutes. This service has attracted 48 per cent of the market between the two cities already, and it is still growing – it’s just not worth the hassle of taking the plane. Punctuality on Renfe high-speed lines is 98.54 per cent on-time arrival, second only in the world to Japan with 99 per cent.

By comparison, the Iberia airline achieves 77.8 per cent and British Airways 64.7 per cent. Renfe is so confident of its timekeeping that on the Madrid to Seville route, if the train is five minutes late passengers receive a 100 per cent cash refund! On other high-speed lines, a 50 per cent refund is given for a 15 minute delay, and 100 per cent refund for a train arriving 30 or more minutes late. The quality of on-board services is also very much higher than any other mode of transport. There are three levels:

  • Tourist – second class, but with reclining seats, power sockets, headphones, and generous leg room;
  • Preferente – first class, with complimentary newspapers, meals at your seat, hostess service and car parking; and
  • Club – premium first class, which includes a-la-carte and bar at seat service.

Renfe has invested €3,150m in its fleet of high-speed trains, the most modern in Europe. The AVE (bird) S100, S102 and S103 sets operate at 300kph-plus, while the Alvia and Avant S104, S120 and S130 sets run at 200kph-plus.

Also part of the high-speed network are the international services operated with gauge changing wheel sets. These include the Trenhotel Talgo sets in conjunction with the SNCF, the Salvador Dali from Milan to Barcelona, Francisco de Goya from Madrid to Paris, Joan Miro from Barcelona to Paris and Pablo Casals from Zurich to Barcelona.

These trains use the Talgo short coaches that are articulated, with independent wheels at one end of the coach only, and passive tilt. This means that the train is very low, and has a remarkable stability, giving the best possible comfort levels. Gauge changing is done ‘on the move’ at frontiers. Trains feature cabins with roomy showers and toilets en-suite, wide berths, and bar and dining facilities. Cabins have key card operated doors for security. A similar service run in conjunction with CP (Portuguese Railways) operates from Madrid to Lisbon. Two other overnight train services are Catalan Talgo from Barcelona to Montpellier, and Mare Nostrum from Lorcato Montpellier. These trains have their own generator car in the set to provide all the hotel power.

The ‘normal’ gauge in Spain is 1,668mm. All new lines are being built to 1,435mm (4-feet 8.5 inches), which is the standard gauge in most countries, including France, Germany and the UK. As lines are extended, the gauge changing sheds move with them. Currently, work is well on the way to connect Barcelona to the SNCF as Port Bou. This will provide a whole range of opportunities, but for the moment, the overnight trains are expected to continue as they service a particular niche market.

Tickets for the high-speed trains are available in a range of prices, but pricing is not based on as obscure factors as it is in the UK. There is the price, and then reductions are available. Once purchased, the ticket includes a compulsory seat reservation. Passengers accumulate in a large lounge, after passing their luggage through x-ray machines. Then, the gate is announced, and tickets are cross checked as passengers pass through onto the platform where the train is waiting, usually 10 minutes prior to departure.

In the central control building in Madrid, the controllers can see in real-time where each train in the whole of Spain is, along with considerable detail about network performance. It is unusual to see a railway with such a clear vision and the drive to make it happen, plus a government that looks beyond the next election.

Renfe is still a nationalised railway undertaking, although infrastructure, freight, maintenance, and suburban railways have been separated as per the EU regulation, but the railway has not been fragmented as in the UK, so that clear national vision and decisions can be taken.

The Spanish railway high-speed network is impressive now, and by 2020 could well be the best in the world. Spain is a big country – high-speed links bring the capital in the centre of the country within easy reach of all areas of the population. The network will shrink the country, as well as tie it together cohesively. High-speed rail is the answer to the transport needs of the future, on high capacity electrified lines, with Spain leading the way.

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The impact of the trains in Spain falls mainly on the planes...
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