Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Manel Villalante, Strategy General Manager at Renfe about Spain’s experience with high-speed rail, Renfe’s investment into the UK with MTR and integrated mobility planning 

Manel Villalante has been the General Manager of Strategy at Spain’s state-owned train operator, Renfe, since July 2018. He is also the Founder and Director of the Smart Mobility: Intelligent Transport Systems postgraduate program at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona. He has been involved in transport planning at the government level for almost 30 years.

What can you tell us about Renfe’s experience with high-speed rail?  

As you know, Renfe has been managing high-speed services since 1992 with high levels of quality on the largest high-speed rail network in Europe, more than 3,000 kilometres. More than 38.5 million passengers used our high-speed services last year and we also have a record in combining those services with conventional railways on the mixed network in Spain.

Why did Renfe choose to partner with MTR for its first investment into the UK?

MTR has a strong record as a production partner on its other services in the UK, such as South Western Railway and previously London Overground Rail Operations. Renfe is keen to develop its position as a leader in high-speed rail and demonstrate to a new market its experience in bringing new high-speed rail lines into operation. For that purpose, MTR is an excellent partner for the UK market, and we’re pleased to work with them in the sub-contractor role.

From a strategy perspective, how different will the challenges presented by working in the UK be when compared to operations on Spain’s high-speed network or even with Renfe’s other overseas development project in Texas?

There are similarities between the two, and Renfe’s experience from other markets of bringing new lines into place will be vital if we enter the UK. Operations on the main Spanish corridor of Madrid-Barcelona or the connection between Madrid and Seville are good examples of what Britain can expect from high-speed rail. Outside Spain, we have reached our first one thousand commercial services in Saudi Arabia on the high-speed line between Mecca and Medina with a 99.5 per cent of punctuality and we are helping Texas Central to define key aspects of railway operation, from depots design to maintenance models, training plans and other crucial points. Having said that, every project has its own challenges.

Spain is preparing for its first private competition in rail, obviously the bidding structure is very different in the UK. How do you compare the way rail is managed in the two countries? 

Britain decided to go forward with a model that has shown its capacity to increase figures of railway use but certainly with some problems. Network policy in the 1980s was probably not the best and we understand the decision to stop and go for a general review of the franchise system at the moment, but there are bold and positive lessons to learn from UK market now that we face competition. Efficiency, quality and other key indicators benefit from competition. We will have other companies running trains in Spain on the same corridors. I think this is right because investment in the high-speed network demands a lot of effort to maximise its use and capacity. There is room for more trains, allowing for improved mobility. Apart from that, state-owned European operators like Renfe have strong investment capacities. We have a rolling stock investment program for all type of services of around €3 billion (£2.7 billion).

Renfe’s President, Isaías Táboas Suárez, spoke at Rail Live in Bilbao on 6 March and said that Renfe will be adopting an ‘unprecedented and proactive’ approach to international expansion. 

Could you expand on that?

We understand 2020 represents a crucial year for Renfe. Competition may come so we must compete more abroad, not only in our natural market (the European Union), but also in places like South America, North America or the Middle East. Not only on high-speed projects, but also on commuter services. We operate commuter trains in more than ten cities in Spain with more than 30 years of experience. In the two major Spanish cities, Madrid and Barcelona, we give service to more than 372 million passengers per year. Our goal is to reach ten per cent of income from international operations in the coming decade, so a proactive approach in necessary.

High-speed rail is growing rapidly in China, how do you compare the way things are done there with Renfe’s approach and European/UK high-speed rail in general? 

China has a vast rail network, ranging from high-speed to metro. The Chinese approach has been more integrated than the European approach for obvious reasons and that represents a clear advantage in rail. Think of the process for developing ERTMS in Europe towards a complete interoperability.

You’ve taught Transports Economics at university in Barcelona, what insight does that give you into your current role as Strategy General Manager?

My main activity has always been professional, although I have always tried to reserve a small space for teaching because the academic space allows thinking in a different way and it is possible to observe the environment with a wider and less biased perspective, as well as to know the latest news, study trends and make critical analysis from multiple perspectives. In addition, as a professor of Transport Economics, I have not only addressed economic aspects of transport, but also social aspects, efficiency in its management or financing.

You also founded a post graduate programme in Smart Mobility, what do you most look forward to in this area? 

Digital transformation together with the emergence of platform economies have given rise to a new paradigm of mobility, which is known as mobility 4.0. In this new paradigm, the relationship between transport operators and users and customers, both current and potential, is substantially modified. In our Strategic Plan, we have defined the progressive development of a new model in which, without ceasing to be the reference railway operator, we will become an integral mobility operator.

How can smart mobility complement rail travel?  

Integrating solutions. In our case, we have made the decision to become a full mobility operator, with a project called RaaS (Renfe as a Service).

This project aims to offer the client planning and integration of multiple transport modes, public and private, maximising personalisation and comprehensive attention. We want to accompany the client on his journey door to door, not just transport it. For Renfe, that’s Smart Mobility.

You’ve been in this position at Renfe for one year now, what do you feel you’ve achieved during that time? 

The company faces great challenges such as the opening of the rail passenger market to competition and digital transformation. Although the current team has not been in place long, it has been possible to align the organisation with the new Strategic Plan, which proposes new management formulas and projects to face the new competition scenario with guarantees. In fact, the foundations have been laid, among others, for the internationalisation of the company and for digitalisation to promote the creation of new services.

What do you personally hope to achieve with Renfe’s expansion into the UK?

We want to continue to be a leader in high-speed rail and demonstrate our record in bringing new high-speed rail lines into operation.

You’ve worked in the Spanish Government as Director of Land Transport, how has that experience influenced your work in the private sector? 

Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to occupy positions of responsibility in the three levels of the Spanish Administration (local, regional and state level) as well as in various companies and public transport operators. All this experience is crucial when it comes to understanding the different perspectives from which each project is addressed, since in most cases they are carried out through the close collaboration of the public sector with the private sector.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing rail in the coming decades? 

The main challenge we face is to strengthen the railway as the backbone of a new mobility model, and to do so in an integrated manner with other modes and multiple actors, some of them from outside the transport world.

For this, it is necessary to achieve a cultural transformation, the rejuvenation of staff, the recruitment and training of new professional profiles, the incorporation of women at all levels of the organisation to reach normal percentages in society, the increase of the investment in R+D and innovation,  and many other of the objectives that we have laid out in the Strategic Plan.