When travelers think of European high-speed rail travel, France’s iconic Trains a Grande Vitesse (TGV) or Germany’s elegant white ICE trains tend to come to mind.
Those who’ve visited Italy will no doubt have encountered Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) or the stunning scarlet trains of its strong competitor Italo.
But Europe’s longest network of high-speed railways is not in Italy, Germany or even in France.
That honor is held by Spain, where billions of euros have been invested into new railways radiating from Madrid over the last 30 years.
At 3,567 kilometers, it’s the second longest high speed rail network in the world, although still less than 10% of that built by China over the last decade.
When compared with the lightning progress made by China, the construction of new high-speed railways in Spain has been comparatively glacial, a hostage to volatile national and regional politics, wildly ambitious targets and inconsistent decision making, especially after the 2008 global financial crisis.
However, new sections of railway are continuing to open thanks to significant support from the European Union as Spain works towards realizing the dream of providing fast links between Madrid and its regional capitals.
Since the first route, between Madrid’s Atocha terminus and Seville, opened in 1992, the tentacles of this ambitious network have reached out to Malaga and Granada in the south, Valencia, Alicante and Barcelona on the east coast and Santiago de Compostela, Vigo and A Coruna in the far northwestern state of Galicia, scheduled to be completed in 2022.
High speed trains also run via the historic cities of Segovia and Valladolid to Leon, which is situated in the western region of the country, and will eventually extend to Asturias and the Basque cities of Vitoria, Bilbao and San Sebastian.
The construction of a “Y” shaped network linking the major conurbations of the autonomous Basque region began in 2006, but progress has been slow and the $6.8billion project is not slated to reach Bilbao until at least 2025.
Up until now, all domestic high-speed trains were operated by state-owned Renfe under its stylish AVE (Alta Velocidad Espana) brand.
AVE has even been successful in luring some business away from the airlines, although Madrid to Barcelona remains Europe’s busiest short-haul air route.
Aside from airplanes, rail also faces stiff competition in the form of express coaches and private cars – Spain’s fuel prices remain comparatively low by European standards and around four million car journeys were made between its two biggest cities in 2019.
“RENFE runs some of the classiest high-speed trains in Europe,” explains rail expert Mark Smith, better known as “The Man in Seat 61.”
“Madrid to Barcelona takes only two and a half hours by AVE, well under the three to four hours center-to-center where rail becomes as fast as flying, so I’d expect rail to dominate that market.
“However, Madrid to Barcelona AVE trains have typically been priced significantly higher than comparable high-speed services elsewhere and rail’s market share has not been as high as it should be.”
But change looks to be on the way, if the launch of two new low-cost,“‘no frills” high-speed rail operations in 2021 is anything to go by.
Renfe’s “AVLO” routes launched on June 23, offering fares as low as $8.20 (€7) for the 621 kilometer journey between Spain’s two largest cities – a significant saving over standard AVE fares, which start from $56 (€48).
Approximately three return trips run between Madrid and Barcelona per day, with a fourth train pair extended to Girona and Figueres, which is positioned on the border with France.
While the 330-kilometer per hour purple trains have been modified internally with second class seating throughout, passengers can purchase additional features when booking, such as extra luggage, at-seat entertainment, seats with greater legroom and on-board catering.
Renfe now operates 20 trains in each direction between Madrid and Barcelona – a journey that takes just two hours and 30 minutes on non-stop trains.
The national rail operator currently offers around 16,000 seats daily on a combination of AVE and AVLO services and plans to add even more services as demand recovers after the pandemic.
Despite holding home advantage, AVLO was beaten to market by Ouigo Espana, another new low-cost operator, which ran its first commercial services on May 10.
Travelers to France will likely already be familiar with the Ouigo brand that provides low-cost, no-frills TGV services between major cities.
Using the same successful formula, along with at least 14 500-seat double-deck TGV trains seconded from its French parent, Ouigo Espana will initially run from Madrid to Valencia and Alicante.
Routes to Barcelona (in competition with AVLO and AVE), Seville and Malaga will be added in 2022 as part of a $700 million investment.
Single fares start from as little as €9. There are separate charges for things like additional luggage, more comfortable seats and refreshments.
“The liberalization of rail transport will increase the competition and attract more passengers to use this transport mode,” Pedro Saura Garcia, Spain’s transport minister, said at the launch of Ouigo Espana services in May.
“This is crucial to decarbonize the transport sector and our economy and to combat climate change.”
His comments reflect the experiences of high-speed rail operators in Italy, where fierce competition between state-owned Trenitalia and Italo has doubled the rail market share since 2008 and helped to reduce ticket prices by 20 to 25%.
Trenitalia is set to deploy that experience in Spain from next year, when it launches ILSA (Intermodalidad de Levante), the third in a trio of new high-speed operators.
ILSA is a joint venture with airline Air Nostrum, which is expected to launch commercial operations on six routes in March 2022.
While Renfe and SNCF have modified existing trains for their new operations, Trenitalia is investing $943 million into 23 new Frecciarossa 1000 high-speed trains with 460 seats and a maximum speed of 360 kilometers per hour.
Operating 32 trips per day, the new trains will go head-to-head with existing AVE services from Madrid to Seville, Malaga, Granada, Valencia, Albacete/Alicante and Barcelona, providing passengers no fewer than four rail options between the capital and Catalonia.
“It’s early days, but the Spanish government’s plan to open the route up to competition appears to be paying off,” adds Smith.
“The new entrants have been well-received by travelers, with Ouigo reporting an average 90% load factor.
“Renfe has already had to lower fares to compete. I’m confident we’ll now see a repeat of the experience in Italy.”
The introduction of these new “open access” services should begin to address one of the major criticisms leveled at Spain’s high-speed rail program – the low frequency of trains on expensive new infrastructure.
Since AVE services launched in the 1990s, traffic density has generally been much lower than on similar lines in France, Germany and Italy, leading to claims that billions of euros have been wasted on “political” projects with little real value.
Indeed, at the extremities of the network, particularly in northwestern Spain, some new lines with spectacular, and very expensive, civil engineering currently have just a couple of trains a day.
“Spain has invested hugely in constructing a world-class high-speed network, but until very recently it hasn’t made good use of the system,” says Keith Barrow, editor of monthly rail magazine Today’s Railways Europe.
“On the three routes being opened for competition the government envisages increasing train capacity by up to 70% compared with summer 2019, offering a good indication of the latent capacity in the system.”
Progress has rarely been smooth. Back in the 19th century, the country’s mountainous terrain also proved to be a challenge for the early railway builders.
Many lines were forced to take roundabout routes to avoid high mountain ranges and became notorious for their low speeds and long journey times.
Away from the most important inter-city routes, a lack of investment meant that vintage steam locomotives and wooden-bodied coaches lasted well into the 1960s.
Much like Japan after World War II, upgrading existing lines for high speeds wasn’t an option, so a more radical solution was needed.
That came in 1992, when Seville hosted the World’s Fair, Universal Exposition, for the first time.
Now known as Expo ’92, the hugely-popular event provided the impetus for the construction of an entirely new 472-kilometer railway between Madrid and Andalucia.
Using proven French TGV technology, the railway slashed journey times to two hours and 20 minutes, with speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour.
However, the biggest development was the completion of the 621-kilometer high-speed rail from Madrid to Barcelona in 2008.
Not only did it provide much faster connections between the country’s two biggest city regions, it finally gave Renfe the opportunity to compete effectively with airlines on one of Europe’s busiest short-haul routes.
In addition, the development of new standard gauge high-speed lines in Spain gave the country another opportunity to link its network to France.
In 2012, the Madrid to Barcelona line was extended north via Girona and under the Pyrenees to Perpignan in southern France.
Today, Spanish AVE (Alta Velocidad Espana) trains and French TGVs connect Barcelona with Toulouse, Marseille, Lyon and Paris.
Although the trains currently use a mix of new and existing lines in France, new TGV lines are under construction that will complete an unbroken ribbon of steel between London, Brussels, Paris and the Costa del Sol.
Sadly, this link is not yet being used to its full potential.
“Despite being connected to the European standard gauge high-speed network, Iberia has a very poor service to the rest of the European Union,” explains Barrow.
“Track access charges on the Figueres to Perpignan line are exceptionally high – around $59 per kilometer for a 500-seat high-speed train – and as a result this key piece of international rail infrastructure is woefully underused.
“As a major international tourist destination Barcelona should be an obvious target for international high-speed operators, particularly with the liberalization of the high-speed rail market in France.”
Hopes for a new fast rail link between Madrid and the Portuguese capital of Lisbon have fluctuated with the prevailing political winds in these neighboring countries.
Although Spain will complete its high-speed line to the cross-border at Badajoz by 2030, Portugal canceled its section years ago, derailing plans for improved cross-border links between the Iberian capitals.
Back in 2008, Spain’s high-speed rail network advancement suffered even more setbacks when the global financial crisis hit the country hard.
Vigorous economic growth powered by EU support and a property bubble evaporated almost overnight and unemployment soared in the months and years that followed.
Plans to build thousands of kilometers of new railways seemed like hubris. Although some ongoing projects were eventually completed, others were paused or abandoned altogether as a succession of governments sought to stabilize the economy.
This political upheaval was reflected in the numerous changes and delays to plans for the program. Only in the last few years has development gained momentum once again, as the Spanish economy recovers.
There’s no project that symbolizes the difficulties involved in creating a national high-speed network in Spain more than the Variante de Pajares, located on the route between Madrid and Asturias.
Work on the 50-kilometer bypass, including a 25-kilometer base tunnel under the mountains of the Cordillera Cantabrica, began in 2004 and should have taken five years.
But seemingly endless issues caused by political and technical indecision (the plans for the base tunnels have been changed on at least 15 occasions) and inadequate geological surveys have caused costs to quadruple from $1.3 billion to around $4.7 billion.
By the time the commercial services begin to use the tunnel, possibly in 2022, the project will have taken almost 20 years to conclude.
As the long-planned new lines come to fruition, Spain may finally be able to achieve its goal of bringing its widely scattered regional centers within three hours of Madrid and reduce its reliance on short-hop flights.
Whether that proves to be a wise investment will depend on the ability of Renfe, Ouigo and ILSA – and possibly others – to run more trains and fill as many seats as possible in the coming years.