CONSIDERING they are only 300km apart, the number of people who choose to fly between Lisbon and Porto is staggering. Annually, one million passengers board a flight between Portugal’s hilly, coastal capital and its second-largest city. An even greater number of people drive, with 125 million people opting to take the car, while cheaper fares are also encouraging more people to take the coach between the two cities.

Against these odds, it is no surprise that rail is struggling to attract passengers. The fastest journey time is 2h 49min on congested infrastructure where inter-city, regional passenger and freight services compete for train paths. The rail journey between Brussels and Paris, a similar distance to Lisbon - Porto, takes just 1h 30min.

The Lisbon - Porto main line is currently used by 730 trains a day. In all, 44% of all trains in Portugal use it, with this rising to 92% of all freight trains. This capacity crunch is further exacerbated by the different speeds at which these trains operate.

The government has previously made moves to resolve this situation, with the most recent plans for a high-speed network scuppered by the global financial crisis in 2011.

But this time around things could be different.

Portugal’s prime minister, Mr António Costa, signalled a major shift in focus to developing the country’s rail network when he outlined the 2030 National Investment Programme (PNI) in October 2020. The €43bn programme includes 16 rail projects worth €10.51bn, with another €5.8bn earmarked for public transport projects that will include urban rail elements.

In October last year, Costa released details of a new high-speed line between Lisbon and Porto that would eventually run to Vigo in Spain. The double-track line would be built to the Iberian gauge of 1668mm and would enable trains to operate at up to 300km/h, reducing the fastest journey time between Lisbon and Porto to 1h 15min.

This was followed in November by the release of the new National Railway Plan (PFN) setting out a programme to build a high-speed network connecting the country’s 10 largest cities by 2050 and providing new routes to Spain.

The network expansion plan includes a new line running from Aveiro eastwards to Viseu, Guarda and Vilar Formoso on the Spanish border. The line will enable a journey time of three hours from Lisbon and Porto to Madrid following the completion of high-speed infrastructure in Spain.

The PFN says studies are underway for the line from Lisbon to the Algarve region, with two alternatives under consideration: upgrading the existing line to cut journey times by around 30 minutes, or building a new line that serves Évora, Beja and Faro and that will connect Lisbon with Faro in less than two hours.

A third bridge over the River Tagus in Lisbon is proposed, which would further reduce the journey time from Lisbon to the Alentejo and Algarve regions, and to Madrid, by 30 minutes.

“In order to compete with other modes, we must have a new line with a travel time that is much lower than what we have currently.”

Carlos Fernandes, deputy CEO of Infrastructure Portugal (IP)

Expanding the rail network is expected to increase rail’s share of passenger journeys from 4.6% to 20%, while rail freight’s modal share is expected to rise from 13% to 40%. The PFN also plans to offer high-quality rail connections to 28 regional urban centres, including all district capitals. Work is also underway to build passing loops for 750m-long freight trains on the Lisbon - Porto main line and the routes connecting it to the Spanish border.

When combined, this adds up to major support behind the expansion of the Portuguese rail network.
The talk is also being backed with action, with expansion and development of the conventional network already being implemented under the Ferrovia 2020 programme launched in 2016. This plan largely focuses on upgrading the network for freight, including improving the connection between Sines, Portugal’s main port, and Spain.

This project includes the new line under construction between Évora and Elvas, which will shorten the distance freight trains must travel from Sines to the Spanish border near Elvas, and will eventually enable high-speed services to operate eastwards from Lisbon to Madrid. The line was due to be completed by this year, but work is now due to finish early next year, and it should enter service by the end of 2024 following the completion of testing.

Work is also underway on the existing conventional speed North Line between Lisbon and Porto, and from Porto north to Spain via Viana, while 500km of line has been electrified.

High-speed ambitions

“In order to compete with other modes, we must have a new line with a travel time that is much lower than what we have currently,” explains Mr Carlos Fernandes, deputy CEO of Infrastructure Portugal (IP), the state-owned body under the supervision of the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Ministry of Finance that manages the nation’s road and rail networks and is tasked with developing the high-speed rail project.

Speaking at IP’s headquarters across the River Tagus, overlooking Lisbon, Fernandes said the line will be built to Iberian gauge, using sleepers that will allow the line to be changed to standard gauge in future. This will allow the line to be built in three stages, starting from Porto and working south, as high-speed services will be able to switch to the conventional main line while the remainder of the high-speed line is built.

Stage 1 will run from Porto via Gaia, Aveiro and Coimbra to Soure. Stage 2 will run from Soure via Leiria to Carregado on the outskirts of Lisbon, while Stage 3 will run from Carregado into Lisbon.

The plans replicate high-speed line development in France, where the new line runs around the outside of a city, connecting with the conventional network to allow high-speed trains to reach the city centre, while direct services can continue to run at speed around the city. Ahead of the construction of Stage 3, a 15km section of the Porto main line north of Lisbon will be track doubled from Alverca do Ribatejo to Carregado to provide additional capacity for high-speed services.

Each stage will bring a step-change in journey times between Lisbon and Porto:

  • Current: 2h 49min
  • Stage 1: 1h 59min
  • Stage 2: 1h 19min
  • Stage 3: 1h 15min.

While Stage 3 provides a minimal time saving, it will offer additional capacity for high-speed trains directly into Lisbon when required.

Using Iberian gauge also means the benefits of the line will also be felt across the wider Portuguese network, as trains will operate on the high-speed network before transferring onto the conventional network to reach other destinations. For example, the completion of the high-speed line will reduce journey times from Lisbon to Figueira da Foz by 1h 53min and to Guarda by 47 minutes. From Porto, journey times to Caldas da Rainha will be reduced by 1h 35min, to Abrantes by 56 minutes, and to Santarém by 33 minutes.

“When we are connected to the north or to the south with other lines at European gauge, then everything is prepared to migrate. All the other systems like electrification and signalling are prepared to meet European standards.”

Carlos Fernandes

The European Commission (EC) announced last year that it intended to make 1435mm gauge mandatory for all new lines forming part of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but Fernandes says there must be exceptions based on economic analysis of migrating from one gauge to another.

“When we say that we will use Iberian gauge people say ‘you are using a different model from the rest of Europe,’ but what we say is that we are using the exact same model as the rest of Europe,” he says. “When we are connected to the north or to the south with other lines at European gauge, then everything is prepared to migrate. All the other systems like electrification and signalling are prepared to meet European standards.”

Environmental approval for the route was given around 2010, but has since lapsed. However, IP is using the work already undertaken and planning to build along the same corridors. Reports on the 143km Stage 1 from Porto to Soure have been submitted to the Ministry of the Environment, with approval expected in the third quarter of 2023 which would then allow the tender for the stage to be released. Studies for Stage 2 are also being prepared and are expected to be submitted at the start of 2024, allowing construction to potentially begin in 2026.


Construction of Stage 1 will be tendered as two design, build, finance and maintain public-private partnerships (PPP). The first PPP will cover the Porto - Aveiro section, while a second PPP will cover the Aveiro - Soure section. A third PPP is expected to be tendered for Stage 2 from Soure to Carregado in “two or three years.”

The PPP will include civil works, tracklaying and electrification, along with a yet-to-be-determined maintenance period, potentially 40 years. It will also include signalling and telecommunications infrastructure, such as conduits and signalling buildings. The supply and installation of signalling and telecommunications systems will be tendered separately under a traditional procurement procedure. This would also include the upgrade of the signalling at existing stations to ETCS to remove the need for high-speed trains to be equipped with Convel, the legacy Portuguese automatic train protection (ATP) system.

Other supplementary projects, such as the track-doubling of the Alverca do Ribatejo - Carregado section, will be tendered separately.

High-speed services will transfer onto the existing conventional network to access stations in the city centre, such as Aveiro.
Photo: Shutterstock/Kiev.Victor

IP selected this model after investigating how other projects around Europe were managed with the aim of avoiding problems that have delayed other high-speed lines.

This included examining projects where the substructure was tendered through a traditional procurement while the superstructure was built through a PPP. However, this resulted in the PPP contractor rejecting the sub-structure that was delivered, raising costs and delaying the project.

“We understood clearly that the interface between the sub- and superstructure could not be outside the PPP, it had to be integrated vertically,” Fernandes says.

When open, the line is expected to be used by 17 direct high-speed services between Lisbon and Porto in each direction per day, along with nine services stopping at Aveiro, Gaia and Coimbra. Another 34 services will start in either Lisbon or Porto and partially operate on the high-speed line before switching to the conventional network.

Another 17 trains will continue to operate on the conventional North Line. Passenger numbers on the North Line are expected to remain steady at around 6 million a year, with an additional 10 million travelling on the high-speed line.

“Flying almost disappears, and around 40% of new demand comes from road,” Fernandes says.

The new and existing stations in each city are being designed to be integrated with surrounding urban area. The plans for Porto, Coimbra and Gaia are being developed in cooperation with Catalan architect, Mr Joan Busquets.

The line into Porto-Campanhã station will be designed to allow a future connection to Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport. The station forms part of the future Urban Plan to be developed in partnership with Porto City Council. A new road-rail bridge will also be built across the River Douro in Porto, combining with a plan developed by the Porto and Gaia municipalities.

Gaia station will be 50-60m below ground and will provide direct connections with the Porto metro network via the D (Yellow) Line as well as the future Ruby Line to allow passengers to transit without having to exit the station. The station will also have car parking facilities and accessible transport options. Fernandes says it made sense to locate a station in Gaia as high-speed trains will already be slowing to stop at Porto station, and Gaia offers better transport connections for passengers travelling to western Porto.

In Aveiro and Leiria, the existing stations will be adapted to high-speed operation. In Coimbra, an additional station will be built alongside Coimbra-B, also designed in collaboration with Busquets.
In Lisbon, a new stabling depot will be built near Lisbon Oriente station while another three lines will be added to the west side of the station. The station will also be future-proofed for later expansion, including a new bridge over the River Tagus.

All this work will not come cheap, with the estimated investment cost of Phase 1 of the Lisbon - Porto high-speed line estimated at €3bn, and Fernandes says European funding is essential.

While IP has submitted an application for €729m from the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) as capital for the project, the majority of the funding is expected to come through the PPP, which will be paid over the term of the partnership. The government is then expected to pay for the remaining elements such as the signalling and stations up front as direct investment or subsidies.

“We also use those European subsidies such as the CEF and the rest will be private investment,” Fernandes says, adding that building the line in stages also means the second and third stages can be built when more European funding becomes available.

Future projects

Continuing the trajectory of the Lisbon - Porto project is the Porto - Vigo high-speed line that would connect with the existing Vigo - La Coruña high-speed line in Spain, offering a corridor from Lisbon to La Coruña and potentially serving 10 million inhabitants in both countries.

Environmental and engineering studies are being prepared for this section, Fernandes says, but the timings of the project are dependent on cooperation with Spain.

The line will be built in two stages: Stage 1 includes the line from Braga to Valença on the Spanish border, and a short section from Porto to Porto Airport. A second phase would run from the airport to Nine, leaving a short section of conventional line between Nine and Braga.

The project includes the construction of a new through station in Braga to replace the existing terminus 2km away, along with the construction of a small maintenance depot.

Spain and Portugal are also in discussion on the development of a high-speed line between Faro and Seville in Spain, which would connect with the Seville - Madrid high-speed line, as well as a potential connection between Aveiro and Madrid.

Portugal has tried and failed to implement a high-speed project before. But this time, with political support and European funding backing the project, things could be different. Indeed, flying between Porto and Lisbon could soon be a thing of the past.