WHEN Portugal’s prime minister, Mr António Costa, outlined the 2030 National Investment Programme (PNI) in October 2020, he signalled a major shift in focus to developing the country’s rail network. The €26.3bn programme includes 16 rail projects worth €10.51bn, with another €5.8bn earmarked for public transport projects that will include urban rail elements.

The reasons for the shift go beyond rail’s environmentally friendly credentials, says minister of infrastructure and housing, Mr Pedro Nuno Santos, although this has played an important factor in the policy change. Rail was previously seen as a “thing of the past,” but a shift in thinking in the past decade has resulted in an acknowledgement that rail is fundamental to building an “environmentally-friendly future.”

Portugal is also grappling with inner-city congestion. Building light rail connections, as in Porto, is one answer to reducing this, but Santos says the solution must go further to look at how people travel into and between city centres.

“We need to transport more people by rail to the centre of the cities,” he says, “And the only way to do that is to invest in heavy rail. And if we do that, with success, we can transport more passengers, and we can take more cars from the city centre. For the last few years many countries were investing in metro and light rail. But the only way to have fewer cars entering the cities is to complement the light rail with heavy rail.”

The development of electric-based rail transport also has wider macroeconomic factors as Portugal does not have its own oil reserves, making it reliant on expensive imports.

“We need to invest in electric transport, and the best form is rail,” Santos says. “This explains why it is a priority for us, and why we are so sure it is the transport of the future.”

The government has set a number of targets, including reducing transport CO₂ emissions by 40% by 2040, as well as doubling the number of passengers travelling into the Lisbon metropolitan area by rail and creating a five-fold increase in passengers travelling between Lisbon and Porto by rail, from two million a year to around 10 million by 2030.

“We currently have an air bridge between Lisbon and Porto. We want to close it and we will do that when we have the high-speed connection.”

Pedro Nuno Santos, minister of infrastructure and housing

This will be achieved with the construction of a new Lisbon - Porto high-speed line, which will reduce travel times between the capital and Portugal’s second largest city from 2h 44min to 1h 15min. The €4.5m project will be built in two stages starting with the Porto - Soure section.

“Between the north and south, we want to eliminate any air travel between the two,” Santos says. “We currently have an air bridge between Lisbon and Porto. We want to close it and we will do that when we have the high-speed connection, and we also want to remove cars from the highways. We already have a line between Lisbon and Porto which is saturated with high demand. And we already know that if we increase the capacity we will have more Portuguese travelling by train. So it’s ambitious, but we already feel the pressure on our railway system so we know that the needs are very high.”

The decision to construct the high-speed line was made following “poor results” from upgrading the existing network.

The initial section will be built to 1668mm-gauge with a maximum speed of 250km/h, with provision to switch to 1435mm-gauge at 300km/h after the rest of the line is built. As well as reducing the journey time, the line will also free up capacity on the existing network for additional freight services.
Santos says the government is avoiding stipulating the speeds or specifications of new lines included in the PNI, instead setting targets for journey times.

“In Portugal over the past year, we have had many discussions around the speed of the trains, and it was not a very good discussion because we were all stuck on the speed,” Santos says. “For us, what is important is not the speed of the trains, but the time that we want to take to from one point to another.”

The Porto - Lisbon line will connect with a new cross-border line from Porto to Vigo, in the northwest Galicia region of Spain, which has been allocated €900m. The line aims to reduce Porto - Vigo travel times from 2h 22min today to less than an hour, and will be built in stages, starting with a new line from Braga to Valença and the Portuguese-Spanish border.

The project is the latest attempt to construct a high-speed cross-border line between Portugal and Spain, after plans for a Lisbon - Madrid line were dropped in 2012. Work is currently underway on a new 20.5km line between Évora North and Freixo as part of the future South International Corridor to Spain. The new section is part of a project to build an 80km new line connecting Évora North with Elvas on the East Line, which will provide a direct link between the ports of Setúbal and Sines and Spain.

While this will form an important connection with Spain, Santos says that Galicia is the Spanish region with the strongest social and economic ties to Portugal and improving transport connections here is also a priority.

“We know that when we get there, the gains for Galicia and Portugal will be tremendous,” Santos says. “Afterwards, we will look into a new connection to Spain in the centre of Portugal, but that will demand more work to be done between the Portuguese government and the Spanish government.”

Strategic goals

The PNI aims to achieve three goals, all of which are supported through the increased investment in rail: improving cohesion, competitiveness and sustainability.

This third aim is being supported through a €740m project to electrify 100% of the national network. 70% of the Portuguese network is already electrified, and the country is on track to reach 83% by the end of 2023. The project will also improve capacity by improving the command and control signalling system and removing bottlenecks through a number of measures:

  • modernisation and electrification of the Régua - Pocinho section of the Douro line
  • modernisation and electrification of the Caldas da Rainha - Louriçal section of the West line
  • track-doubling and improvements on the Alfarelos line to allow 750m-long freight trains to pass, and
  • electrification of the East line, including rail access to Portalegre and the Neves-Corvo branch.

A number of studies will also examine ways to expand the network, including:

  • the reactivation of the Beja - Ourique line in the Alentejo region and the Pocinho - Barca d’Alva section of the Douro line (in cooperation with Spain), and
  • the construction of a new line in the Sousa Valley region around Porto.

Other projects in the PNI include the allocation of €270m to install ETCS and GSM-R on sections of the core network to increase interoperability and improve sections of the TEN-T network. The upgrades will focus on the Minho, Douro, North, West, East, Sintra, Cintura, South and Alentejo lines, the Alfarelos line and the Command and Operations Centres (CCO) of Porto and Lisbon.

€290m has been allocated to increase capacity for suburban services, including increasing the frequency of passenger and freight services in Lisbon and Porto, while another €370m will support a safety, renewal and upgrade programme which focuses on noise reduction and climate change protection. This includes the removal of 155 level crossings and the automation of another 79; improvements to crossings at stations; the installation of train radios; and the implementation of noise mitigation measures.

Initiatives to prepare for climate change include the development of a risk analysis on the robustness of the railway system as well as the renewal and rehabilitation of network assets. The programme will also identify climate risks and the necessary adaptations needed for both road and rail networks to improve resilience in the face of extreme climatic events.

Portugal is developing both a northern and southern international corridor with both projects, now in their second phase, aiming to improve connections and interoperability with the Spanish network and, by extension, European networks through the TEN-T network.

The southern connection, which has been allocated €150m, will improve services on the Lisbon-Madrid axis. This includes the construction of a new single-track electrified cut-off between Sines and Grândola Norte suitable for 750m-long freight trains.

Another €600m has been allocated to the northern corridor, which will improve access from the northern and central regions of the country to Spain and the rest of Europe. The funding will be used to study options for freight and passenger services along the route, but the development of the corridor is dependent on funding from Spain.

Other rail projects include a telematics, stations and safety programme (€165m); multimodal terminal upgrade programme (€200m); modernisation of rail links to Beja and Faro (€230m); modernisation of the Vouga Line (€100m); and connecting the Cascais commuter line in Lisbon to the Cintura Line (€200m).


The ambitious projects contained within the PNI come with a hefty price tag. Santos says that while private funding is a possibility, it is usually more forthcoming for the operational side of rail than infrastructure development. Instead, the government is looking to use European funding mechanisms including the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), the multi-year financial framework, and the recovery and resilience programme.

“We also have the national budget supporting and participating in the effort,” Santos says. “But the biggest effort will be made through the European financing mechanisms.”

There is a growing understanding of the importance of rail within the EU, Santos says, and this could lead to more investment in the continent’s rail network. Highlighting rail’s importance is a priority for Portugal, which currently holds the presidency of the council of the European Union.

“We know that if we increase the available capacity and the comfort level, and we keep to the schedule, the people will come.”

Pedro Nuno Santos

“We want to do our job with our feet on the ground and be realistic, but we hope that Europe better understands [the importance of rail], and I think they understand at the moment,” Santos says. “That is why 2021 being the European Year of Rail is important, and that will allow more financing for this area. So for the moment we have these objectives, but if we have more money we can dream higher.”

Increasing capacity can only provide the resulting benefits if passengers are willing to leave their cars behind to switch to rail, but Santos says the pressure they are feeling on the existing network makes him confident that the additional investments will pay off.

“At the end of the day, everyone understands that the best way to travel is by train,” he says. “And we know that if we increase the available capacity and the comfort level, and we keep to the schedule, the people will come - I don’t have any doubts about that.”

This has been particularly evident in the availability of rolling stock in Portugal, with the fleet stretched beyond capacity. As purchasing new trains takes time, the country has instead invested in refurbishing ageing stock that had been out of use, and it has also leased additional stock from Spanish national operator Renfe.

“They are already full, and every time we put out new coaches, they are full very quickly,” he says.

The PNI includes three rolling stock replacements programmes worth a total of €1.7bn to cover the purchase of urban, regional and long-distance trains for Portuguese Trains (CP). These will replace the oldest vehicles in the fleet, as well as providing additional capacity to increase service levels on existing lines and introduce services on the new lines due to be constructed.

The plan includes €1.7bn to replace and expand Portugese Trains’ (CP) fleet,
in order to keep up with demand and introduce new services.
Photo: Shutterstock/Alessandro Cristiano

€680m has been allocated to replace urban trains reaching the end of their life in Lisbon and Porto, with the government planning to purchase 62 trains with options for up to 36 additional sets.

Another €650m has been allocated to purchase 12 new long-distance high-speed trains, with the possibility of 14 more, which will increase frequencies on the Braga - Porto - Lisbon - Faro corridor following the construction of the first section of the Porto - Lisbon high-speed line.

Another 55 new inter-city EMUs will be purchased at a cost of around €385m in order to replace legacy fleets that are more than 50-years-old. The new trains are expected to improve service quality, increasing demand as well as allowing more flexible management of rolling stock. An order for the trains is due to be placed in 2023, with deliveries due to begin from 2025.

Many of the projects will require international expertise, and Santos says it is an opportunity to develop the expertise within Portugal’s rail sector. Demand for the new fleets in particular is expected to support domestic rail manufacturing capabilities, with the trains requiring a significant level of local production and engineering.

“We don’t want just to buy trains, we want to build them in Portugal, or at least part of them in Portugal,” Santos says. “For us, it’s also important to make this connection between the need to answer to a need for mobility and to respond to the environmental demands while taking advantage of this investment to develop our industry.”

Developing public buy-in with a national rail plan

THE PNI is set to be complemented by a national rail plan, development of which is due to start this month.

Pedro Santos says he hopes the creation of the plan will generate a national discussion that will result in feedback from the public as well as the operators, municipalities, and associations around the country.

“What we want is to have the whole country discussing rail,” Santos says.

“We want to build this critical mass in the country to demand investment in the railway.”

The plan will look at what new lines and new rolling stock is required to create the ideal rail network for Portugal, and what should be prioritised.

This will then be used to create the national rail plan, similar to the national road plan.

“We want the Portuguese people to take ownership of the plan,” he says.

“It’s the mind-set for everyone to say ‘I need a road from here to there,’ everyone can see a road that they need.

We would like to change the mind-set and get the people thinking and discussing the needs regarding railway investment. So the best thing to do is to ask them what they think, to listen to specialists but also involve the people.”