IRYO became the latest operator to launch services on Spain’s high-speed network on November 25. Its distinctive red Frecciarossa 1000 high-speed trains are now whizzing passengers on the 621km line between Barcelona and Madrid at up to 310km/h in competition with state-owned incumbent Renfe’s conventional Ave and low-cost Avlo trains and French National Railways’ (SNCF) low-cost Ouigo service.

Iryo’s reach increased further with the launch of its Madrid - Cuenca - Valencia service on December 16. It will also introduce Madrid - Córdoba - Seville, and Madrid - Córdoba - Antequera - Málaga trains in the first quarter of 2023, and Madrid - Albacete - Alicante services from this June.

While not especially fast to embrace liberalisation, the Spanish government now talks openly of its benefits.

Addressing the Rail Live event organised by Terrapinn and Mafex in Málaga on November 29, Spain’s minister of transport, mobility and the urban agenda, Ms Raquel Sánchez Jiménez, said that market opening is key to the strategy of getting more people onto high-speed rail, which is one of the most important tools in the fight against climate change.

She emphasised that Spain feels the effects of global warming more than most European countries, the sight of the dry Guadalmedina riverbed in Málaga reflecting the challenge. “Liberalisation of the service combined with delivery of a comprehensive network will make the railway accessible to everyone,” she said.

Sánchez’s assertions are supported by statistics which show that more people are now riding high-speed trains between Barcelona and Madrid than ever before. Adif president, Ms María Luisa Domínguez, told delegates that ridership has increased by 50% compared with pre-pandemic levels since the launch of competition on the route on May 10 2021. The cost of tickets has also fallen by 49% as operators have attempted to lure new passengers onto rail.

In October, ahead of the launch of its Madrid - Valencia service, Ouigo said that it had carried more than 3 million passengers since the start of operation on the Madrid - Barcelona route. Its double-deck trains, which have capacity for 509 passengers, have an average occupancy of more than 97%.

The operator says it has been particularly successful at attracting people who would not usually use rail such as families and people below the age of 45. It credits low prices - tickets on the five daily 1h 50min Madrid - Valencia service start at €9 - and the accessibility of its trains for its success. It will seek to maintain this momentum when launching its latest expansion to Alicante, Seville and Málaga in 2023.

At 3622km, Spain’s high-speed network is Europe’s largest and the world’s second biggest overall behind China, which now surpasses 40,000km. Further additions are under construction, which will soon take the overall length beyond 4000km (see panel).

Several Spanish high-speed projects near completion

SIX high-speed projects are currently under construction in Spain. Work on the 61.7km Alicante - Murcia line commenced in 2016 and is due to conclude in 2023 after an initial 38.3km section from Montforte del Cid to Orihuela opened on February 1 2021. Testing is now underway on the 23.6km section from Orihuela to Murcia.

Construction of the 184.4km Murcia - Almeria line commenced in 2010. The line will be integrated into the TEN-T Mediterranean Corridor and will have four stations at Murcia, Lorca, Vera and Almeria. Work comprises new construction as well as rebuilding the 106.9km single-track non-electrified 1668mm gauge line between Murcia, Pulpi and Aguilas as a double-track, 1435mm-gauge electrified line.

In the north, the Basque Y project is expected to be completed in 2024, 18 years after construction began. Work is continuing on the 90.8km Vitoria - Bilbao line and the Bergara - San Sebastián section of the 89.7km branch from Bergara via San Sebastián to Irún on the French border. The lines will support speeds of up to 250km/h. The Vitoria - Bilbao section will connect with the planned 119.2km Vitoria - Burgos line.

This is part of the line from Valladolid, with the 86.5km single track Venta de Baños - Burgos section opening in July 2022.

In the northwest, the 49.7km Léon - Asturias high-speed line is set to open in May and will form the final section of the Madrid - Asturias high-speed line. It includes the 24.7km Pajares Base Tunnel and the 6.1km Pontones Tunnel.

In western Spain, Adif AV celebrated the opening of the 150km high-speed broad-gauge line from Plasencia to Badajoz on the Portuguese border in July. This is the first section of the 437km Madrid - Extremadura high-speed line, which is estimated to cost €3.7bn. Construction is continuing on the 68.8km Plasencia - Navalmoral de la Mata section although completion has been pushed back to 2025. Development of the Navalmoral de la Mata - Madrid section remains at an early stage, meaning the complete line may not open until 2030.

Yet pre-liberalisation network utilisation was a long way behind comparable European countries.

During a presentation at Rail Live, Mr Guillermo Castrillo, Iryo’s business development director, pointed out that the 5.37 million passenger-km recorded in Spain in 2018 was 287% less than the 20.78 million recorded in France, and 222% less than the 17.3 million recorded in Italy. This is despite the fact that Spain’s high-speed network is 21% larger than France’s 2734km network and is accessible to 70% of its population compared with 41% in France. The network is also 258% larger than Italy’s 921km high-speed network, which reaches 15% of the population.

“Effective competition in an open market requires that the regulations are reviewed and amended accordingly.”

Mr Guillermo Castrillo, Iryo’s business development director

Castrillo argued that reductions in track access charges by Italian Rail Network (RFI) have encouraged the introduction of additional passenger services by Trenitalia and Italo NTV, helping to grow passenger numbers and stimulating further modal shift from road to rail. It was a similar case with Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) and Westbahn in Austria. He urged the Spanish government to adopt the same strategy in order to stimulate the modal shift needed to meet its sustainability targets.

“The infrastructure manager is not quick enough to change,” Castrillo said. “Effective competition in an open market requires that the regulations are reviewed and amended accordingly.”

When asked whether reducing track access charges was a realistic proposition in Spain, Domínguez pointed out that the charges would remain frozen in 2023. She said this was a chance for liberalisation to take hold in the market. “We still need the revenue from track access charges to pay for infrastructure maintenance,” Domínguez told IRJ.

Wisdom of investment

Spain celebrated the 30th anniversary of the launch of its first high-speed railway, the 472km Madrid - Seville line, in 2022. Jiménez told delegates in Malaga that the initial project was important in establishing the “young democracy’s” identity and the policy to expand the network has continued to bring the country closer together. Spain has invested more than €65bn on building its high-speed railway. Sánchez said no-one now doubts the wisdom of this investment. “Spain’s high-speed success has silenced the detractors,” she said.

Spain’s commitment to rail will continue in 2023, which Sánchez describes as “a year of public transport.” After the government authorised an increase in the national debt limit of €879.3m for 2022 to strengthen public transport in the country, it also confirmed a €7.99bn investment in rail infrastructure in its annual budget statement in October. This is part of a €21.3bn overall allocation to Ministry of Transport, Mobility and the Urban Agenda (Mitma), a 9% increase on 2022 and the largest allocation since 2011.

The ongoing high-speed construction projects and various station improvements are among the schemes to benefit. Domínguez said station improvements are especially important to serve the additional passengers as well as the new operators using the high-speed network.

She also pointed out that Spain’s conventional network will receive €3.47bn, which will support infrastructure upgrades, including electrification and station projects. Suburban network investment has also increased by 20% to €2.2bn.

These improvements are especially important given the expected increase in passengers benefiting from Spain’s free season ticket programme. This offers unlimited travel on suburban and conventional medium-distance services throughout 2023 and Sánchez told Rail Live that more than 2.2 million tickets had been distributed since they became available on August 24. The government has allocated €660m to cover the season ticket costs along with 50% discounts for users of Avant services on the 13 high-speed routes that are subject to PSO contracts.

Suburban network improvements are also benefiting from the €6.2bn that Spain was allocated from the European Union’s Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan. This money is supporting projects to improve conditions for freight, including completing the Atlantic and Mediterranean corridors, which will receive €1.7bn and €1.6bn respectively in the 2023 budget. Mitma confirmed in November that 75% of the required construction work to provide 1435mm gauge on the Mediterranean Corridor from the French border along the east coast to Algeciras in the far south is underway.

As well as infrastructure, an extensive fleet replacement programme is underway. Renfe has awarded contracts to supply 406 trains for PSO services in the past two-and-a-half years (see panel). Mitma is prioritising the replacement of 50% of the ageing suburban fleet, which prior to this flurry of contract awards had not received a new train since 2007. Overall, Renfe’s €5.4bn fleet renewal plan comprises the purchase of 519 new high-speed, commuter and medium distance passenger trains, and freight locomotives.

Safety and comfort

Mr Manel Villalante, Renfe’s general manager for strategy and development, told Rail Live that the investment in new fleets and station upgrades are essential to improve safety and comfort for passengers.
Villalante said that Renfe has recovered 95% of its pre-pandemic passenger numbers, and while hybrid working is now common, Spain has not embraced remote working as enthusiastically as some other countries. As a result, he said the need for rail services was now more critical than ever to encourage people away from the car and onto more sustainable modes. He recalled recent 25km tailbacks in Barcelona to emphasise the immediacy of the challenge.

Critical to Renfe’s strategy is the launch of its dōcō Mobility as a Service (MaaS) application. The app went live for users in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Málaga on December 1 and has been developed by Renfe alongside technology partners NTT Data and Siemens Mobility.

“We want to become more than a mobility operator, we want to cover door-to-door movements, but we can only do that by partnering with other organisations.”

Mr Manel Villalante, Renfe’s general manager for strategy and development

Dōcō users can check timetable and service information and book a single ticket for their entire journey from door to door using multiple transport modes.Renfe has partnered with Bolt, Cooltra, Karhoo, Movi Taxi and Reby to offer access to shared motorcycles, scooters, taxis and cars to offer these multi-modal journeys. Partnerships with bus operators, shared bike providers and metro operators are also promised.

“We want to become more than a mobility operator,” Villalante says. “We want to cover door-to-door movements, but we can only do that by partnering with other organisations.”

Villalante told the conference that following liberalisation Renfe is now working in a new mobility paradigm. He said users are now more tech-savvy and the operator must respond to their needs in order to compete in the market.

He added that the next stage in the project is to harness Artificial Intelligence to better understand the user’s profile and offer suggested journeys tailored to their expected needs. “That doesn’t exist at the moment,” Villalante said. “But this is a five-year project and we have four years ahead of us to do it, but we will only do so by cooperating with other groups.”

International expansion

Liberalisation might be forcing Renfe to compete more effectively at home to keep pace with its rivals. However, the operator is increasingly exploring opportunities abroad. Renfe’s strategic plan calls for 10% of its income to come from international markets in 2028.

France is a logical destination for expansion. However, Renfe and SNCF’s nine-year partnership to operate Barcelona - Lyon and Madrid - Marseille trains ended on December 11, leaving SNCF’s Barcelona - Paris train as the sole high-speed service between France and Spain.

Renfe has long hoped to operate its own high-speed trains in France, but efforts to enter the market have been thwarted by struggles to secure relevant safety certificates for rolling stock, which prompted the operator to complain to France’s rail regulator ART in 2021, demanding compliance with competition rules set out by the European Commission (EC). There is some hope that the plans might proceed in 2023 - backed by a steadily growing public petition - but no date has yet been confirmed.

Elsewhere in Europe, Renfe is reporting some progress. The operator purchased a 50% stake in Czech new entrant Leo Express in 2021, gaining access to markets in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and potentially Germany, where Leo Express is registered as an operator and has a track access agreement although it has yet to win a contract or launch a service. Renfe is also working as shadow operator for the Rail Baltica project to construct a new standard-gauge line in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, while it was reported in September that Renfe was considering a proposal to join British open-access operator Grand Union as a strategic partner. Grand Union’s application to launch an open-access service between London Paddington and Carmarthen in South Wales was approved by Britain’s Office of Rail and Road last month.

Further afield, Renfe has operated the 452.9km Haramain high-speed line between Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia since October 2018. It is also active in North America, working as the shadow operator on the Texas Central project to construct a new privately financed high-speed railway between Houston and Dallas, although this project has run into difficulties since the Covid-19 pandemic. Renfe is also active on Mexico’s Mayan Train project, one scheme that is making significant strides, working as part of consortium with Ineco, Inecomex and DB Engineering & Consulting as shadow operator under a three-year contract.

While Renfe looks primed to continue its international expansion, the gaze of Europe will turn to Spain in the second half of 2023 when it holds the rotating presidency of the European Council.

Given Spain’s strong record of supporting rail, there is optimism in Brussels rail circles that its presidency will prove fruitful in advancing rail-based policies. Liberalisation and the encouraging performance of Spanish high-speed operators looks likely to be one of the leading talking points, especially with neighbours seemingly less keen on the idea.

Renfe conventional fleet renewal takes shape

RENFE confirmed on December 15 that it had signed contracts worth a total of €858.4m with Alstom, CAF and Stadler for three fleets totalling 97 trains. Alstom will supply 49 100m-long Coradia Stream EMUs at a cost of €367.6m while Stadler will supply 20 200m-long commuter trains under its €307.7m deal. CAF will manufacture 28 medium distance trains under a €183m contract.

The Stadler and Alstom trains are options from two orders worth a combined €2.445bn for a total of 211 trains signed in July 2021. Alstom is supplying 152 high-capacity trains for suburban services under a €1.447bn contract, which are expected to begin entering service in 2024. Options remain for another 27 trains.

Stadler is supplying 24 100-120m-long double-deck trains plus 35 160-240m-long double-deck EMUs under the original contract, which is worth €998m. Options remain for another 24 trains.

Renfe announced tenders to supply another 57 EMUs in July 2021 and awarded CAF a €290m contract to supply 28 200km/h EMUs for medium-distance services in October. The contract includes options for another 42 trains. The contract for the 29 160km/h commuter trains has yet to be awarded.

CAF also won a €258m contract to supply 37 trains for Renfe’s 1000mm-gauge network in June 2020. The order comprises 26 EMUs and five bimode multiple-units for commuter services around the country and six EMUs for the Cercedilla - Cotos route in Madrid.

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