The doors to the long-awaited high-speed rail line linking Madrid and Barcelona slid open in February 2008, connecting Spain’s two main population centers and its two most significant hubs of business, technology, and research. And this line, which represents the latest achievement in Spain’s plans to connect the entire country with a web of high-speed trains, is far from the only news in Spanish rail. In the past few years, Spain has developed new metro systems, commuter rail lines, and suburban trains, some of which link to existing or developing high-speed lines. In addition, the Spanish companies that consult on the engineering of new lines, perform the construction and infrastructure development, build the trains, develop the signaling and information systems, and develop and build related parts have taken their expertise overseas as rail continues its explosive growth in the international market.
Madrid to Barcelona
Though Madrid–Barcelona might seem like the ideal route to begin a high-speed network, the Spanish government actually launched the system in Seville in 1992, when the city was to host the World Expo.
The new system completely rerouted an existing track that had swerved around mountains and avoided technically challenging terrain. Taking advantage of the latest construction techniques to tunnel through any existing impediments, the line also used the top trains and technology available at the time. It slashed travel time from about six hours to two hours and 20 minutes.
“This first experience caused something like high-speed fever,” says Ignacio Barron, the Spanish representative to the International Union of Railways, who directs the organization’s highspeed department. “Everybody wanted to build new lines and extend the networks.”
Plans came up against a temporary roadblock when Spain, along with the rest of Europe, hit a financial downturn in the 1990s. But they picked up again in 1997. Since then, the Spanish rail authorities– RENFE (the rail operator) and ADIF (the company in charge of infrastructure and planning, which was originally part of RENFE)– have overseen the building and installation of more than 1,500 kilometers (nearly 1,000 miles) of high-speed lines. In 2003 the line linking Madrid to Zaragoza and Lleida, en route to Barcelona, began service. The line from Madrid to Seville branched out to nearby Toledo in 2005, and the first line opening up the northwest of the country began service in December 2007. Soon thereafter, the line south finished up in the popular coastal destination of Málaga.
Madrid–Barcelona, however, is the current jewel of the system. Like the Madrid–Seville line, the new train to Barcelona features an entirely new route, new tracks, and new trains—these equipped with swiveling seats and full video and audio capability. And like the country’s first high-speed line, this one dramatically slashes travel time. A trip that once took more than six hours now takes just over two and a half. The new trains offer a smooth, swift ride at about 185 miles per hour, or 300 kilometers per hour. When new signaling systems are installed (they’re expected for fall 2008), train speeds will be able to reach 220 miles per hour, or 350 kilometers per hour, and travel time will shrink to about two hours.
By 2010 Spain will have the most high-speed tracks in the world, and plans call for 10,000 kilometers by 2020. This would place 90 percent of the population within 30 miles of a highspeed station.
Experts in the field cite two and a half hours as a time at which rail is competitive with air travel. The line to Barcelona, at close to 400 miles, now competes with one of the most trafficked air routes in the world: five million passengers are expected to use it in 2008 alone. A rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles would be shorter, at 347 miles. And Boston is only 50 miles farther by road from Washington, DC, than Madrid is from Barcelona, meaning it would be theoretically possible–politics, land-use planning, and finances allowing–to build a train that could connect those U.S. cities in about three hours.
The Madrid–Barcelona line also represents the beginning of a new planned link to France. T.P. Ferro, a company created by a coalition of the Spanish and French construction companies ACS Dragados and Eiffage, has already broken ground on a new tunnel underneath the Pyrenees, the mountains that separate the two countries. The tunnel will eventually cut two hours from the trip between Barcelona and Toulouse, and travel time from Barcelona to Paris will be reduced to four and a half hours.