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Spain: A World Class Rail Experience

Over the past 30 years, I have rent­ed 11 cars in Spain. I returned 9 of them dam­aged. Need­less to say, I am now an advo­cate of rail trav­el or any oth­er form of trans­porta­tion that does not require me to dri­ve. The rental car issue is for anoth­er blog post. Today, I want to talk a bit about rail trav­el and how Spain over­came a slow start to become a world leader. 

Spain lagged behind the rest of Europe in build­ing out its rail net­work in the 19th Cen­tu­ry. This was part­ly for eco­nom­ic rea­sons, but pri­mar­i­ly because of geo­graph­ic chal­lenges. Spain is a remark­ably moun­tain­ous coun­try. This pro­duced all of the asso­ci­at­ed engi­neer­ing prob­lems, to include tun­nel con­struc­tion, curved rail, and inclined rail. All of these are expen­sive. When Spain final­ly did get seri­ous about expand­ing its rail net­work in the last quar­ter of the cen­tu­ry, they did so defen­sive­ly. Rather than inte­grat­ing the same rail gauge that France and much of the rest of Europe was using, they intro­duced their own Iber­ian gauge. This was done in order to pre­vent the French from using rail as a logis­ti­cal tool to sup­port a mil­i­tary inva­sion, which of course nev­er occurred. The cost, how­ev­er, was tremen­dous. For much of the 20th Cen­tu­ry, Spain was not able to par­tic­i­pate in com­merce with the rest of Europe via the rail infra­struc­ture. It was not until the estab­lish­ment of the mod­ern Span­ish Repub­lic in the mid-1970s that Spain retired its last steam loco­mo­tive and began a delib­er­ate restruc­tur­ing and mod­ern­iza­tion of its rail system. 

And mod­ern­ize they did! Today’s high-speed rail net­work is the 2nd largest in the world (after Chi­na). The mod­ern net­work boasts almost 2000 miles of track and con­tin­ues to expand. When I first vis­it­ed Spain in 1986, it still took 8 hours to trav­el the 330 miles between Madrid and Seville. The worst part is that the train was called El Rapi­do”. Today, a trav­el­er can reach Seville in just over two hours. Because of Spain’s chal­leng­ing ter­rain, its trains gen­er­al­ly do not main­tain their high­est speeds for extend­ed peri­ods of time. The max­i­mum speed on any Span­ish route is a not-too-shab­by 193mph. But with native pen­du­lar tech­nol­o­gy, it’s like rid­ing on a mag­ic car­pet. Fur­ther­more, France and Spain are coop­er­at­ing to fix the 19th-cen­tu­ry rail gauge issue, allow­ing pas­sen­gers to trav­el seam­less­ly between Span­ish and French destinations. 

If I plan your trip, I will take care of all your rail tick­ets. How­ev­er, do-it-your­self trav­el­ers have a vari­ety of options for pur­chas­ing tick­ets online. I do rec­om­mend that you pur­chase your tick­ets ahead of time rather than at the sta­tion since cer­tain routes (espe­cial­ly Madrid-Seville and Madrid-Barcelona) tend to sell-out dur­ing the high and shoul­der sea­sons. The high-speed options ser­vice the main cities but may require a trans­fer to a slow­er train to get you from a hub city to less pop­u­lat­ed des­ti­na­tions. RENFE (Spain’s nation­al rail com­pa­ny) offers three high-speed ser­vice options:

  1. AVE: These are gen­er­al­ly the fastest trains and use exclu­sive­ly high-speed rails. These trains are very com­fort­able. You can pur­chase a first-class (“pref­er­ente”) tick­et, but the tourist class cars give you 90% of the comfort. 
  2. ALVIA: These main­tain the same com­fort stan­dards as the AVE, but can access both high speed and stan­dard rail. Although they are not quite as fast, they ser­vice a wide vari­ety of destinations. 
  3. AVLO: Launch­ing in April of 2020, this will be a dis­count line run­ning along the main routes (begin­ning with Madrid-Barcelona). These trains will not have all the ameni­ties of the AVE and ALVIA but will run on the same tracks with sim­i­lar sched­ules. Note that although these tick­ets will sell at a dis­count of +/-60% com­pared to the AVE, there will be a lug­gage charge for AVLO trains.

In the end, you should not be too con­cerned with the type of train that you choose. Choose a train that fits your sched­ule. Fur­ther­more, enjoy the ride! The views are impres­sive, the ser­vice is great, and some­times the jour­ney is just as much fun as the destination.