This essay deconstructs Spain’s current passenger railways to expose the deceptions of AVE and nation therein. “Disassembling Trenes” is the second essay in the sequence “Café Para Todos“, an exploration of the contemporary relationship between the railways and the people of Spain. The first essay, “Saving Ferroviarias“, reviews the broad policy context of Spain’s passenger railways, highlighting the residual tension between pre and post-democratic eras, the financial impetus to make the high speed network more viable, and the evolving policy paradigm of rationalisation. “Deconstructing Estaciones” provides a demographic analysis of Spain’s railway stations, that explores the unserved areas and probes the differences between regions. The fourth, “Understanding Obligación“, builds a model of the human connectivity offered by Spain’s railways, revealing the patterns between Spaniards and the democractic tension therein, with income analysis that explores the import of “Obligación de Servicio Público”. “Reanimating Regional” outlines the regional biases of Spanish railway connectivity, reassesses the role of Castilla in the national railway, and ponders the balance between actuality and perception inherent in Adolfo Suárez’s doctrine of “café para todos”.
Both infrastructure manager ADIF and the Spanish government maintain slightly different lists of railway stations and terminals, but both lists contain several hundred points which currently have no regular scheduled passenger railway service, so such infrastructure catalogues cannot be used to infer transport utility. Few Spanish public transport operators provide open electronic datasets, and most such data is limited to the larger urban areas that are not the focus of this analysis. Only recently, with the growth of channels such as Google Maps, has it become important to advertise public transport services beyond their immediate geographic locality, and many smaller operators and Autonomous Community governments still seem to lack the technical expertise or organisational will to produce interchangeable electronic data. Renfe may talk of big data and startup accelerators, but in practice can’t even manage to exchange basic schedule data within its own organisation: Regional/long distance, Iberian-gauge suburban, and narrow (metric) gauge services are each dependant on separate customer-facing internet interfaces, each of which tends to deny the existence of the services of the others. For example, passenger rail services between Gijón and Oviedo are split across all three systems, as if “Renfe” were three separate operators, which of course locally they are.
The analysis of regional railway services thus defaults to pre-electronic research methods: The manual interrogation of public timetables. Given the magnitude of the task, this was done for just one day (Friday 20 July 2018) and in one direction (away from Madrid, or broadly equivalent direction of travel). The period immediately pre-dates the signing of Renfe’s pre-liberalisation OSP contract, representing a brief period of network stability in which no major new LAV routes entered operation, and no liberalisation-related services commenced. The “day” starts with the first departures of the morning, typically at about 05:00, and continues until “end of service”, typically early Saturday morning – or Saturday daytime for overnight Trenhotel services that commence on Friday evening. Friday is one of the busiest days for longer distance rail travel so represents the network at its maximum extent (notably including a few routes which are not served daily with direct trains, such as Madrid-Águilas, or Madrid-Huelva via Medina), and also includes weekday suburban metro schedules with late evening extensions (typically until 02:00, but not throughout the night as is more common from Saturday into Sunday). July schedules do not include dedicated university services, notable only on the fringe of Barcelona, Cadiz and Córdoba. There are similar early-summer reductions in services for some Andalucían metros, but July schedules do not include the full August reductions to urban services common across Spain. In practice Renfe’s regional network changes little from day-to-day and month-to-month, so while the choice of one day and one direction will generate a few quirks, it can be considered broadly representative of regional services. The most notable differences between July and the winter months are on business-centric AVE routes, notably Madrid-Barcelona, where the July service only contains about two-thirds of the service offered in mid-September – the trains instead deployed to bolster leisure routes, such as an extra return journey each day between Barcelona and Málaga/Sevilla. While these seasonal changes alter the balance of operations and connectivity slightly, they do not radically change the number of trains operated or the places served. The observed service network linked all but three of (over 2500) stations known to have regular services. The exceptions are the dedicated university stations in Cadiz and Córdoba, which are only served in term-time, and A Pobra do Brollon (near Monforte de Lemos in Galicia), which has only one train a day eastbound (not west, the direction of travel from Madrid).
The observed service network contains all scheduled public passenger services operated on fixed rails within Spain – including metro, tram, and funicular lines where integrated into the surrounding public transport network. The only exceptions are trains that serve no local resident population and/or are priced at a “tourist” fare premium. Notable exclusions include Renfe’s Cercedilla-Cotos line (which while technically part of Madrid’s suburban Cercanías network, actually serves ski resorts) and FGC‘s Vall de Núria and Montserrat rack-railways (which are priced significantly higher than surrounding public transport, and likewise primarily serve tourist markets). Each individual service was recorded with the order of its station stops and the number of train journeys operated daily. Neighbouring pairs of stations advertised as an interchange were generally counted as a single shared station, with the principle exception of station pairs where Renfe specifically emphasise the difference between AV and local services (such as Madrid’s Atocha/Cercanías and Valencia’s Joaquín Sorolla/Nord). This method creates small inconsistencies in the count of stations, but does not affect analysis of access to services. In most cases timetable information was used directly, typically extracted from Renfe’s website by querying pairs of neighbouring towns to reveal any local services between. Train numbers were used to help identify trains uniquely across the network and avoid duplication. In a few cases, especially local seats offered on long-distance trains, both train numbers and schedule times for the same train differed slightly (notably in Galicia, as if passengers with certain ticket types board in a different manner), which required careful interpretation of schedules to identify shared trains. A small element of error is inevitable, especially when attempting to extract intricate service patterns from the Cercanías interface, which only returns journeys between the queried stations and does not provide a list of all the intermediate stations served: While some Cercanías service patterns adhere to their publicised metro-style route maps, many do not – for example, in the Asturias the majority of trains on the C2 (El Entrego) line appear to continue onto the C3 (San Juan de Nieva) line, while many C1 (Gijón southward) services routinely skip certain station stops. Cercanías’ metro-style presentation may have been copied from Madrid, but in places such as the Asturias, the practical implementation of the concept remains as varied as Renfe’s non-Cercanías Regional schedules. For metros where only service frequencies were published, the average headway was multiplied by its respective time period to give an approximate daily total. Where track engineering work had temporarily replaced trains with buses, an otherwise representative railway timetable was assumed. Non-rail modes were otherwise excluded.
Ultimately a full assessment of the role of rail should include other transport modes, and including local trams while excluding high frequency bus routes may seem inappropriate. The inclusion of trams reflects the inclusion of Renfe’s metric-gauge FEVE, the core of which operates like a low frequency segregated tramway or metro. A similar blur between subterranean metro and on-street tram is found elsewhere, with many cities presenting tram lines as “metro” services – the historic distinction between “light” and “heavy” rail no longer clear. The inclusion of metro services in turn reflects the inclusion of Renfe’s suburban Cercanías, whose operations range greatly in frequency, and on infrequent routes are directly comparable to local “regional” services: For example, “Cercanías” in Madrid includes urban services with over a hundred trains per day in each direction, while “Cercanías” in Valencia is used to describe the four trains per day (plus one shared with a longer distance regional train) from relatively rural Caudiel to Sagunt. Likewise parts of Valencia’s metro defy the popular frequency expectation of the term “metro”: For example, the southern section of Line 1 to Villamueva de Castellon carries just over 20 trains per day in each direction, a fraction of the frequency of most metro lines in Barcelona or Madrid (although both those systems contain their own frequency quirks).
The vast majority of services can be analysed as recorded. All trains are assumed to return, with observed services duplicated in reverse to complete the full service – an imperfect assumption, but one that is almost always an accurate reflection of Renfe’s service patterns. Obvious differences, notably tram routes which serve different stations in each direction, or “terminate” in a loop, have been recorded separately by direction. Services which operate in a continuous loop (Madrid metro Line 6 and Parla tram) use the start/end station shown in their respective timetables – and analysed with care. Where trains split into two portions mid-journey (which occurs on only eight long-distance commercial Renfe routes), each potion has been recorded for its full journey (as if operated separately throughout) and allocated a code to denote its unique section (to avoid double-counting over common sections in subsequent analysis). Seats offered only for local journeys on otherwise long-distance trains have been recorded in a similar manner – the local segment treated as a separate train, but denoted shared to avoid double-counting the same train in subsequent analysis. The observed service network does not contain information about connections between trains, since it does not record precise schedules. In practice low frequency regional services are not suitable for complex multi-stage journeys, while Renfe’s (non-Cercanías) products tend to emphasise direct links (not interchange), with many regional service patterns offering a wide range of different origin-destination pairs throughout the day. FEVE‘s service patterns include a few notably exceptions (El Berrón, Collanzo), but generally the absence of interchange only skew realistic journey opportunities within urban areas – which are not the focus of this analysis.
This observed network forms the basis of all the analysis contained in this sequence of essays. The next essay, “Deconstructing Estaciones“, specifically analyses stations, with the final pair of essays exploring the network’s connectivity. But before adding such complexities, a simple analysis of trains will expose the inaccuracy of many common perceptions about Spain’s railways.
The AVE Perception
Contemporary perceptions of Spain’s passenger railways emphasise the national state’s Renfe operating high-speed AVE trains across Spain. However this is an extremely inaccurate and misleading characterisation of actual passenger operations, as detailed in this section:
- Renfe only operates a fifth of all train journeys in Spain, although Renfe does account for roughly 60% of the total by train-distance.
- High speed LAV carries no more than 8% of Renfe’s train journeys, approximately 25% of Renfe’s operations by distance.
- AVE accounts for just 3% of all Renfe’s train journeys and about 16% of Renfe’s total train-distance.
- Less than a fifth of all Renfe’s train journeys travel between Spain’s regional Autonomous Communities, and most that do cross Castilla.
The table below lists the total daily (both directions combined) number of train journeys operated in Spain, based on the observed service network. An approximation of the total route length has been calculated from the total direct distance between each of the stations served, which often underestimates the track distance slightly: Such “crow flight” (straight line) distances tend to be most inaccurate for longer distance services with infrequent stops, and for services in more mountainous terrain where routes curve, but the method allows crude comparisons to be made. Using this method, the longest distance train wholly within Spain is Barcelona-Vigo via Pamplona (at 1100 kilometres), and the shortest is Barcelona’s Line 12 Sarria-Reina Elisenda (at just half a kilometre). Shared seats (local service on a long distance service) are only counted once, as the longer distance service, and split trains (dividing into portions mid-journey) are counted only once as a pair. Cercanías includes only Iberian-gauge operations. Totals for named non-Renfe operators include their respective “metro” operations, for example Euskotren includes Bilbao’s metro line 3. All the services of Mallorca’s SFM are counted within “Other Metros”, which includes various minor tram systems with just one or two local routes – Granada, Malaga, Murcia, Parla, Sevilla, Tenerife and Zaragoza. Overall, Renfe operates just a fifth of passenger train journeys in Spain, but roughly 60% of all train kilometres. This table is also summarised as a graph.
|Operator||Daily Trains||Daily Distance (approximate)|
|Trains||% of All||000 KM||% of All|
|Renfe Other Regional (OSP)||640||3%||108||15%|
|Renfe Larga Distancia||300||1%||142||20%|
Línea de Alta Velocidad (LAV) is not as universally high speed as the name implies, notably in Galicia where the recently constructed routes through Santiago de Compostela currently offer operating speeds comparable to the fastest non-LAV lines in Castilla La Mancha. Specific analysis of LAV therefore excludes lines in Galicia. Of Renfe’s services, 274 unique train journeys per day were observed to use high speed LAV entirely – 6% of Renfe’s total, or approximately 21% of all Renfe’s train-kilometres. 82 additional train journeys per day used LAV in part, bringing the total proportion of Renfe’s train journeys on LAV to just under 8%. Some routes, such as Madrid-Algeciras, use LAV for the majority of their distance, however many routes use LAV for a minority of their journey, especially in the north. Consequently only about 25% of Renfe’s total distance operated can be assigned to LAV tracks. Over all operators, roughly 16% of all Spanish passenger train kilometres are on LAV.
Each Renfe product has been assigned a “Commerciality Factor”, ranging from 0% (least commercial) to 100% (most commercial), to crudely assess the degree of reliance on state support. The allocations, listed below, are very approximate because the details of Renfe’s costs and revenues are not always published. However, certain “commercial” Renfe products do tend to conflate more with state-supported OSP provisions, or tend to benefit from more generous track access charging structures, and thus can be judged less purely commercial. Likewise some OSP products tend to require more state financial support than others. The count of daily trains double-counts shared seats (local service on a long distance service) because each is a separate product. Over the entire Renfe network there were only 126 daily occurrences of such sharing observed, primarily Avant, Media Distancia or Regional provisions on more commercial longer-distance services. Overall Renfe’s network is heavily skewed to OSP services, especially Cercanías, resulting in an average “commerciality” of just 22% based on train count, or around 37% based on distance (station to station, as described above). AVE equates to just 3% of all Renfe’s train journeys, or about 15% of all distance operated. All non-OSP products (those listed below with a commerciality factor of 50% or more) equate to 7% and 33% respectively. These proportions give a first indication of the skew towards relatively local services within even Renfe’s operations.
|Factor||Products||Daily Trains||Daily Distance (000 KM, approximate)||Rationale|
|0%||FEVE, Media Distancia, Regional, Regional Express||1210||118||Entirely state supported (OSP), generally with a minority of operating cost covered by fare revenue.|
|25%||Avant, Cercanías||3330||182||OSP, but tending to cover the majority of operating cost from fare revenue.|
|50%||AV City, Intercity, Talgo, Trenhotel||70||35||Low-demand long-distance, marginal times of day, high tendency to offer OSP seats for local journeys, and/or marginal use of assets intended for OSP services.|
|75%||Altria, Alvia, Euromed||100||45||Mid-speed long-distance services, wholly or partly on older non-LAV lines, and thus less competitive than pure AV, with lower track access charges.|
|100%||AVE||150||69||Pure Alta Velocidad, the commercial backbone of long-distance, including all the most profitable corridors.|
National averages mask considerable variation between Spain’s regional Autonomous Communities, both in the balance of Renfe to non-Renfe railway services, and between services entirely within each community and those that link to other parts of Spain. Daily train journeys have been related to Autonomous Communities, both for services wholly within the community (non-Renfe and Renfe internal) and across the community’s boundary (Renfe external). Only Renfe services cross community boundaries. The results mask a small margin of error, notably seats on shared trains are excluded, slightly under-representing the “Renfe internal” train journey count where the same train crosses the community’s borders (and is thus counted as Renfe external). The core of the table below shows the total number of daily train journeys by community. Trains listed as external are counted once in each community they serve. Castilla-La Mancha’s “100% external” reflects rounding, and actually includes two wholly internal trains (one in each direction specifically between Alcazar de San Juan and Ciudad Real). Navarra and La Rioja genuinely have no entirely internal trains. The islands have no Renfe services. Ceuta and Melilla have no railways. Overall, roughly 830 daily Renfe train journeys operate between Autonomous Communities, just under 20% of all Renfe’s train journeys. 630 of these trains enter Madrid, 540 Castilla-La Mancha and 220 Castilla y León, with every other community linked to other parts of Spain by fewer trains – as few as 20 in the case of the Asturias. This table is also summarised as a graph.
|Community||Population (millions)||Density (persons per square km)||Daily Trains by Type and Scope||Daily Trains per Million People|
|Trains||Non Renfe||Renfe Internal||Renfe External|
|Castilla y León||2.4||26||270||–||22%||78%||110|
Renfe’s National Deception
Underlying differences in population density and geography make it entirely rational for some Autonomous Communities to contain more or less train journeys per head of population than other regions, because rail is best-suited to high-volume point-to-point transport – demands associated with high population densities. In the extreme example, Madrid has 48 times more train journeys per head of population than Extremadura, but Madrid’s population is also 32 times more dense. The obvious exception, the veritable “elephant in the room“, is of course that Castilla y León and Castilla-La Mancha have the same population density, the same total reliance on Renfe, and rather similar geography to Extremadura, but Castilla y León and Castilla-La Mancha have 4 and 10 times more trains per head than Extremadura respectively – a skew explained over the following paragraphs.
The matrix below shows the number of daily trains from every Autonomous Community to every other, divided by the resident population (in millions) at the origin. Read down for the origin community, and across for the destination community. Links that equate to the equivalant of less than half a daily train per million people are shown “..”. Neighbouring communities are highligted in red. Only Renfe trains cross community boundaries. Trains must make at least one station stop in each community to be counted. The only pairing not to provide a strategic inter-community function is that between Andalucía and Murcia, which consists of trains between Águilas and Murcia that briefly cross the border. Other quirks of geography, such as trains that briefly cross into La Rioja during journeys between Castejon de Ebro and Pamplona, are not counted as crossing community boundaries because they make no station stop.
|Castilla y León||–||3||2||2||–||4||3||7||–||5||27||–||4||1||1|
The strongest inter-community links, those of 10 or more trains per million population at the origin, are mapped below for ease of visual comparison. The graduated line darkens towards the destination, the width of the line in proportion to the number of trains per million shown in the matrix above. Connections between neighbouring communities are against highlighted in red. These links are, in effect, the genuinely national priorities of Renfe – those between communities, served disproportionately well to population. Far from binding the nation in perfect unity, the national railway network transpires to emphasise links from small or sparsely populated Autonomous Communities that are perhaps more strongly bound to their surrounding geography than their administrative boundaries betray – or the corollary, that additional national emphasis is required to maintain them within the nation. Within this pattern there are two distinct hubs: The Ebro Valley – the core of the north-east, focused on Aragón, Navarra and La Rioja. And Castilla – the heart of Spain itself, consisting of Castilla y León, Castilla-La Mancha and Madrid. The quirks of the Ebro Valley are a recurrent theme of this sequence of essays, and despite the area’s benign appearance, ultimately the Ebro Valley emerges as one of the most difficult areas of Spain to administer (as summarised in the final essay, “Reanimating Regional“). Castilla provides an altogether easier introduction.
In general, people living in the most peripheral Autonomous Communities of Spain are the least well connected to their immediate regional neighbours: The Communities with the lowest totals of cross-boundary trains per population – Andalucía, Catalunya and Galicia – also a list the most peripheral. This may reasonably be explained in the inverse – that inland regions of Spain receive a disproportionate number of trains because they are served, on a marginal basis, by trains travelling across Spain between peripheral regions. This explanation will transpire to be correct, but not because of the operational logic it implies: Analysing train operations only (with no population factors), just half the trains from Castilla-La Mancha to Madrid start from other regions, with the other half of the service from Castilla-La Mancha to Madrid entirely unrelated to other Autonomous Communities – so even without trains from the periphery to Madrid, Castilla-La Mancha would be linked to Madrid by almost 40 trains per million population, well above average. The root of this skew is the cultural meta-region called Castilla: While Castilla-La Mancha is administratively separate from Madrid, its railway service reflects Castilla, whose de facto regional capital is Madrid. In pure transport geography, the Ebro Valley demonstrates some similar tendencies, albeit for lower absolute populations, as does the link between Murcia and Alicante in Valenciana. Castilla, however, is a special case because of the way its own history has influenced the meaning of the nacional in “Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles”, RENFE, as explored in the following paragraphs.
Where alternative railway operators to Renfe are available, these account for the majority of all train journeys in their respective Autonomous Communities, as shown in the earlier table of Trains by Autonomous Community. Such alternatives tend to be found in the most populated Autonomous Communities, not merely the most peripheral or politically separatist regions: Notably both Catalunya and Madrid host a similarly high proportion of non-Renfe train journeys. So it is not simply the case that Renfe and the wider Spanish railway system gravitates toward Madrid – which seems to have become the prevailing view in the wake of Germà Bel – since Renfe has no greater claim within Madrid than within more peripheral regions of Spain. In the first instance Renfe is providing a part of the counter-balance between major Spanish cities, each of which is inclined to want whatever the others have. It is only in those more rural communities that exist in the shadow of a more urban neighbour, that Renfe’s role as a provider of services between communities becomes significant. The corollary is that Madrid has not become the hub of Spain’s national railways because Madrid itself is disproportionately more important than anywhere else, nor because of some lingering centralist obsession, but because Madrid is the capital of Castilla. Castilla was the historic rivalry at the heart of “Spain”, with Madrid ostensibly a compromise between the old north and the new south. As explored in the next paragraph, the very structure of Spain emerges as such a means of maintaining the balance of Castilla.
Narrow (metric) gauge FEVE provides a simple example of the differences between national network perception and more local service actuality: To the casual observer of the railway map of northern Spain, FEVE looks like a network that links all the Autonomous Communities of the north together. Yet in practice only 3% of FEVE’s daily train journeys cross any community boundary, and journeys from Galicia or Leon to Bilbao are much faster on the Iberian-gauge route to the south. FEVE’s operations can be more accurately characterised as two local networks (within Asturias and Cantabria) augmented by three specific local routes (into Bilbao, Ferrol and León respectively). The main reason to maintain FEVE’s links between Autonomous Communities is surely to maintain the appearance of a national railway. However, where FEVE’s north coast communities could function independently, Castilla fundamentally needs this quirky notion of nation to maintain itself as more than its three constituent parts: For example, by cladding the whole Castilla in a nation called Spain, no one part of Castilla can perceive itself as strong enough to dominate the whole, and hence the deception of that cladding must be maintained for balance within Castilla. The idea of nation and of Castilla merge into one as a natural consequence of maintaining such perception. The consequent perceived indivisibility of nation and Castilla thereafter infects societal decision-making, not least decisions that emphasise the “presence” of nation over the “utility” of travel. National railways thus tend to gravitate toward (but not within) Madrid because such a pattern reflects both the conflation of Castilla with nation, and the practical need of Castilla to be linked to its de facto regional capital. That in turn promotes a national railway network in a highly autonomic country that would otherwise perceive little need for inter-regional railways, and perpetuates a model of railway infrastructure development that is not actually optimal for any part of Spain. Away from Castilla, the national railway maintains a sense of equality, as first discussed in Is Alta Velocidad Fast?, and specifically therein a desire for “the nation” to provide something within each Autonomous Community. FEVE is perhaps the ultimate example of this geopolitical art of deception, that which characterises contemporary Spanish “cohesión territorial”: Maintaining the 3% of train journeys that make FEVE appear national justifies the nation’s support of the specifically regional 97%. Outwith Catalunya (which uniquely contracts its internal Renfe services), Autonomous Community payments to Renfe account for barely 1% of overall state support, and in most regions Renfe’s public services are funded exclusively from national budgets.
All that explains why long-distance “AVE” (and therein LAV) carries far greater perceived importance than its actual use, and why Renfe’s operations are in fact far more regional than they may appear – albeit where “region” references a cultural, not necessarily administrative, region. So LAV may be being built from Madrid to Galicia and Euskadi to maintain a sense of parity with Andalucía and others, but its principle role will not be to serve such long distance markets, rather to speed regional journeys from the likes of Ourense to Santiago, or Gasteiz to Bilbao: They may demand “AVE”, but they actually want a service akin to its regional AV sibling, “Avant”. In practice Renfe already operates more trains each day (including trains as seats on longer distance services) under the Avant banner than under that of AVE, and Galicia’s Vigo-A Coruña has already blurred the distinction between Avant and merely modern fast “Media Distancia” regional. The task of reanimating regional thus largely implies making better regional use of modern AV infrastructure without revealing to anyone in Castilla that such use is not strictly national.
Fortunately RENFE was built with the flexibility to manage just such a deception, and modern Renfe and ADIF merely face the additional challenges of their era, such as Catalan independentists (in effect) demanding this deception be broken, and European liberalisation weakening Renfe’s traditional role as a national entity. The contemporary railway is already slowly adjusting the AV model, for example learning by trial-and-error that Toledo-Cuenca-Albacete is not a viable market to serve with high speed trains, and that smaller towns can only effectively be served by Avant where it is delivered as seats on a longer-distance trains (or perhaps as implied by Utiel in Valenciana, that there are some locations where there may be no viable high speed regional market at all). The Galician model – of fast regional with no AV fare premium – logically continues the slow return of Renfe to the role it always had, that of a nationally perceived railway operator that in practice mostly delivers (culturally) local services.
The next essay in this sequence is called “Deconstructing Estaciones“. It provides a demographic analysis of Spain’s railway stations, that explores the unserved areas and probes the differences between regions. Continue reading…
In the interest of transparency and the benefit of any other interested researchers, the raw network analysed is available in Geojson format, as is, neither supported nor maintained.