María Zambrano Dawns

Deconstructing Estaciones

This essay provides a demographic analysis of Spain’s railway stations, that explores the unserved areas and probes the differences between regions. “Deconstructing Estaciones” is the third 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. “Disassembling Trenes“, the second essay in the sequence, deconstructs Spain’s current passenger railways to expose the deceptions of AVE and nation therein. 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”.

Station Master

The prior analysis of trains in the essay, “Disassembling Trenes“, has provided a broad territorial assessment of Spanish passenger railways, but those trains ultimately serve people, people who access those trains at local stations. Before examining people and “connectivity” in detail – the topic of the next essay, “Understanding Obligación” – an overview of the railway network’s stations is useful. For this analysis, seats on shared trains (for example a regional product offered for local journeys on a longer-distance train) have been apportioned half to each product, and trains that divide into portions have only been counted once over common sections of route. Many of Madrid’s Cercanías line 7 train journeys have been counted twice at central Madrid stations, reflecting the fact that each half of line 7 serves a completely different set of suburban stations – trains on circular services were otherwise counted just once per station served. As described in the previous essay, “Disassembling Trenes“, stations allowing interchange between routes were generally counted as a single station, the main exceptions being neighbouring stations advertised separately for AV and non-AV trains, such Valencia’s Joaquín Sorolla and Nord. Three stations were not included in this analysis due to lack of observed service, but are known to have regular passenger services in term-time (Cadiz and Córdoba university stations) or in one direction only (A Pobra do Brollon in Galicia).

The observed service network contains 2531 railway stations with a daily passenger service. Of these, 1482 (59%) are served by national operator Renfe, 1098 (43%) by another operator, with 49 (2%) served by both. The busiest stations are primarily defined by non-Renfe services, especially metros: Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya is the absolute busiest station in Spain for trains, with over 2600 daily (all directions and lines combined), but only 17% of those trains are operated by Renfe. Overall, non-Renfe operators tend to offer much higher frequencies than Renfe, not least because non-Renfe routes tend be urban. Of all non-Renfe served stations, only the eleven stations on the northern half of the Pobla de Segur line (in Catalunya) receive less than 20 trains per day (both directions combined). The Pobla de Segur line is notable for its complex geopolitical history, and in recent decades has gradually shifted its funding, ownership and control from nation to region. In contrast, almost half (48%) of the stations Renfe serve receive less than 20 of their trains each day – and 11% are served by just two trains daily, one in each direction. For specifically Renfe trains, the busiest station is Madrid’s Atocha, with over a thousand daily from the Cercanías station alone, a total of 1290 when combined with the neighbouring AV terminus. Commerciality (using factors from the “Renfe Commerciality” table in the previous essay, “Disassembling Trenes“) is predictably skewed toward AV-specific stations, especially those with no (OSP) Avant service. At the opposite extreme, just over eight hundred stations attained a commerciality of 0%, representing 54% of the stations served by Renfe. 88% of all the stations served by Renfe are served only by state-supported OSP products: Just 12% of Renfe-served stations have some pretence of commercial activity, with only 2% of Renfe-served stations visited by more than 20 non-OSP trains each day. The overwhelming majority of Spain’s passenger railway stations are served because the state demands it.

The map below summarises the overall geographic pattern of service provision by station, each circle representing one station, with the area of the circle in proportion to the number of daily trains (both directions totalled). The core of the Canarias have been inset into the bottom-right corner of the map, all the (tram) stations on Tenerife. The islands cropped off the map have no passenger railways. The overall pattern is characterised by Spain’s larger cities and conurbations, which visually dominate. However there are subtle differences to observe: For example, the tapering of service frequency with distance away from the city centre is gradual in Barcelona, Valencia, and to a degree Sevilla and Bilbao-Donostia (San Sebastián), but for Madrid the transition is much sharper: For all the prior commentary highlighting the large proportion of trains crossing the community boundaries within “Castilla”, perhaps this proportion is not yet high enough, and the existence of administrative boundaries is somehow inhibiting schedules. Societal evidence from Toledo suggests so – and while Toledo has a broadly comparable relation to Madrid as Girona to Barcelona, with somewhat similar populations, Toledo is served by just a third the number of trains of Girona. There are also substantial differences in the distribution of minor stations (those with fewest trains), which tend to be closer together in the north of Spain than in the south. That pattern does not necessarily reflect differences in population density, and appears more closely aligned to variations in average operating speed (a pattern described in Is Alta Velocidad Fast?) – although it is unclear what constitutes cause and what constitutes effect: Do larger gaps between stations along a route allow the trains serving those station to operate faster overall, or do slow trains stop more often because the deceleration time penalty of stopping is less for a slow train?

Stations by Train Service
Stations by Train Service, where each circle represents a station and the circle’s area is in proportion to the number of trains serving the station (base geography – provincial boundaries in white, railway lines in grey – CC-BY 4.0 via Instituto Geográfico Nacional de España and ADIF)

Underneath most regional Autonomous Communities lay a few large provinces, and below them the standard unit of local administrative geography in Spain is the municipality. Municipalities specifically reflect societal – especially historic and cultural – perceptions of locality, with their size and character ranging from tiny villages to large cities. The older parts of Spain (especially Castilla y León) tend to contain a greater density of municipalities than the newer south, presumably reflecting historic differences in the structure of land ownership (specifically minifundio in the north and latifundio in the south). As discussed later, the Autonomous Community of Murcia has a particularly low density of rural municipalities across its region, which can skew comparisons. Municipalities remain important in the legislative structure of Spain, including local public transport, where traditionally municipal mayors controlled services wholly within their municipality, while those between municipalities defaulted to higher tiers of government. Municipal geography is not applicable to longer-distance travel, for which station catchment tends to exceed the immediate locality the station is in – an alternative analysis of this (called Hinterland Connectivity) will be presented in the next essay, “Understanding Obligación“. Municipal boundaries normally include any station that bears the municipality’s name, although modern AV parkway (“camp”) stations can be exceptions – for example, Figueres-Vilafant is in the second municipality, but primarily serves the first. However, generally municipal boundaries both reflect local travel and provide a basis for association – that a given locality has (or not) a railway station and service – which can have important societal and political connotations beyond mere transport need. In subsequent analysis the observed service network has been arranged not as links between stations, but as links between municipalities. Each train has been counted once per municipality, regardless of how many stations it serves within each. People have then been ascribed to passenger railway services using the municipal Padrón (census registry), specifically data from the start of 2017, the most recent non-provisional year. Initial analysis describes only people:

  1. People are the focus of “democratic” expectation, even if Modern Spain’s democratic model cannot properly mirror the interactions of its people, as discussed in the first essay, “Saving Ferroviarias“.
  2. People are de facto the most widely agree notion of equality within a society, and thus the most universal basis for understanding political counter-balances, even if the Orwellian reality is that the people of Spain are not equal.
  3. People are what board passenger trains, and in almost all cases resident populations are the prime determinant of passenger transport markets, a metric potentially nuanced by further factors such as wealth, age and car availability.
  4. The services and facilities people need, and the economic and cultural activity people engage in, also tend to cluster around groups of people, and thus the connectivity of one geographic group of people to other groups provides a basic measure of the connectivity of individual people to the facilities and activities they need. Only in rather specific cases, such as airports built outside the boundaries of the city they serve, or holiday resorts with few permanent residents, does this rationale fundamentally fail.

Mind the Gaps

Only 1026 of Spain’s 8124 populated municipalities contain one or more railway station with a daily passenger service, however those municipalities served equate to 31 million residents, two thirds of Spain’s population. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is the most populated municipality without trains, while Marbella is the only train-less Peninsula (continental mainland) municipality with a population of more than a hundred thousand people. Indeed many of the most populated municipalities without trains can be found along the southern coast – Chiclana de la Frontera (Cádiz’s tram is not yet operational), Vélez-Málaga (whose tram is not currently operational), El Ejido and Roquetas de Mar (near Almería), and Torrevieja (near Alicant). The southern coast is a particular popular location for dachas (second homes), the limited use of which is not counted as resident population, but will tend to inflate overall transport demand. Many of these towns have grown substantially since RENFE was established in the 1941: For example Marbella’s residential population has multiplied by 15 since 1940, part of a pattern of demographic change that, as further demonstrated later, Renfe’s service patterns have not always acknowledged. A proposal to link Marbella to Fuengirola (and hence to Málaga) has existed since at least the 1920s, yet such a railway still remains a very remote possibility, with no current political or infrastructural commitments.

Renfe (specifically) serves municipalities containing a total of 28 million people, 59% of all Spaniards. Renfe’s non-OSP products only serve 17 million directly (37%), although such “commercial” products are generally aimed at longer-distance travel, where population catchments typically exceed that of the municipality containing the service’s station. 7 million people (15%) are only rail-served by Renfe’s OSP products (with direct access to neither Renfe’s “commercial” trains, nor an alternative railway operator), the largest such populations around the edge of Madrid. The municipality of Jaén, with 114 thousand people, is the most populous of the geographically isolated towns to be only rail-served by Renfe OSP products – at the time of this research, Jaén’s local tram was not operational. That’s the third allusion in two paragraphs to a non-operational Andalucian tram in a town with little or no Renfe service, a relation worthy of further investigation:

The recent Andalucian passion for the construction of trams (and similar light rail systems masquerading as metros) is easily portrayed as a pre-Crisis excess, but does genuinely reflect a lack of Renfe provision: Two thirds (as shown in the Trains by Autonomous Community table contained in the previous essay, “Disassembling Trenes“) of train journeys in Andalucía are now non-Renfe operated, but none of those trains existed until the 2000s. Andalucia has built six and a half separate tram networks, albeit only three and a half are currently operational. The half, Metrocentro, shuttles two kilometres through the city centre of Sevilla, but is operationally and administratively separate from Sevilla’s “metro” line. Ultimately the result has been tram schemes substantially funded by municipalities that structurally could not afford to do so, a financial burden now carried by the Autonomous Community. In contrast, the extensive tram network in Cantabria and in the Asturias called FEVE is maintained by the nation, ostensibly on the basis that 3% of its train journeys cross regional borders. Of course maintaining FEVE does not necessarily mean funding it adequately, and there is more to this balance than just schedules, as explored in the next essay, “Understanding Obligación“.

FEVE‘s pyrrhic connection of Galicia to the Asturias in 1972, that celebrated in the introduction of the first essay of this sequence, “Saving Ferroviarias“, marked the end of the era of local “national” railways: Lines ostensibly built by the state since the 1920s for “cohesión territorial” between poorly connected regions of Spain, but which continued 19th century practices of building stations for every locality in the railway’s path, regardless of those localities’ transport needs or the efficiency of serving those needs with trains. Andalucía’s misfortune was perhaps to boom in the subsequent non-local era, that of AVE, making Andalucía one of the best connected regions to LAV – Sevilla, Córdoba, Málaga, and soon, albeit slowly, Granada – while remaining relatively poorly served by the historic, more local network that the nation largely ceased development of in the 1970s. With no autonomic tradition of non-Renfe railway operation – such as as in Catalunya, where the continual improvements of FGC generated a form of public competition on local railways – Andalucía has perhaps struggled to provide what previous eras could have expected from RENFE or its forebears.

As demonstrated in Is Alta Velocidad Fast?, Andalucía is the curious exception to the principle that regional fares are higher where trains operate faster. Andalucía’s speeds are average for Spain, but almost all her (non-Cercanías) regional trains are categorised as Media Distancia – the most expensive (non-AV) regional fare tier: As if Renfe is counter-balancing something other than local train speed in Andalucía. The polemic of Córdoba’s “Cercanías” proposal is notable because of the continued instance (of Renfe or some associated interest) that a fundamentally local train be classified as Media Distancia, suggesting Renfe’s fare structure in Andalucía is not a historic quirk, but an actively pursued policy. The unwanted Media Distancia categorisation has even been raised in Spain’s national parliament, the Congress of Deputies (161/003225), without response – although the group that raised the issue subsequently became the group in government, blurring the politics still further. It might reasonably be presumed that there are minimum demographic or operational criteria for a service to be declared “Cercanías”, however no such pattern is apparent from existing Cercanías hubs: For example, the population density of the (municipal) territory directly served by Cercanías averages over 1900 people per square kilometre in Catalunya and the Community of Madrid, while averaging only 370 in Andalucía and just 190 in Murcia. Incredibly, Murcia’s Cercanías serves the least densely populated parts of the local network: The average population density of all the areas in the community served by rail is 210, higher than that of its Cercanías. Needless to add that the 6 trains leaving Águilas each day indicate that high frequency is not a determinant of “Cercanías” either.

Like other local railway service proposals in Andalucía, Córdoba’s “Cercanías” started as a municipal project, but where other places ostensibly proposed new light rail systems, or in Cádiz, an administratively complex mix of new and old, Córdoba’s proposal was for a “Metrotrén” entirely on the existing Red Ferroviaria de Interés General (RFIG) – the national network on which only Renfe can legally operate local passenger trains. The first stage of Córdoba’s proposal extended the (historically university-contracted) Córdoba-Universidad Rabanales term-time shuttle to a couple more local stations: A short local route on track otherwise used by longer-distance trains, giving Córdoba’s proposed Cercanías the character of Zaragoza’s, except serving a city with half the population. Since Zaragoza is Renfe’s worst performing Cercanías hub, carrying less than a thousand passenger per day, Renfe’s reluctance to operate something similar for even fewer people in Córdoba would be understandable. But while the idea of a municipality contracting a local railway service directly may have been pragmatic, it would have also set a dangerous precedent for the funding of local trains: If Córdoba has to fund its Cercanías locally, why should Madrid or any other conurbation within a single Autonomous Community have its Cercanías network funded nationally? By implicitly challenging Renfe’s national role, Córdoba eventually obtained a state OSP commitment and associated national funding, albeit a commitment that was not properly local – Media Distancia rather than Cercanías.

That brief diversion into the railway politics of Andalucía gives an insight into how new local railway services are developed, or more precisely, why it is so difficult to develop them under the national umbrella of the contemporary Renfe. Córdoba’s “Media Distancia” Cercanías implies Renfe is even more reluctant to admit a new product category than to provide a new service. Córdoba’s perception of Cercanías almost certainly differs from Renfe’s accounting actuality, where Cercanías might be better described as a means of burying financially well-performing routes amongst the less-so: The (non-Catalan) Cercanías accounts for half the train kilometres supported by the Spanish government, and half of that is in Madrid, but INECO’s recent 340 page report dedicated just one page to the ratio of costs and revenues of the entire Cercanías system, on which just one single aggregated proportion is quoted for the whole of Madrid – akin to adding the cost of a house to a detailed list of groceries in the expectation that the reader will be bedazzled by the tomatoes. The elucidation lay in the subsequent three pages, which explain, in the finest Spanish civil service legalese, why the government is right: The implication – which of course cannot be proven from the data published – is that this aggregation is intended to avoid the future inconvenience of a state-funded local service becoming visibly profitable, and thus open to a liberalisation-related challenge. As introduced in the previous essay, “Disassembling Trenes“, Renfe has a strong cultural motivation to defend its Cercanías operations in Madrid, and thus any proposal that might upset the prevailing financial performance of the whole Cercanías network might reasonably be greeted with caution.

In practice Córdoba’s tren is far more likely to increases loses than raise profitability, which provides further insight: Over the last four decades Renfe’s local and regional operations have been under regular pressure to reduce costs or cut services (most obviously in 1984 and 2013), not to increase costs by agreeing to operate new loss-making OSP services. New funding has been available to the national railway, but largely related to new LAV lines focused on routes between the largest cities – not local routes within cities, nor historically unserved towns such as Marbella. Consequently new local railway services in Andalucía have generally not been funded nationally, creating a skew in the source of local railway funding that is difficult to portray as fair and equal. This, as first mooted in Arriva Celta, is more of a long-term threat to Renfe and the national railway than any liberalised competition on LAV, because once Autonomous Communities and larger municipalities start routinely funding local railway services, the core of Renfe’s “national” operations (which are in fact local) melt away leaving the nation exposed as little more than Castilla.

A Community Platform

The table below summarises some of the main differences in railway provision at municipal level between regional Autonomous Communities. As noted above, there are substantial differences in the scale of municipal geography, reflected in differences in average population. Such differences are less pronounced for municipalities with railway stations, since stations tend to be associated with larger settlements: The average municipality served by rail has 30 thousand people, compared to an overall Spanish average of 6 thousand people per municipality. However inconsistencies remain that are not always explained by underlying physical geography, particularly in Murcia where the overall average population per municipality is over five times the Spanish national average, but the region’s population density is only just above average. That suggests the municipalities of Murcia are disproportionately large, and consequently the population ascribed to a station in Murcia may be higher than an equivalent station in Castilla y León because of historic differences in the perception and administration of place. The final columns show the average number of daily trains per head of population for only those municipalities with stations. These “averages” are weighted by population – for example, Sevilla has 16% of the total population in Andalucía that has a station within their municipality, so 16% of Sevilla’s ratio of trains to population counts toward Andalucía’s total. The Standard Deviation is that of the ratio of trains to population for all the municipalities served within each region, indicating the spread within the data, where comparatively smaller values indicate greater consistency in the ratio of trains to population. The Standard Deviation is dangerous to interpret in isolation, especially as this analysis does not consider competing modes or whether specific stations are served on an operationally marginal basis. However overall, the higher the value, the greater the tendency to serve small populations with many trains, or vice versa large populations with few trains – a pattern that might be judged as economically, or even socially, irrational. The values should, none the less, be read only as a tendency – not that twice the Standard Deviation equates to twice the irrationality – because Standard Deviation can be inflated by a few particularly extreme data points.

Municipalities With Stations, and the Trains Serving Them, by Autonomous Community
Community Population Average Municipality Population (000s) Daily Trains per Thousand People in Municipalities With Stations
Total (millions) With Station in Their Municipality With Station Without Station Average (weighted) Standard Deviation
Andalucía 8.4 52% 45.1 5.9 1.2 3.0
Aragón 1.3 71% 13.5 0.6 0.9 12.4
Asturias 1.0 90% 27.4 2.4 2.4 11.2
Balears 1.1 51% 47.2 10.0 1.7 7.5
Canarias 2.1 17% 178.7 20.4 2.1 0.4
Cantabria 0.6 71% 11.5 2.5 4.0 44.3
Castilla y León 2.4 57% 10.8 0.5 0.9 9.4
Castilla-La Mancha 2.0 49% 17.3 1.2 0.9 19.2
Catalunya 7.6 78% 29.2 2.3 5.5 13.8
Euskadi 2.2 85% 21.3 2.0 6.7 44.2
Extremadura 1.1 54% 19.3 1.4 0.4 3.1
Galicia 2.7 57% 21.8 4.8 0.6 2.3
Madrid 6.5 90% 150.1 4.7 3.0 3.5
Murcia 1.5 73% 72.0 13.0 0.6 1.6
Navarra 0.6 43% 21.5 1.4 0.7 2.2
La Rioja 0.3 64% 28.7 0.7 0.3 4.3
Valenciana 4.9 75% 29.1 3.0 3.4 10.8

Analysis of the Balears and Canarias is skewed by their limited railway networks and island geographies, and not especially relevant to the main topics of this sequence of essays. On the Peninsula, the proportion of each Autonomous Community’s population residing in a municipality with a station ranges from 43% in Navarra to 90% in the Austrias and Madrid. The Community of Madrid is inevitably an exception because of its particularly urban character, but otherwise there is a tendency for Autonomous Communities on the north and east coasts to have a higher proportion of their populations with a local station than those Communities inland, south or west. Municipalities with a station contain, on average, 14 times more people than municipalities without a station, affirming the tendency of railway provision to reflect population, however the least densely populated regions (notably Aragón and the Castillas) still tend to associate smaller populations to stations.

Baides (near Sigüenza in Castilla-La Mancha) has the absolute smallest population served directly by a station, with just 61 residents recorded in the 2017 Padrón data, a statistic whose history is revealing: Baides has lost 90% of its population since the 1940s, a part of a wider pattern of rural depopulation that the state-operated railway is apparently reluctant to acknowledge: Baides station continues to receive 8 trains per day (including direct, if slow, trains to Madrid and to Barcelona via Zaragoza), giving Baides one of the highest ratios of trains to municipal populations anywhere in Spain, and as quantified in the next essay, “Understanding Obligación“, an above average rail connectivity. The absolute highest ratio of trains to municipal population is found in Arakaldo (near Llodio in Euskadi), whose 159 people are offered almost 60 trains per day in total – with no evidence of non-residential demand, such as major employers or neighbouring settlements without stations. Although Arakaldo’s specific service level may be judged excessive (even when served on a marginal basis by trains already travelling between Llodio and Bilbao), much of the north coast (the Asturias, Cantabria and Euskadi) offers high levels of service on networks where relatively high proportions of people have direct access to stations.

The number of trains per head of population tends to be higher for regions that include non-Renfe operators, especially if narrow-gauge FEVE is considered as a public competitor to Iberian-gauge RENFE – which might be argued, given their different histories and continuing operational separation. However this is not simply a case of Autonomous Community operators over-providing – indeed many of the highest ratios of trains to population are Renfe-served, merely Renfe-served in regions where other rail operators are present. Analysing only those trains officially classified as Renfe (including FEVE) reduces the overall average of trains per population by 50-70% in those Peninsula regions with non-Renfe operators, but intriguingly this does not substantially change the Standard Deviation, the spread of data within: The implication is that Renfe defines the density of its train services (relative to population) differently in each region, and so far as comparison with non-Renfe operators is possible, Renfe matches, or is matched by, other railway operators in the region. Consequently Renfe is stopping relatively high volumes of trains at stations in Euskadi to serve populations that probably wouldn’t even justify a station if in Andalucía. While such patterns potentially reflect geographic differences, the case of Baides hints at cultural explanations:

Baides station is on the historic Madrid-Zaragoza-Barcelona railway route, and in the 1940s, when RENFE inherited the route, Baides was the point at which the double-track line from Madrid narrowed to single track, so perhaps trains were originally scheduled to stop at Baides for primarily operational reasons – such as to exchange single-track section signalling tokens – reasons later removed by subsequent infrastructure improvements. Throughout RENFE’s history, Madrid-Zaragoza-Barcelona will have been one of RENFE’s best performing routes financially, and thus probably never the target of a route-level rationalisation. Consequently Baides’ service level has logically been maintained by the relatively good performance of the railway route it is part of, in spite of the station losing 90% of its potential local patronage in the meantime. In contrast, pre-LAV Andalucía was more poorly connected to the larger cities in other regions of Spain, and thus Andalucía’s local stations were logically not as well protected financially by longer-distance routes. So route rationalisations perhaps had a more negative impact on local stations in Andalucía than in certain other regions. However Baides offers one further, much more local, explanation: Baides has an open-air railway museum. The mayor, Antonio Antón, has lined the road to Baides’ station with metal statutes to railroads past. The act reveals strong interest in the railway, which is not uncommon among mayors in “railway towns” because of the railway’s traditional role of physically manifesting state authority. The museum also suggests strong personal connections to the railway, which are typically needed to acquire exhibits. That combination of interest and connections quite naturally tends to protect Baides’ local train service. Yet what Baides’ railway museum most reveals is surely nostalgy: Railways in remote areas are often spoken of as “rural lifelines”, words which economists intuitively relate to the transport connectivity they offer local people. But for Baides the railway would seem to embody the past life of the town itself, an intense relationship between the railway and the locality that brings home the deep societal role railways can offer to very specific local communities.

The municipalities served by a disproportionately low number of daily trains include several places primarily served by the station of their immediate neighbour (such as Molina de Segura, whose local station offers a far lower level of service than the neighbouring city of Murcia) and a few remote rural municipalities where the distribution of population poorly matches the position of the station (such as Úbeda near Jaén, a municipality 40 kilometres across with a station on one side). However the majority of the worst-served municipalities per head are large provincial towns: Algeciras, Almería, Badajoz and Logroño have less than 0.1 daily trains (both directions combined) per thousand population. Burgos, Cáceres, Huelva, Jaén, Lugo, Pamplona and Vigo have between 0.1 and 0.2 daily trains per thousand population. These are towns of around one or two hundred thousand people, which while often surrounded by depopulated rural areas, have themselves been gradually growing in population. Renfe serves these towns with marginal commercial and mid-distance OSP products, offering no genuinely local railway services and no (fully LAV) AVE. Essentially these towns have the minimum Renfe provision for destinations – those places not merely on the route to somewhere else – that have neither AVE nor Cercanías, and thus are easily forgotten by a railway that idolises the first and mostly operates the second (as detailed in the previous essay, “Disassembling Trenes“). On a very rough calculation, the total capacity of these services would only allow about 1% of their respective populations to travel each day, implying Renfe has no tangible share of the local market and perhaps only a small share of the market for longer distance travel.

The geographic character and railway operations of Vigo and Arakaldo are very different – most notably Arakaldo (the municipality with the highest proportion of trains per head) is served on a marginal basis while Vigo is a terminus to which trains must be specifically directed. Vigo also poses a particular challenge because its mid-distance travel market has a strong draw to northern Portugal, a market that national Renfe has no motivation to exploit. But it is hard not to observe that Vigo’s 292 thousand residents are served by less than 60 trains per day, which is much the same number of trains than serve the 159 residents of Arakaldo. That particularly extreme comparison reveals a pattern that is more widely applicable: Overall, Renfe’s operations are primarily local, and thus where there is little or no local Renfe operation, Renfe’s service statistics are comparatively poor. Renfe none-the-less has to maintain the deception that it serves these provincial towns fairly, because Renfe has to maintain its perceived national role – even if, as discussed in the previous essay, “Disassembling Trenes“, that role primarily manages a relatively local balance within “Castilla” which is quite unimportant to (Galician) Vigo and (Basque) Arakaldo. Lengthy routes, large geographical areas, and aggregated products all average better and consequently better demonstrate “equality”. Renfe thus has no organisational motivation to analyse it services by locality – a conclusion born out by the earlier case of Baides. In the short term this organisational culture succeeded in maintaining RENFE‘s national deception, but ultimately it made Renfe unresponsive to demographic change within its market. Critically Renfe has been rendered unable to understand the contemporary demands within its nation – those which now tend to stem from specific large towns and not the depopulated fields of La Mancha – ultimately weakening the national role Renfe sought to foster.

The organisational transition from routes to people – the reanimation of regional – is therefore not just necessary to prompt better use of LAV, but is something that Renfe perhaps needs to do organisationally to remain relevant. The hypothesis that stations on well-performing routes have never been rationalised or reviewed, transpires to provide a good example of the difficulties of introducing alternative organisational approaches, in this case changing emphasis from operations to passengers: For example, crudely rationalising railway stations that serve municipalities with less than a thousand people would remove about 180 currently-served stations from the network – stations that from a route-level operational perspective may have been judged to perform adequately for decades. Such propositions come to the fore when seeking to make better use of LAV, since a LAV-based regional network would not blindly perpetuate the service to minor stations between the larger towns. Approaches already differ between regions: For example, Navarra has effectively already abandoned the railway as a means of genuinely local travel, the Autonomous Community’s current train service patterns essentially inter-provincial. In comparison, neighbouring Euskadi offers train services to 85% of its population, typically at frequencies well above the Spanish average. With the appropriate valley-wide administrative structure, the Galician model of “fast regional” LAV replacing the original railways might be feasible in the Ebro Valley. But it is much harder to imagine the “Basque Y” (Bilbao/Gasteiz/Donostia LAV) serving as anything except an additional AV tier of regional railway operation, because the Basques’ existing railway network serves so many small settlements. No conicidence that Basque media tends to refer to the Tren Alta Velocidad – not to “AVE”.

The next essay in this sequence is called “Understanding Obligación“. It 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”. Continue reading…