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.