Spain is waking up to a future of fast travel with a new high-speed rail network, due to come online later this year. Howard Johnston investigates.
Despite their penchant for siestas, the Spanish seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere of late – with regard to their train lines anyway. Ambitious plans for a high-speed rail system – perhaps the most ambitious in the world – have thrown Spain into a future of planning, to meet a promise for a current network that is tenfold in size by 2020.
Under the plans, 9,000km of high-speed lines will be built. This is in comparison with the 15 years leading up to 2005, when just 1,031km of high-speed lines were built. Should these plans come to fruition, it will mean that 90% of Spain's population will be less than 50km from a station served by high-speed lines.
The total value of Spain's high-speed rail expansion plans is around €83.5bn, and this is not where it ends. Other aspirations include a host of line-speed upgrades and standard gauge conversion.
SPANISH STRATEGIC RAIL PLAN
Spanish track authority ADIF is implementing the strategic plan – it will invest €20.6bn over this period. This figure has grown from a commitment of €4.5bn in 2006, of which only €3bn was allocated to the high-speed network, €500m to the conventional network and €323m to other investments.
Although inevitably smaller than the long-range plans, ADIF's ambitions are massive, involving almost a dozen major projects. It plans to provide Spain with 2,200km of high-speed lines by 2010.
The inauguration of the 350km/h Madrid-Segovia-Valladolid line is also expected in 2007, where the biggest civil engineering work is a tunnel beneath the Guadarrama mountain range. A new high-speed alignment is also under construction between Ourense and Santiago in the north west of Spain – this will form part of a planned new high-speed link to Madrid.
Further east, a high-speed line is being built between La Robla and Pola de Lena on the existing line linking the regional capital Leon with the major northern port city of Gijon. The Bilbao-Vitoria section of the so-called 'Y-shaped' high-speed network in the Basque Country is currently being built, while the other branch, between Vitoria and San Sebastian, remains at the planning stage.
But one of the most significant developments is the high-speed line being built between Madrid and Valencia, with eventual plans to extend this as far south as Murcia and Cartagena, a total distance of about 845km.
Spain is also committed to building a high-speed line that will eventually allow trains to operate at 350km/h between Madrid and the Portuguese capital Lisbon.
TGV: TRIED AND TESTED TECHNOLOGY
Despite being one of Western Europe's biggest countries, it wasn't until Seville was chosen to host the World Expo in 1992 that Spain decided to build its first high-speed route – a 417km line from Madrid. Based largely on French TGV (high-speed steel wheel) technology, the route was built to standard-gauge (1,435mm compared with the 1,668mm prevalent in Spain). In Spain, this has proved highly successful.
Much of the route to Seville runs over the trackbed of the former 1,668mm-gauge line between Madrid and Badajoz, although a great deal of work was needed to upgrade the civil engineering for the higher speeds.
Between Braztortas and Cordoba there is 119km of new line through the Sierra Morena mountains and the final 127km (79 miles) from Cordoba to Santa Justa station, Seville, runs parallel to existing alignments, in common with high-speed lines in other countries.
WAITING FOR A TRAIN
The success of the country's first high-speed line meant follow-ups were always likely but it has taken some time for them to come to fruition.
By far the most important undertaking is the 651km Madrid-Barcelona line, which in mid-2007 started operating to Tarragonna. The corridor is currently dominated by air, but with a maximum linespeed of 350km/h the new route can compete effectively.
The line is electrified at 25kVAC and has a minimum curve radius of 4,000m and the track is 60kg/m steel rail mounted on concrete sleepers.
The first stage between Madrid, Zaragoza and Lerida opened in October 2003, and after repeated delays, in 2007, services were running – at limited speed – as far as Tarragona.
It is eventually planned that the line to the French border will be extended through a tunnel under the Pyrenees. Initial studies have suggested the underground section to be around 8km long, at a potential cost of €900m, but it is planned to use private finance (probably operating as a concession) to fund this.
Upgrading is also underway of the line between Bobadilla and Granada to enable it to be used by high-speed trains.
THE BILLION-EURO ROLLING STOCK COMMITMENT
Two contracts worth a total €741m were equally divided between Talgo / Bombardier and Siemens to provide 32 trains capable of 350km/h for new services in 2004. The Talgo 350 trains follow the design of the successful 2001 prototype and are in 12-car formations with 318 first class and Turista (standard) seats and a buffet car.
Talgo and Bombardier have also won a 14-year maintenance-sharing contract for the fleet. They are powered by separate power cars and non-powered trailer coaches, similar to conventional TGV trains.
Siemens took a different approach with its trains, basing them on the popular and successful ICE-3 electric multiple unit used by Deutsche Bahn on inter-city services. These eight-car trains use distributed power throughout, obviating the need for separate power cars and maximising seating space for passengers.
Known as Velaro E, the train seats 404 passengers and includes a conference room for business travellers who are expected to form a large portion of the new line's customers. In recognition of the higher temperatures that are likely to be encountered in Spain, Siemens has paid special attention to upgrading its cooling and air-conditioning equipment, as well as mitigating the impact of dust ingress.
In February 2004 Spanish railway enterprise RENFE announced an order of almost €4bn for new trains capable of running on both gauges, which included domestic trains, international overnight stock, variable-gauge EMUs for regional services and further orders for the S-103 Velaro-E.
In addition, an order for 30 AVE S-102 330km/h high-speed trains was placed with Talgo / Bombardier for delivery from August 2008 to December 2010, bringing the total order to 46. These trains are being built with Bombardier's MITRAC 3000 propulsion system with traction auxiliary converter and drive systems and very high-speed bogies.
SIGNALLING ISSUES DELAY RAPID PROGRESS
Madrid-Barcelona is the first rail line in Spain to use the emerging standard of European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), combined with European Train Control System (ETCS) level two cab signalling, although because of its use of existing lines, conventional signalling has been retained between Barcelona, Valencia and Alicante.
The choice of ERTMS / ETCS was controversial and serious consideration was given at times to abandoning it. It meant that trains had to use back-up signalling systems to operate on the new line but not at the speeds originally envisaged. ETCS level one operation began in 2006, allowing trains to run safely at speeds up to 250km/h: some way short of target but still a creditable achievement.
With Madrid to Barcelona finally due to open in 2007 – though an exact date remains open to question – attention is focusing on new lines under construction. There is no question of Spain's commitment to high-speed rail and the plans to increase the network by such a huge amount are a serious statement of intent.
If all goes to plan, and there is every reason to think this increasingly dynamic country will ensure it does, by 2020 Spain will have perhaps the finest and most comprehensive network of high-speed rail lines anywhere in Europe.