Saturday, April 28, 2012

Spanish Railways

The first proper train line in Spain was opened in October 1848 between Barcelona and Mataró. It was designed by an English Engineer called Joseph Locke. Half the capital was English, the main contractors were called Mackenzie and Brassey and the four initial locomotives were built by a firm called Jones and Potts. That's why Spanish trains still drive on the left. It didn't occur to the British designers or engineers to do it any other way. They did, however, make the same decision as Isambard Kingdom Brunel to build their rails 1.688 metres apart as against the more usual 1.435 metres. This distance between the rails is called gauge.

Just as in the UK the market was soon dominated by major companies. In Spain the initials were not GNER or LNR but TBF (Tarragona, Barcelona, Francia) and MZA (Madrid, Zaragoza, Alicante.) Just like in the UK the fat years were followed by thin and a quango, the EFE, Explotación de Ferrocarriles por el Estado, was formed in 1926 to bring some order to the system and to keep lines open. In 1941 EFE was divided in two. RENFE, Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles, took all the standard and broad gauge network, that's everything over 1.435 metres, leaving EFE with a mish mash of five different narrower gauges.

First let's have a look at what happened to RENFE and then what happened to EFE.

RENFE is still the main, state controlled rail operator although since 1992 it has effectively had two separate divisions - one is based on the traditional Spanish gauge and the other on the narrower Standard gauge. The AVE, Alta Velocidad Española, the super-fast high speed trains, run on the Standard gauge whilst the slower long distance trains and regional trains continue to use the Spanish gauge. Spain currently has the second longest network of high speed routes in the World after China.

In 2005 RENFE was sliced in two. The new RENFE only deals with the operation of the locomotives and rolling stock. The operation of infrastructure - track, signalling, bridges, level crossings, tunnels and stations - was separated off and given to ADIF, Administrador de Infraestructuras Ferroviarias. The analogy with Railtrack/Network Rail and train operators such as Virgin Trains in the UK is striking.

Now lets have a look at what happened to EFE. As time went on more lines and companies ran into financial trouble and EFE took them over. Eventually, in 1965 some attempt was made to rationalise the system and FEVE, Ferrocarriles de Via Estrecha, was formed. Slowly, but surely, FEVE began to convert all of its lines to the metre gauge. Then, from 1978 onwards, with the development of democracy, FEVE handed over some of its lines and rolling stock to several Regional Governments with many of those lines now converted into metros or into locally integrated tram and rail systems.

In my experience Spanish trains are clean, inexpensive and efficient. Why not try a short train ride for a different day out on either a RENFE line from say Petrer, Villena, Alicante or Murcia or on the narrow gauge out of Alicante towards Denia or maybe from Cartagena to Los Nietos?

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