Why are the Spanish so keen on new rail links? What is it with higher speeds? They must be perverse – look at the terrain!
Distances, for starters. It’s 490 kilometres from Madrid to Valencia, and a heck of a lot further from the capital to Barcelona. Also, the “inherited” network isn’t exactly awash with capacity – much of it outside the largest cities is still single track. So new build is the Big Thing. Consider one example.
Alacant (or Alicante in Castellano) looks to have a well appointed terminus and approach, until you realise that the two tracks serve two different routes. Curving away to the left, and without the benefit of electrification, is one track which arcs round to the waterfront station of San Gabriel, where trains must reverse to continue their journey to Elx and Murcia. Despite this line being almost completely single track, on weekdays it often has to cope with two or even three trains each way every hour. Timekeeping is actually quite good – speed is not.
The track to the right twists and turns as it climbs up to the plain, past the towns of Elda and Villena. This, too, the route to Madrid and Valencia, is single track. Only after passing the wayside station at Caudete does it branch into two spurs which then join the upgraded double track line from Albacete to Valencia – which is straight enough for speeds of up to 220 km/h. So you get decent speeds for part of the way, but timekeeping on the single track part is not good: I travelled from Alacant to Valencia and back twice recently, and only one of four sectors was on time. The other three were at least ten minutes late.
Capacity for more trains, consistent timekeeping, and the kind of speed that brings cities within three hours of Madrid. These clear objectives are being carried through into the program of new build rail links. Also, the Spanish have no problem with their new railways being built to a gauge which is different to their inherited network. How so? I will return to this subject with an explanation.