The recent statement from the government that travel times between Madrid and Lisbon would be reduced to nine hours borders on laughable. A high-speed train could travel the 715 km distance in around 3 hours if its average speed was 180 kmph. The new trains and rails etc are already working at up to 300 kmph.

The bottle neck seems to be section between the Portuguese border and Lisbon. Only two years ago, Pedro Nuno Santos, the Portuguese infrastructure and housing minister told the European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee, ‘we plan, by the end of December 2023, to have a high-speed connection between Lisbon and Madrid, which provides for a maximum speed of 350 kilometres/hour’.

Lisbon or Porto?

Although Spain is developing the link from Madrid to the Portuguese border, aided by EU funds, there seems to be no news about the ongoing link to Lisbon. Contacts in the rail industry indicate that they are now looking at Oporto as the potential international rail gateway as Spain is upgrading the missing sections of their high-speed network to make connections to Porto at a much faster speed.

Lisbon Madrid – Faster & cheaper by bus

It’s a sad observation that at this moment, the fastest, and cheapest, way between Madrid and Lisbon is by bus. It takes six and a half hours and costs about €30. By train it takes over nine hours and costs twice as much. By car it’s about six hours. Please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that less than three hours by high-speed train is a very attractive alternative, so why isn’t it happening?

There are some obvious advantages. Oporto (Campanhã) Station would be the same station for incoming and outgoing connections. In Lisbon you would have to change stations. Portugal is currently working on upgrading the Porto Lisbon rail link to high speed with a projected journey time of around 2.5 hours. The same Alfa Pendular train continues to the Algarve at around three hours. So, North to South, no station or train changes is an attractive proposition.

The Atlantic Corridor

Total investment for the project “Atlantic Corridor Madrid-Lisbon high-speed line for mixed traffic – track, electrification and installations phase II” is EUR 1 564 718 863, with the EU’s European Regional Development Fund contributing EUR 264 950 000 through the “Multiregional Operational Programme for Spain”. The investment falls under the priority “Promoting sustainable transport and removing bottlenecks in key network infrastructure”.

The EU funded Atlantic Corridor high speed rail project, over 8,200 Km long and crosses 4 countries: Spain, Portugal, France and Germany.

The Atlantic Corridor proposes to link the Western part of the Iberian Peninsula to France and Germany, with high-speed rail lines and parallel conventional ones, providing for the continuity of the networks between Lisbon, Madrid, Paris and Strasbourg/ Mannheim. The EU wants this to happen, they want high speed rail availability to seriously challenge air transport. That can only be done by connecting France and the Iberian Peninsular with a ‘seamless’ network, and a lot of progress is being made, but not, as far as I can see, in Portugal.

Spain leads the way to high-speed rail

Spain, on the other hand, is developing the network at an amazing speed. This year they opened a new high speed rail tunnel under Madrid. In Europe Spain has the longest route network for fast links by rail involving more than 2,000km – with Madrid as the hub for rail long-distance traffic on the Iberian Peninsula. The high-speed connections coming from the north previously finished in Madrid at the Chamartin terminus and those from the south in Puerta de Atocha. Until July passengers had to transfer to commuter trains if they want to travel between them. As a result at present the 7.3 km long AVE twin-track rail tunnel opened on July 1, connecting the high-speed lines serving northern Spain from Chamartín with those running from Atocha to Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Málaga and Seville, the new link will enable passengers to cross Madrid without changing trains and will reduce congestion on the approaches to the Spanish capital.

The new double-track tunnel has cost €338m to build, and forms part of the wider €1.1bn investment programme. Spain’s commitment to covering the country with a high-speed network is obvious. You may think that’s irrelevant, but you can’t get to Portugal by train without crossing Spain.

Sleeper trains

If you must travel between Lisbon and Madrid by train, sleeper trains would at least be a good answer. Incredibly, there is no direct train between Madrid & Lisbon, two adjacent EU capitals. The overnight sleeper train Trenhotel Lusitania was temporarily suspended in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and Renfe (Spanish Railways) have used this as an excuse to discontinue it permanently.

The people to watch are Midnight Trains. Appropriately named this French start up rail service will connect Paris to 12 European cities, including Edinburgh, Porto, Rome, and Copenhagen. Along the way, guests will have their own private room with a bed and bathroom. Midnight Trains will also feature a bar and restaurant with seasonal products, homemade cocktails, craft beers, and wines. Guests can also opt for room service and have their meals and drinks brought directly to them. I personally believe that to compete with the airlines, the midnight trains concept has a great attraction. It makes your journey part of the holiday.

Meanwhile Portugal, please copy Spain’s enthusiasm and energy in developing the high-speed network.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman