RENFE is in a hurry

The Portuguese publication, Transportes e Negocios reported earlier this month, ‘Renfe is in a hurry’. RENFE already operate a joint service with CP between Porto and Vigo. Half of the journey is carried out by a Portuguese driver and the other half by a Spanish driver. RENFE want the freedom to operate this line on their own and with their own equipment. CP has not, as yet, even ordered the new Alfa trains, RENFE already has its own AVE trains in operation.

It doesn’t stop at Porto

RENFE wants to operate through to Lisbon giving access to Spain’s high-speed rail network. RENFE need to obtain what is known as the ‘Single Security Certificate’, and they only have a few weeks left to apply. There is little doubt they will meet the deadline. They have already signed an agreement with Camões Institute for training in Portuguese. January 1, 2024, is the deadline announced for carrying out the works.

Portugal is the weak rail link

Compared with Spain and France, Portugal is the weak link in connecting into the high-speed network running through both those countries. For whatever reason, the progress in developing the lines and infrastructure is woefully slow. France now has 2,800 km of high-speed lines, and Spain has 3,100 km of lines, this is due to expand to 4,000 km this year. High-speed rail is defined as lines capable of trains traveling at speeds more than 220 kmh. Although Portugal has plans, so far there are no routes capable of allowing these speeds.

According to a report on the site Ruetir, earlier this month, ‘Although with some initial reluctance, it seems that the connection with Madrid has regained strength in recent months. Portugal is working on a fast line between Évora and Elvas of 90 kilometres, which would leave high speed at the gates of the border. Right next to Badajoz, where “high speed” has arrived after years of abandonment by the administrations. According to the Portuguese Government, the connection could be fully operational in 2024.

According to an environmental impact study that will close to public scrutiny on 16th June, Phase 1 of the future Porto – Lisbon high-speed line, will cost €1.65 billion and will take four years to build. 500 million Euros will come from EU funding. What is more confusing is that this new Lisbon Porto line will be built to the Iberian gauge, ‘to facilitate integration with the rest of the national rail network’, “but with a view to interoperability with the European system, it includes multipurpose sleepers that allow, if necessary, the passage to that European system”. The Iberian gauge is 1,668 mm, the problem being that since 1992, all high-speed rail lines in Spain have been built to 1,435 mm.

Spanish Talgo trains had already solved the gauge problem at the end of the 1960s with its famous independent wheel trains. If you are interested in this extraordinary system, there is a video here (it's in Spanish). What this means is that RENFE can run their Talgo trains anywhere in Portugal, should they wish. Two different rail gauges isn’t a problem.

Why is Renfe interested in operating in Portugal?

In Spain, France, and the UK, competition is high with new operators, frequently low cost, entering into the high-speed rail market. These are all competitive markets with different services and costs. Portugal still only has one operator, CP. As far as I can understand, and EU regulations are far from easy to understand, Portugal could not stop other operators from entering the rail market. There is no suggestion that they would want to.

RENFE are initially eyeing the Lisbon–Porto-Spain route, but also the Lisbon-Madrid route. They have the trains; they have the knowledge. They also have the Talgo trains that in theory could operate on any lines they thought interesting. They don’t have the Alfa Pendular flagship Pendolino high-speed tilting train which enables relatively high-speed travel on older sections of the Portuguese network, such as Lisbon Algarve.

In terms of rail travel, Portugal has been slow in adopting the next level of train travel, perhaps it didn’t justify the investment. Now, with the increasing interest and demand in high-speed rail as an alternative to air travel is increasing, it’s time to catch up. That’s certainly what the EU wants.

High-speed rail from Northern Europe into Southern Europe reaches as far as Seville and Malaga, it’s up and running, and popular. New sleeper services are being launched this year. People want an alternative to airlines within Europe, and Portugal is a wide open, and so far an undeveloped rail market and RENFE clearly have decided they want some of the action.

Expect to see Spanish trains in Portugal sometime soon.


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