Now they are testing new routes between France and Spain. They announced a couple of weeks ago that they will start operating high-speed trains on the Madrid-Marseille and Barcelona-Lyon lines "before the summer". Why is that significant? Read on.

The European Commission designated 2021 as the “Year of European Rail”. EU governments are now trying to reduce barriers to cross-border train travel by introducing new data-sharing systems to allow a centralised booking system and replacing outdated infrastructure.

Renfe's representative in Catalonia, Mayte Castillo, recently stated that the Spanish company's intention to operate on the Barcelona-Paris line "in the long term". Last month (January 17th) Renfe started running tests their high speed on the systems on the French network and to train their staff. The Spanish railway carried out its first test with these trains on the Barcelona-Lyon line. The Spanish company has yet to train its workers to be able to circulate on the French lines, but after obtaining safety certificates for both lines it’s all go. What is crystal clear is that Renfe is pushing fast and will be operational on French rail lines before this summer.

Renfe have already applied to use Paddington and the Channel Tunnel, and this has been received favourably by the operators of the tunnel.

Renfe is an aggressive promotor of high-speed rail, and its ambitions are not limited to Spain. They recently announced that they were entering into the UK rail passenger market as a strategic partner of Grand Union Trains, an open access operator that harbours plans to operate a new commercial service between London and Carmarthen in South Wales.

Start to ‘join up the dots’ and it’s clear to see that Renfe have ambitions to operate high-speed service in and from the UK, into France and then on to Spain. What about Portugal?

Renfe and the Eurotunnel

The Eurotunnel is operated by a company called Getlink. They get paid by traffic running through the tunnel. Operator Eurostar purchases the time it takes to run through the tunnel plus a fee per passenger. With the Covid-19 pandemic cutting back passengers by a massive 90 percent and Eurostar reducing the number of trains, the flow of income for Getlink also dried up for a significant part. In 2020, turnover was almost a third lower compared to 2019.

The main goal for Getlink is thus to get more traffic to run through the tunnel. Interestingly the most interested potential ‘client’ is Renfe.

About the prospects of more operators joining the Eurostar through the tunnel, Getlink is in talks with many different operators. Of these only, the Spanish Renfe has publicly stated interest in operating trains from Paris to London. “Operating in France, both in high-speed and in OSP (Public Service Obligation), continues to be Renfe’s main objective for their international strategy”, said Manel Villalante Llauradó, General Director of Development and Strategy at Renfe recently in the company’s blog ‘Destino’.

London – Paris – Barcelona – Lisbon?

Since they were invented by George Pullman and Georges Nagelmackers, sleeper trains have appeared and disappeared from the railways, subject as they are to the whims of fate and history. But now sleeper trains are making a big comeback. Step aboard the sleek new train and find your compartment. Inside there are two bunks, clean sheets, coat hangers, towels, a drink and a private en-suite. This is Nightjet, a growing fleet of sleeper trains across Europe offering an environmentally friendly alternative to air travel.

Waiting in the wings is Midnight Trains, and they have clear ambitions to reach Portugal, specifically Porto. They brand their offer as a hotel on rails.

Credits: PA; Author: PA;

Research has shown that the public no longer favour the concept of six bunks in a cabin without facilities, the legendary couchette. It was cheap, but now they are prepared to pay more for a higher standard of service. What the new operators are offering is a private cabin, en-suite facilities and a higher standard of catering.

Many of the legendary luxury trains stopped service earlier this century, and even the Spanish Trenhotel stopped running. Covid-19 dealt a death blow, but now the idea of travelling by sleeper train is still very much, if not more, present in the public imagination and the demand for their return has rarely been so strong.

What about Portugal?

Northern Europe to Spain is clearly advancing at a high pace. As Madrid has no high-speed rail connection to Lisbon, the obvious route that most operators are looking at is Barcelona to Porto. But as there aren't any direct services running between Barcelona and Porto, you'll still need to make three changes on your way to Porto. Renfe have a small presence on the CP rails, a ‘fast’ train connects Porto to Vigo (Spain). This train is operated by both CP and the Spanish railway network RENFE. Those of you harbouring thoughts of a link from Seville to Faro will be disappointed. It’s further than a dream away.

The announcement from Renfe last month of the testing of their high-speed trains on the French network shows that the dream of travelling from Northern Europe to Portugal is getting closer. Watch this space.


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