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Spain | How to build rail at high speed

Madrid Atocha station

Spain right now has the world’s second largest high-speed rail network at 3,248km, with another 1279km under construction, and another 1,496km forecast.

It’s only beaten by the Chinese with 19,000km now and 30,0000km forecast by 2020.

One thing in common with China and Spain is their strength and speed of construction is a great source of national pride.

New Civil Engineer’s host in Madrid is ADIF (Administrador de Infraestructuras Ferroviarias), the state-owned company charged with running the country’s rail infrastructure. ADIF deputy manager of international projects Ramiro Valdes Alvarez-Palencia proudly declares that five of the top construction companies in the world are Spanish. And for the record, six Spanish companies are also in the world’s top 12 transportation developers.

The country’s construction muscle has been flexed overseas – the latest display in Saudi Arabia, where a Spanish-Saudi consortium will build a €6.7bn high speed line between Mecca and Medina. Now Spain’s dominance is being felt in the UK, as HS2 calls for tenders.


But it was all very different way back in the late 1980s/early 1990s when the first high-speed line was being proposed. In 1986, the year Spain entered the European Union, the government also decided on a new railway line from Madrid to Seville. The 471km high speed line was open by 1992 but slow to pick up willing passengers. Politicians at the time were calling the €2.69bn (£1.89bn) project a failure.

“There was a lot of pressure, because it’s a lot of money,” says ADIF’s Alvarez-Palencia. In return for the project funding from the Spanish Government, ADIF has committed to 99.6% punctuality, and will repay the total amount of a ticket if there is more than a five minute delay.



A map of Spain’s history in extending their high-speed rail service.


The high speed line opened with 1.311M passengers in its first year. He says by the fourth year of operation, thankfully, the line started showing more users and more public acceptance.

“After 1992, there were some crises, we needed to be sure both sides of politics were committed. And more than that, the population.”

There were more tremors in the economy, including the lead up to Spain’s entry into the Eurozone in 1999, with investment stymied. Then came the big crisis of 2008, which brought the country to its knees, from which it is yet to fully recover. In fact it could be said that the booming sectors of property investment, construction and infrastructure led to the crisis, keeping the Spanish government strongly in surplus and addicted to expenditure.

And yet through all this, Spain surged ahead with establishing the network, eventually surpassing total track length of Japan and France which had up to 30-years’ head start. And while France and Japan have added about 500km every 10 years, Spain built at almost three times this speed (1,350km every decade).

In 1992, 34% of all trips from Madrid to Seville were on high speed trains. In 2015 that figure was 90.2%

ADIF cotrol

ADIF control

ADIF’s control room in Madrid overlooks high speed, metro and conventional rail services.

HS2 bid

LFM – a consortium of UK-based firms Laing O’Rourke and Murphy, are boosting their credentials with Spanish-based FCC Construction. The consortium is based in Birmingham city centre, where, if the planned HS2 phase 1 goes ahead as planned, will be about 50 minutes from London. The consortium is keen to show off FCC’s expertise in boring tunnels, bridging and laying track, which it’s completed about 700km’s worth in Spain so far. 

Meanwhile, other Spanish expertise shortlisted for work on HS2 include Ferrovial Agroman (under joint venture “Fusion”, with Morgan Sindall and BAM Nuttall) and Acciona Infraestructuras (“ASL”, with John Sisk and Son and Lagan). There are nine bidders in total for between £7.1bn and £11.8bn worth of civil engineering work between London and Crewe. Civils contracts for the 225.3km from London to Birmingham are expected to be signed next year, and works starting in 2018.

Unfortunately, talking about the HS2 bids directly is difficult, with commercial-in-confidence reigning supreme during the tender process. Even off-the-cuff comments are nervously later retracted by companys’ public relations.

Cutting costs

Something that has helped high speed rail in Spain is laws that say the government has the right to take land if it is in the national interest. In England, there are similar compulsory acquisition laws that are “within limits”, offering more recourse to those affected.

“This is very important because in a lot of places it’s a problem,” says Alvarez-Palencia. “Somebody is asking millions of euros for nothing, but sometimes you are willing to pay, to avoid a delay.”

Another way costs are cut in Spain is to reduce civil work contracts to sections as small as 5km, typically taking bids from only two or three nearby companies.

“This is what been doing for last few years, it’s cheaper than [tendering for] say, 200km sections.

“We also have a lot of tunnels, viaducts, that increase the cost [per kilometre] of the project.”

Public-Private Partnerships have also been utilised, but they account for about 1% of all high speed rail funding; the other 99% comes from 44% financial debt, 34% government capital investment, 19% EU funds, 2% asset sales.

PPPs are often used for stations (perhaps incorporating a mall, businesses) or signalling.

“The advantage for us, they find the best solution, cheaper. It is very hard for us to judge where the balance between ’cheapest’ and ‘best’ solution, but not for private sector.”

spain passengers

spain passengers

Passenger growth on spanish high speed grows steadily, accelerating as new lines come into commission.


Location, Location, Location

There are scattered reports of underuse, and some lines creating a “luxury commuter” class. But ADIF says through offering a range of classes (and differing speeds) for commuters and tourists, there has been a 35 per cent increase in total travellers. “This is new demand, of people not travelling before. A new type of person could travel because there is a new convenient mode of transport,” Alvarez-Palencia says.

“It’s not a question of money: If a city doctor wants to visit a town of 100,000 people for the afternoon, he could drive for two and a half hours…he is not going to do it. But for a less than one-hour train ride, maybe he will go. And it’s the same in other examples for general managers, students.”

Spain is blessed with many medium-sized cities that take a few hours’ train ride. It also connects to France’s rail system via trains that switch between Iberian (Spanish) gauge and Standard gauge at 30km/h.

“In my opinion, the UK has a reduced number of big cities, with most people centred in London. But you have cities of about 200,000 people, and they cannot justify a flight to Paris, or London, or whatever. But maybe they would prefer a train.”

“For a distance of 100km, 150km, 200km, Madrid to Barcelona for example, there is only need for one, two or three flights per day. Whereas the high speed train can afford to take less people, stop more often and pick up smaller towns. If you have good service with enough frequency, passengers will come.”

We have no problems with congestion, not at all. 

Ramiro Valdes Alvarez-Palencia

As the population moves towards urban areas, high speed rail has seen slight population increases in towns outside Madrid, such as Cordoba, 30 minutes from Madrid and with about 300,000 residents.

“After the train goes into operation, they [smaller towns] increase in population, not a lot, but quite a few, and that brings in industry. But other cities of the same size (outside of course Madrid, Saville, Barcelona) their population is reducing.”

High speed might steal capacity from flights. To a lesser extent, it lures a few drivers away from their cars. But it most definitely steals capacity from conventional (slow) passenger rail.

“We have conventional line commuter trains that run, maybe 40km out from Madrid that are virtually empty.”

He says the train operator’s “next challenge” will be getting more freight on to the conventional line, replacing these empty trains.

Overall, the Spaniards seem happy with their progress so far.

“Our highways are better than yours, and our population is smaller than yours. We have no problems with congestion, not at all.”

  • From 2005 to 2014 ADIF have spent about €42bn euros, with €36bn on high speed.
  • High speed punctuality rate is 98.5% (second-best after Japan).
  • 2016 Spain state budget – total investment in rail €10.129M, with more than half (€5.460M) on railways, of which 67% is spent on high speed (€3.679M)
  • 2012-2024, Investment distribution in transport by modes and concepts: €52,733M railways; €39,548M roads; €6,639M airports and air transport.

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