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Why are there so few trains between Spain and Portugal?

The Local Spain
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Why are there so few trains between Spain and Portugal?
Why are there so few rail connections between Spain and Portugal? Photo: Josep LAGO / AFP

It takes 9+ hours to travel by train from Madrid to Lisbon, with rail links between Spain and Portugal called "the worst in decades". Why are there no high-speed trains between the two nations and is the situation likely to improve?

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Most countries in Western Europe have many rail connections between them, including several high-speed ones, but the rail links between Spain and Portugal are severely lacking.

The map below showcases this reality. Focus on the Iberian Peninsula and you will notice that there are no direct high-speed connections between Madrid and Lisbon, or Spain and Portugal for that matter.

Networks of major high-speed rail operators in Europe, 2019. Source: Deutsche Bahn/Wikipedia
 

In fact, they are the only two European capitals that are not linked by high-speed networks.

There is currently no direct route between the two cities, a situation that hasn't changed since the early days of the pandemic in 2020 when Spain's Renfe decided to get rid of the sleeper train between Madrid and Lisbon.

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That means that you now need to change trains at least twice if not three or four times. The fastest train takes around nine hours and of these, there are three per day. 

By contrast, it takes seven hours by bus to go from Madrid to Lisbon, or six hours by car.

Other rail connections between the neighbouring countries are no better. For example, if you want to get from the coasts of Andalusia to the Algarve via public transport, you have to take a bus as there aren’t any trains.

The only two existing direct connections between both nations are between Vigo and Porto, and Badajoz and Entroncamento.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tUbLnBivIw

 

It's no surprise that in November 2022, the Iberian Alliance for the Railway described current rail connections between Spain and Portugal as "the worst in decades".

El País newspaper even ran an article saying that rail connection between Madrid and Lisbon were worse than in 1881.

So is anything being done to change this far-from-ideal situation and what's been holding improvements back?

Portugal prioritises Galicia over Madrid

The European Commission supports the idea of two independent lines that will link both A Coruña (in Galicia, in Spain's northwest) and Madrid with Lisbon, in order to improve connections between these cities.

The EU and Portugal have also voiced their interest in reducing the time that it takes to travel from Lisbon to Madrid by train to a more reasonable five hours.  

"In two years we'll reduce it to five hours," Miguel Cruz, chairman of Infrastructure Portugal (IP), said in January 2023.

However, in the more immediate future, Portugal’s priority appears to be improving connections with the port city of Vigo in Galicia, and not Madrid.  

Carlos Fernandes, Vice President of Infrastructures in Portugal, explained during the presentation of the country’s railway plans that the Atlantic corridor "develops our country and the centrality of our cities, and not the centrality of other Iberian cities (in relation to Madrid)”.

The Atlantic corridor is an €11 billion project which aims to link Porto and Lisbon via a high-speed line that Portugal wants to extend to Vigo.  

Portugal has close economic and social ties with Galicia and wants to make this a priority before even considering Madrid, which partly explains why a high-speed link between the two Iberian capitals hasn't materialised.

In addition, Portuguese rail authorities argue that it will allow the south of Galicia to have a better connection with Porto airport, which they consider the most important in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula, and that studies have shown than linking the north-western Spanish region on top of Portugal is what more Portuguese rail users demand.

This is not the first time that a project of this type has been discussed. One of the main roadblocks the plans have come up against is the construction of a bridge across the Miño river that can support a high-speed line.  

When and if the line is completed, it will mean that Vigo will be connected with Porto in just one hour, instead of the current two hours and 20 mins.

And the whole route from Lisbon would take just as much time as it currently takes to get from Porto – two hours 20 mins. Currently, it takes over five hours.  

Regarding the Lisbon-Madrid connection, new low-cost operator in Spain Iryo has suggested connecting the two cities via Extremadura, but there is neither a date nor a budget for this yet. 

In the meantime, the electrification and modernisation of the railway lines that will eventually link Lisbon and Madrid is proving costly and moving slowly.

READ ALSO - Iryo: What to know about Spain’s newest high-speed low-cost trains

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Political wrangling

The matter of poor Spain-Portugal rail connections is in fact a long-running political saga.

In the eyes of Spanish transport authorities, Portugal has so far prioritised cars and only now wants to improve its rail connections with Spain, namely Galicia.

In an interview with El País, Pedro Nuno Santos, Portuguese Minister of Infrastructure, criticised Renfe for not maintaining the night train connection between Lisbon and Madrid. "We are interested in resuming it, but we don't have anyone to tow the trains on the Spanish side”, he said.

The idea was to have a high-speed connection between the Portuguese and Spanish capitals by 2030 and the travel time shortened by 2026, but Portugal’s apparent reluctance to make Madrid a priority has slowed down plans.

There are problems on the Spanish side too, sections of the track in Extremadura haven’t been made compatible with electric trains yet and there are more issues with 200-kilometre section near Toledo which still needs to be rectified before any connections with Lisbon can be made.

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The EU's push for a better railway network

Schemes like Interrail have been popular with young people backpacking across Europe for years, but today an increasing number of people are choosing to travel by train.

Soaring flight prices caused by fuel costs and post-pandemic travel have also played a part in the demand for rail travel.

The EU has set a target of doubling high-speed rail traffic by 2030, and tripling it by 2050, in an attempt to cut carbon emissions from other transport by 90 percent within the next three decades. 

Recently the European Commission announced a plan to support 10 new pilot projects for the creation of new train lines connecting different cities on the continent and promote environmentally friendly alternatives to flying.

A night train between Barcelona and Amsterdam was one of these. 

READ ALSO: Night train between Barcelona and Amsterdam to open before end of the year

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