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Thousands protest to demand return of Spain's old western train line

Conor Faulkner
Conor Faulkner - [email protected]
Thousands protest to demand return of Spain's old western train line
The 'Ruta de la Plata' route previously linked four regions of Spain: Asturias, Castilla y León, Extremadura, and Andalusia. (Photo by JOSEP LAGO / AFP)

Thousands of people took to the streets of cities up and down western Spain over the weekend calling for the return of the old 'La Plata' train route, a sprawling network that covered the west of the country from north to south but which was shut down in the 1980s.

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Thousands of people took to the streets across twelve cities in western Spain over the weekend to demand the reopening of the 'Ruta de la Plata' train line, a route that stretched for 900km and linked the west of the country from Gijón all the way down to Seville but closed in 1985.

It owes its name to the Vía de la Plata, a Roman road that followed a similar route and travelled through the west of the country from north to south.

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Turnout at the protests was particularly strong in Salamanca, as well as in several towns and cities in Extremadura.

Alfonso Fernández Mañueco, president of the Junta de Castilla y León, joined the protests in the city and stressed the importance of a western link and improved travel infrastructure more generally: "It is more urgent than ever to increase frequencies with Madrid, but also to complete the train connection with Portugal and to support the Ruta de la Plata and the Atlantic corridor," he said.

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María Guardiola, the President of Extremadura, has also made recovering La Plata route a priority for the region, in order to improve both passenger and freight mobility.

The route previously linked four regions of Spain: Asturias, Castilla y León, Extremadura, and Andalusia, and connected towns and cities such as Salamanca, Cáceres, Mérida, Astorga, Oviedo and León.

Its closure in 1985 has left many parts of western Spain underserved by public transport connections.

Organisers of the protests state that the lack of transport links have had demographic and economic impacts on provinces up and down the west: "the provinces that suffered the closure between Astorga and Plasencia have been condemned to depopulation, as economic flows are centralised and large urban centres are encouraged, where undesirable bottlenecks form and infrastructure is hoarded. We firmly believe that completing the Gijón-Sevilla-Huelva-Algeciras line is a clear measure to address the demographic challenge".

Regional transport imbalances are nothing new in Spain. Often when trying to travel between major cities, particularly in western Spain but also in the south of the country, many journeys require travellers to pass through Madrid because there are no direct lines.

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In terms of kilometre coverage Spain has the most high-speed railway lines in Europe, and the second in the entire world, but it is not evenly distributed.

As such, most high-speed connections converge in Madrid and over the decades the rest of the long-distance network has lost links that connected different regions without the need to pass through the capital city.

Though connections in northern and eastern Spain are generally better, in the south and west, as well as in the inland ‘Empty Spain’, swathes of the country are left without good connections or even a train station.

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Critics argue that the high level of investment in high-speed rail should have instead been put into regional Cercanías and conventional long distance services, as these non-Madrid, inter-regional routes better serve neglected provinces and regions in an economic and demographic sense.

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Spain's Minister of Transport and Sustainable Mobility, Óscar Puente, has stated that some type of reincarnated Ruta de la Plata could be possible in the future, but tempered hopes by saying that any realistic plans would likely take time to come to fruition.

The western route "is being talked about again,” Puente said, but “was dismantled more than three decades ago and is now a greenway," referring to the fact that the old Extremadura section of the line is now used by walkers and cyclists, which would mean that if it was recovered, it would need to be rerouted.

Any project would therefore need to "start from scratch," Puente added, in order to "take a purely rational decision."

The Minister also stated that steps to undertake a feasibility study have begun, with a private company brought in to better understand the possible options for reopening parts of the line.

The study alone, however, could take at least two years, before a decision will be taken, and the funding earmarked for any potential project, which would likely come from the European Union, was recently pushed back into a tranche of legislation for 2050.

READ ALSO: Why are there so few trains between Spain and Portugal?

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