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162 years and counting: Will Spain's Málaga-Marbella train ever happen?

The Local Spain
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162 years and counting: Will Spain's Málaga-Marbella train ever happen?
People stroll in Puerto Banus luxury marina and shopping complex in Marbella. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

After Spain's Transport Minister argued against a direct Málaga-Marbella train line, plans for an underground connection pushed by the local council could join the long list of aborted projects over the last 162 years.

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The cities of Málaga and Marbella, down in the southern region of Andalusia in what most tourists know as the Costa del Sol, are roughly 60km apart.

Not far at all in a country the size of Spain. Yet if you've been to either, or both, you'll likely know that there isn't a direct train between the two.

This is particularly frustrating for travellers as it means getting to Málaga airport from Marbella must be done by car, taxi, bus or an airport shuttle bus.

But how is it possible that there isn't a direct train between two of the most popular tourist destinations in the whole of Spain?

Well, it's not as if there haven't been any attempts over the years. In fact, the long-awaited train link between Málaga and Marbella has been an incredible 162 years in the making. There have been at least seven serious plans put together, that all ultimately fell through and never materialised.

The most recent was as late as late-2023, when a new underground railway line connecting the AVE line in Málaga with Marbella was proposed via the airport, Torremolinos, Benalmádena, Fuengirola and Mijas. Plans by the council focused on underground lines as the Costa del Sol has become so overpopulated and built up that there's not much room to put it anywhere else.

The route was slated to be a 47km line that would run underground for 88 percent of the route and reach speeds of 160 km per hour.

Yet once again, as has happened so many times over the (many) decades, plans to connect the two Andalusian cities have been put on hold... again, and the government doesn't seem to think it will come anytime soon.

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This follows statements from Spain's Transport Minister, Óscar Puente, who claims that it would not only be too expensive and difficult to construct, but that there are, incredibly, no impact plans: "there is not a single piece of paper to work with," the Minister said in the Spanish press recently, adding that there aren't even any "feasibility studies or environmental impact statements."

However, in the last five years alone, over €600,000 have been earmarked for studies for the coastal train, but the government has avoided scrutiny on where that money has gone and what the planning status is.

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In an interview on Spanish radio station Onda Cero, Puente claimed that there are several "problems" with a possible Málaga-Marbella line. The first of these is that several alternatives are being considered, the first of which is to extend the Cercanías line, but the Minister argued this would turn it "into a non-competitive route... [because] if the train stops in 20 places it is not competitive and in the end people will end up doing the same thing they have been doing until now, which is to go by car to get to Málaga to catch the AVE.

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Puente added that the government is studying ways "to improve connections in this area" such as laying more tracks on the existing Cercanías line to Fuengirola to improve capacity and transit times, though he admitted "it seems complicated to me to make a commitment of this kind or at least within a reasonable period of time."

The second problem with a direct line is geographical in nature, namely the terrain and mountains making building a railway line too difficult, too costly, or environmentally damaging. "If you draw the line on a map it is very easy, but the problem is the orography, the economic and environmental conditioning factors that exist in a line of this type are enormous."

He added that "nobody is planning a solution... because of the costs and the environmental impact". If Spain's Transport Minister is saying that, we can safely say a Málaga-Marbella direct train line probably isn't coming anytime soon.

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162 years of plans

The latest plans to fall by the wayside follow a long tradition of aborted rail projects between Málaga and Marbella.

The first was all the way back in 1862, and then, in 1926, Marbella was supposed to be covered in a Málaga-Algeciras line, but that didn't work out either.

There was also a project in the 1960s which was shelved, failed plans by the Junta de Andalucía project a few years later, then another joint proposal by the Junta and national government, which was waylaid by the financial crisis, further plans by the central government and, now, the underground railway idea promoted by the city and provincial councils.

In total seven separate projects at various stages of planning over 162 years, mostly cancelled due to costs or the geographical problems with laying the track.

Sadly, if the noises coming out of the Spanish government are anything to go by (however much local councils would love to get a line) there probably won't be a direct Málaga-Marbella tramline anytime soon.

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