Bus often faster than rail in Portugal, analysis shows
Express bus services often beat the long-distance train in Portugal when it comes to travel time, an analysis by Portuguese economic newspaper ECO has shown. Bus services arrive faster than the train in 29 cases out of 59 routes analysed. The result of decades of prioritising roads over rail, transport experts argue in the paper.
A bus being faster is particularly noticeable when crossing the country from the coast, where the population density is highest, to the interior of the country to the East. Some examples are the connection between Lisbon and Covilhã, where the bus takes three hours and 15 minutes and costs 16.5 euros. On the train – the Beira Baixa Line – you pay more and and spend an additional 17 minutes.
Train changes are frequent, even for trips between district capitals, in the interior of the country. This is because the lines are organised in a radial style and not in a network. Between Évora and Portalegre, the train takes three times as long as the bus and, on top of that, the price is higher, analysed ECO. The same happens between Castelo Branco and Portalegre, for example.
The maximum speed of a bus is 100 kilometres per hour, while trains can reach 200 or up to 220 kilometres per hour in Portugal. However, there are many lines where trains do not reach these speeds, but instead have a maximum speed of 150, 120 or even 80 kilometres per hour. Some lines have been modernised in recent years, suc as part of the Beira Beixa and Leste lines, however the works focussed on restoring the line to normal circulation conditions, instead of increasing the speed of the trains.
Only 70 percent of the network operational
Portugal’s railway network has a total length of 3,621.6 kilometres. However, only 70 per cent of the network is in operation, or 2,527 kilometres. Out of 900 stations, 563 are in service. Highways in Portugal have for some time been getting the main focus, not in the least looking at the investments. Between 1981 and 2011, investment in motorways was four times larger than that of the railways. Only 7 per cent of the infrastructure budget went to rail, points out Patrícia Coelho de Melo of the University of Lisbon, one of the authors of a study into the impact of investment in motorways.
This makes it not surprising that the train is performing less than its potential. The underinvestment in rail also impacted the country on a socio-economic scale, sees Coelho de Melo. “The focus on the highway has contributed not only to concentrate the population and economic activity on the coast of the country, but also intensified the phenomenon of suburbanisation in large metropolitan areas and increased the dynamics of dispersed urban expansion in most of the territory”, she said to ECO.
Also, a coherent rail connection from Portugal to the Iberian and European network following higher investment could have reduced dependence on road transport, said José Rio Fernandes to the paper, a geographer at the University of Porto. This would lead to a reduction in costs, an improvement in the competitiveness of companies and a clear environmental advantage, as freight transport via rail has much lower emissions than via road.
Hope for rail?
A change is planned, however. Portugal’s National Railway Plan, approved the Council of Ministers late last year, intends to revert the situation by 2050. It would bring the train back in the districts where it does not run anymore, create a real connected rail network and even make high-speed rail reach the 10 largest cities. It is feared, however, that the document is merely a guide.
“The document lacks a clear timetable and a financial master plan to support it. You have to know what amounts the State allocates via the State Budget and European funds, so that at least part of what you propose to do do comes off the drawing board”, said Manuel Tao, transport specialist from the University of Algarve, to ECO. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the necessary investments to revitalise Portugal’s railway network will meet the promises of the plans.