How a new high-speed line in Basque Country will connect the north of Spain

New bridge in Basque Country for the high-speed line Adif

Spain is building a high-speed line in the Basque Country, a Y-shaped railway line which will connect several cities in the Northern region. Work is progressing with some of the engineering structures already completed and just waiting for the rails to be laid. But the project has been delayed for years with multiple announcements of opening dates.

The new Vitoria-Bilbao-San Sebastián-French border high-speed line, called Y-Basque, is part of the Atlantic branch of the European Union’s priority project No. 3. This line concerns the route Madrid – Valladolid – Vitoria-Gasteiz to the French border, on Spanish territory.

In Spain, this line will link the three capitals of the Basque Autonomous Community and bring the Basque Country closer to the rest of the peninsula, as well as to France. In addition, the new railway infrastructure will be linked to Pamplona by the “Corredor Navarro”, which is a separate project.

When the high-speed line becomes operational, train journey times will be majorly reduced for the three Basque capitals. The journey time between Vitoria-Gasteiz – Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz – San Sebastián will be reduced by around 60 per cent, and by 80 per cent for the Bilbao – San Sebastián link.

Major civil engineering

The rugged terrain of the entire region makes civil engineering very important. In an orography such as that of the Basque Country, a mountainous region, it is expensive to draw very wide radii and essentially horizontal profiles.  The project as it stands comprises 80 tunnels, and potentially two more if the link between Basauri and Bilbao –Abando is finally decided.

Together, the length of the tunnels would total 104.3 kilometres and represent 61 per cent of the total length of the route. Viaducts account for a total of 17 kilometres, or 10 per cent of the route, leaving only 50.6 kilometres, 29 per cent of the route on the ground, in trenches or embankments.

The average number of singular structures on the entire line, whether tunnels or viaducts, is 71 per cent of the route. When the Y-shaped route is completed, the distance between Gasteiz and Bilbao should fall to 73.8 kilometres, while the Vitoria-Gasteiz – San Sebastián section will be 103.9 kilometres long.

As Spain’s other high-speed lines, the individual lines of this Y are built to the standard European gauge of 1,435mm and not in Iberian gauge. They will also have a type 3 configuration for a mixed freight/passenger route, with curves of a minimum radius of 3,100m and maximum gradients of 15 thousandths per metre.

Map of the unfinished and finished sections of the high-speed line, image: ADIF

In practice, passenger trains will travel at speeds of 220 to 240 kilometres per hour, while freight trains will travel at up to 120 kilometres per hour. As the line is mixed freight/passenger, the route will also serve two logistics platforms: one at Jundiz near Vitoria-Gasteiz and the other at the port of Pasaia, west of Irún.

Access to the city centres

For the three Basque cities of Vitoria-Gasteiz, Bilbao and San Sebastian, there is also the important question of access to the high-speed line. The issue is that the stations are currently narrow, with Spanish standard 1.668mm gauge tracks, while in the same stations room must be made for the European gauge 1.435mm tracks to accommodate the high-speed trains.

This may seem like a small detail, but in Spain it means either specialising tracks to this gauge, and therefore further reducing the space available for Spanish wide tracks, or laying a third rail on the existing tracks. Neither of these two designs is suitable, due to their complexity. As a result, consideration was given to burying the European gauge tracks in tunnels, as was done in Girona, but the question of financing this remains.

While the first section Vitoria-Gasteiz – Bilbao was originally scheduled to open in 2023, Adif most recently put the completion of the Basque high-speed line to be in the year 2027 in a draft budget last year, reported El Diario. However, for the possible underground access to the stations, the cost of such a profound transformation and their accesses inevitably agitates the cities involved, because it involves dealing with considerable urban transformations. This implies negotiations with the Madrid government, the Basque government, the provincial governments and the town halls involved, and important decisions to be made before the end of the line is in sight.

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Author: Frédéric de Kemmeter

Frédéric de Kemmeter is signalling technician and railway policy observer.

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