Why the Spanish model of rail liberalisation is promising


ANALYSIS – The liberalisation of high-speed traffic in Spain became a reality at the beginning of May. This country offers a particular design with a framework based on traffic volumes rather than on full opening. A model that could be of interest to other countries.

Unlike in other countries such as Italy, the idea of liberalisation in Spain was not to bring in competition just to challenge the state operator Renfe. The priority was to increase traffic on a high-speed network that is oversized, and thus obtain more revenue. It was clear that the state operator Renfe alone did not have the capacity to provide enough traffic and rail tolls to Adif, the Spanish rail network manager.

Large network, larger potential

Spain’s high-speed network is the second largest in the world in terms of line kilometres, after China. Despite its 3,200 kilometres of high-speed lines, a 2018 report by the CNMC (National Commission for Markets and Competition) indicated that 76 percent of the network’s capacity is virtually idle. This is not uniform everywhere, but it is unequivocal: Madrid-Barcelona has 41 percent of its capacity occupied, while on Albacete-Alicante it is only nine percent. Renfe reported 33.6 million passengers on commercial services, of which 21.3 million on AVEs, while public service obligations totaled 560 million users (89.4 percent on commuter trains). This gives an indication of the significant potential that exists on the long-distance segment.

The network manager has not opened the entire Spanish high-speed network, but only three lines: Madrid-Barcelona, Madrid-Valencia/Alicante and Madrid-Toledo/Seville/Malaga. Traffic rights were offered on all these lines in three packages: type A for heavy traffic (up to three trains per hour), type B for traffic of one train per hour and type C for services of four to five trains per day.

A Ouigo high-speed train in Spain, a subsidiary of SNCF

Huge increase in traffic

An operator could only tender one of the three packages. SNCF won the C package and operates it since last May under the low-cost brand Ouigo. Package B was won by a consortium between ILSA (a subsidiary of Air Nostrum) and Trenitalia, which has big European ambitions. Finally, package A went to the public operator Renfe, which was the only one which had sufficient resources for significant traffic.

By package dividing based on frequency, the three operators can operate trains on all three lines. On the line Madrid-Barcelona there are now 53 daily trains, almost a doubling of traffic. 61 daily trains run on the Madrid-Toledo-Seville/Malaga line, an increase of 75 percent, and 53 trains run on the Madrid-Levante line (Valencia and Alicante), a 40 percent increase. Renfe retains between 100 and 107 trains in total, a market share of 64 percent. This highlights the Spanish policy of welcoming other operators without killing the national operator.

Obtaining trains

With the exception of Renfe, the other two competitors had to set up their own company with their own trains and maintenance. SNCF opted for Alstom 2N2 Euroduplex TGVs, 14 of which were adapted to Spanish signalling, in addition to ETCS. Alstom-Spain is responsible for maintenance. This ability to obtain trains quickly has enabled SNCF to launch its services from mid-2021, under the Ouigo-Espana brand. As we are coming out of a period of travel restrictions due to the pandemic, only the Madrid-Barcelona route is currently operated.

Renfe’s response was swift. It had already designed its Talgo Avlo in 2019, a low-cost high-speed train with only 438 second-class seats. With the launch of SNCF’s Ouigo trains in May, Renfe launched its Avlo low-cost train on 23 June on the Madrid-Barcelona route. At present, therefore, this line is operated by two operators and three types of trains: AVE (Renfe), Avlo (Renfe) and Ouigo (SNCF).

The Avlo train, Renfe’s low-cost alternative

Three different manufacturers

The Italian/Spanish consortium ILSA/Trenitalia, which gained package B, had already announced that its operations would only start in 2022. It wants to run the Bombardier/Hitachi Zefiro high-speed train in Spain, which Trenitalia already operates in Italy under the name Frecciarossa 1000. Trenitalia has placed an order of 50 trainsets, partly for its operations in France and of course for Spanish operations.

A first Frecciarossa train set for Ilsa/Trenitalia is being transferred to Spain for various tests. The operator Renfe remains loyal to Talgo, and in 2016 and 2017 placed an order for 30 train sets of the manufacturer’s new high-speed train, the Talgo Avril. The Adif network will thus welcome rolling stock from three different manufacturers: Talgo (AVE and Avlo of Renfe), Alstom (Ouigo SNCF) and Hitachi Rail (Ilsa/Trenitalia). It would be the first country to have trains from so many different manufacturers.


The Spanish model is atypical, but promising. Unlike open access, this concept of liberalisation framed by packages puts the State back at the centre of the game, which is a strong demand from citizens. Moreover, Spain gives its infrastructure manager Adif a real role as project manager and conductor. Finally, this solution also makes it possible to support the historical operator by giving it the means to adapt.

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Author: Frédéric de Kemmeter

Frédéric de Kemmeter is signalling technician and railway policy observer.

1 comment op “Why the Spanish model of rail liberalisation is promising”

Joachim Falkenhagen|25.08.21|14:46

It appears the operation of night trains on the system has been forgotten?

Were the track rights assigned on a lump sum basis, so that an operator has to pay a fixed price annually, irrespective of whether it runs many trains (up to the maximum allowed) or just a few?

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