High-speed train popularity skyrockets in Spain, says market authority

ETR 1000 trains Iryo

The number of high-speed passengers in Spain grew by 76 per cent in 2022 compared to the previous year, reaching 23.7 million, according to a new study by the Spanish National Markets and Competition Commission (CNMC). This post-pandemic increase is credited to public subsidies and market liberalisation, which led to more operators entering the Spanish high-speed lines.

In total, rail transportation in Spain saw an increase of 440 million passengers last year, marking a 36 per cent rise compared to the 324 million passengers transported in 2021. During that year the covid-19 pandemic was not yet over, leading the passenger number to be 14 per cent lower than the figures observed in 2019 before the outbreak.

Out of the 440 million total passengers, a significant 85 per cent made use of the Cercanías commuter train services. The implementation of government subsidies helped drive this passenger growth, according to the CNMC. Notably, the Cercanías trains experienced a remarkable 31 per cent surge in passengers compared to 2021, after the Spanish Ministry of Finance began offering free multi-trip tickets in July 2022 (a scheme which has been extended until December 2023). Medium-distance trains, also operating free of charge, exceeded pre-pandemic figures by carrying nearly 26 million passengers, reflecting a 68 per cent increase from 2021.

High-speed medium-distance trains, catering to recurrent users with a 50 per cent discount, saw a noteworthy 90 per cent rise in passengers from 2021, with only a slight 3.5 per cent dip compared to 2019’s numbers, amounting to 8.5 million passengers. Long-distance trains contributed to this growth as well, accommodating 9.5 million passengers, a notable 45 per cent surge from the previous year.

Trains over planes on the Barcelona – Madrid corridor

The route between the country’s two main cities, Madrid and Barcelona, has been open to competition since December 2020, states the CNMC. It was not until May 2021 however that Ouigo, a subsidiary of the French SNCF, began operating on the line, and a month later Spanish state operator Renfe launched its low-cost service, Avlo to compete, in addition to its existing AVE high-speed trains. In November 2022, third operator Iryo joined the tracks on the route, after its inaugural journey on Madrid – Valencia several days earlier. The Madrid-Barcelona high-speed line has seen the best recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, registering 5.6 million passengers back in 2021.

In 2021, amidst the ongoing process of rail liberalisation, the portion of travellers opting for air travel along the Madrid-Barcelona route declined to 24.2 per cent. This marks a notable shift from preceding years when the percentage exceeded 35 per cent, according to details provided in the recently released Rail Sector Report 2021 by the CNMC.

Impressively, on the Madrid-Barcelona route, 78.3 per cent of passengers (or four out of five) chose the train, of which 26.4 per cent opted for Ouigo. Also, the entry of the new operator has not meant a drop in passengers for Renfe, which in addition to increasing the number of passengers, reached a share of 80.9 per cent, to 10.2 million passengers in the second quarter of 2022. As such, in 2022, Spain’s railway sector witnessed a transformation due to new operators entering the scene, boosting rail travel over aviation.

Renfe train in Barcelona (Photo: Shutterstock)
Renfe high-speed train in Barcelona

Competition has benefited high-speed rail

High-speed rail saw a 76 per cent increase in 2022 compare to 2021, carrying 23.7 million passengers, as highlighted in the 2022 Railway Sector Annual Report. Ouigo and Iryo’s expansion into the Levante corridor in October and December 2022 added competition for Renfe’s AVE and Avlo trains. Ouigo and Iryo’s entry brought remarkable changes on the Madrid-Barcelona as well as on several other corridors, doubling passengers on the Madrid-Valencia corridor (up by 110 per cent to 2.9 million) and other corridors (up by 60 per cent).

However, the corridor that has experienced the greatest growth in passengers is the one linking Madrid with Alicante with almost 29 per cent more passengers and 48.6 per cent more seats offered between April and June 2022 compared to the same period in 2019. The Madrid-Malaga/Granada line had 12.6 per cent more passengers and 8 per cent more seats on offer.

Ouigo train in Spain
Ouigo train for the routes Madrid-Albacete-Alicante

New Spanish connections

Within Spain, Ouigo is setting its sights on expanding its reach significantly. By 2023 and 2024, Ouigo ambitiously intends to stretch its services to Cordoba, Seville, Malaga, and the coveted Costa del Sol. Euroweekly also reports that a new Ouigo high-speed service will link Elche and Madrid from 2024 onwards. In response, Renfe’s Avlo is positioning itself to seize the Madrid-Alicante route starting March 27, with Iryo following suit on June 2.

Since 2022, Ouigo, under the SNCF umbrella, introduced a cost-effective high-speed connection from Madrid to Valencia. Ouigo Spain launched its third high-speed service in May, connecting Madrid to Albacete and to the coastal city of Alicante. Ouigo also offers high-speed services between Barcelona, València, Zaragoza, and Tarragona. A dynamic rivalry unfolds as Iryo continues to establish itself on the Barcelona-Madrid route, ensuring 16 daily return journeys. Beyond this, Iryo’s reach extends to Malaga, Madrid, and Cordoba as of 31 March 2023, while Renfe’s Avlo concurrently bolsters connections between Madrid, Malaga, and Seville since June 2023.

New international connections

Renfe is poised to introduce new high-speed AVE services connecting Spain and France in the upcoming year. Kicking off this expansion, the Barcelona-Lyon route commenced operations on July 13, with daily services slated to begin from September 1. In a bid to bolster cross-border rail connectivity, Renfe’s strategic initiatives also encompass an extension from Madrid to Marseille, set in motion on July 28. Currently operating on weekends, the service is anticipated to transition to daily operations in September. Looking ahead, the network has ambitious plans, eyeing additional routes to Paris by 2024, aligning with the impending Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, the FS Italiane Group’s announcement in December 2022 outlined intentions to launch a high-speed Frecciarossa train connection between Madrid and Paris. This new venture will link the bustling cities, extending the existing high-speed service that already connects Barcelona to the Spanish capital. The Italian railways also expressed interest in further extending this connection on to Brussels and Amsterdam in the future. The anticipated launch in late 2024 hints at broader ambitions, potentially opening avenues for Madrid-Italy connections via France.

‘Red arrow’ train of Italian state railways FS, the main shareholder of Spanish new entrant Iryo

Seasonal offers in Spain

Passenger numbers and connection offers also increase in summer, towards coastal towns in particular. Indeed, Renfe has introduced “Beach Trains” from Castilla y León to Gijón, Santander, and San Sebastián, running until August 27. The Valladolid-Santander route will be modified due to Adif’s infrastructure works, using road transport between Torrelavega and Santander. The Miranda de Ebro-San Sebastián Beach Train has been operating daily since July.

Renfe is also relaunching its iconic luxury night trains, starting with the Al Ándalus and Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, each with a 40-year history. The Transcantábrico Gran Lujo offers an 8-day journey from San Sebastián to Santiago de Compostela, while the Al Ándalus presents a 7-day trip from and to Sevilla, featuring enhancements and a fresh logo. The Costa Verde Express, a 6-day voyage connecting Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela, will recommence next month. Moreover, Renfe presents a variety of routes in Galicia, equipped with guides and stops at attractions, available from May to October, including a six-day luxury option, the Costa Verde y Transcantábrico.

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Author: Emma Dailey

Emma Dailey is an editor at RailTech.com and RailTech.be.

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