The Iberian rail odyssey

Lisbon Oriente (left) and Madrid Atocha stations

The train arrives on time at line 5 in Lisbon’s Gare do Oriente. We wait for it on the platform that’s covered by 17-metre-high steel and glass trees designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in the 1990s. It is 8.20 in the morning and the sun is still on the eastern horizon. This is the beginning of a journey that will take over 11 hours, longer than the rotation of the earth around the sun. Lisbon is just the beginning, and the Intercidades to Guarda is the first stage of this journey. Now, onward to Entroncamento. 

Lisbon Oriente station

These days, travelling by train is the recommended prescription for the great problem of our time: climate change. Reducing CO2 emissions by avoiding petrol- or diesel-fuelled journeys (by car, and especially by plane) is almost consensual advice across the European political spectrum. The European Union wants to be carbon neutral in 29 years’ time. It has even decided to devote this year to rail transport. 

Investigate Europe’s months-long investigation, however, reveals a different reality. Europe’s railways are in a desolate state. They are under-funded and underused, with little rights for passengers. This journey that we are embarking on is just one example.

As in Agatha Christie’s Crime of the Orient Express, there is a long list of suspects on board.  The crime? Who killed the trains in Europe?

There are at least three suspects in the case of the Lisbon-Madrid connection, which was discontinued (or ‘killed’) in 2020. That’s why we’re on board the Intercidades to Guarda; we will have to board another three trains to complete the journey to Atocha (in the Spanish capital), some 11 hours after spotting Comboios de Portugal’s (CP) red locomotive at Gare do Oriente. The suspects are: the companies, the states and the European authorities.

Laying the tracks

In 130 years, there have only been three dramatic instances without long distance train connections between Portugal and Spain: during the Spanish Civil War and the two World Wars. Today Lisbon and Madrid are — together with Athens, Tallinn and Helsinki — among the few capitals in continental Europe that do not have direct trains to other capitals. And Lisbon and Athens are the only ones without a single international rail link. The old Lusitania Express connected the two Iberian capitals until Renfe (the Spanish operator) decided to suspend it indefinitely, in March 2020. The reasons were clear: it carried only around 150,000 passengers a year, which generated losses of close to €3 million. At the same time as they was ending the link to Portugal, Renfe and the Spanish government were in battle with one of France’s largest public companies, SNCF. Why? In order to allow trains from Spain to travel beyond the Pyrenees. We will come back to this story.

We asked the European Commissioner for Transport, the Romanian Liberal Aldina Vălean, about the role that European public support could play for these links between countries. The commissioner argues that “if something is not commercially viable, we cannot force it into existence, because someone will have to pay for it”. Even if a loss-making cross-border line brings other benefits, such as reduced CO2 emissions, Vălean repeats, “We cannot force companies to operate something that is not commercially viable.”

Onward to Badajoz

Let us return to our journey on rails. Parked on line 6 at Entroncamento is the coach that will take us on the second stage to Badajoz. This is one of only three connections with Spain that survive today, served by six trains a day (two in each direction). Compare this to 1985 (before Portugal and Spain joined the EEC), when there were five railway borders in operation and 24 trains crossing them every day. The small, green self-propelled car was bought from the Dutch company Allan & Co’s in 1954 with Marshall Plan funds. At that time, with a diesel engine that could reach 100 kilometres per hour, they were modern and comfortable trains. Today, 67 years later, and in spite of renovations, the railcars that link Entroncamento to Badajoz clearly show the great difference between words and deeds in present-day Europe.

From Entroncamento to Badajoz | Photo by Paulo Peña

In an interview with us, Christopher Irwin opened his eyes in amazement when he heard about this Lisbon-Madrid journey. The Englishman, who has presided over the European Railway Agency and is now a board member of the European Passenger Federation, needed to confirm what he had heard. “Did you really do that?” he asked, adding, “I quite like trains, but I wouldn’t really like to travel on a diesel train across the border to Spain from Lisbon. It would be nice, but I think I would feel quite tired at the end. I’d probably want to get off at the border.”

The ascent

Allan & Co’s diesel engine strains during the climb. The train is moving at no more than 60 km/h. The motorcar vibrates, rumbles and shakes, but from the clear windows, the scenery makes up for it. Beautiful and deserted stations, the Tagus, Vila Nova da Barquinha, the castle of Almourol, Constância, Abrantes, and then the Alto Alentejo, the sobrado, Torre das Vargens station (a railway complex now disused), a view of Elvas…

Of the 15 passengers who entered this train, the majority exit at Portuguese stations (Abrantes, Crato, Elvas). Only a Portuguese couple (who had been shopping in Badajoz) and two Dutch friends (who catch the onward train to Seville), travel the 174 km of the total journey, in two hours and fifty minutes.

We are practically halfway through the Lisbon-Madrid journey — we have traversed 274 km in five hours. This is not an Iberian problem. It is the same, for example, from Milan to Marseille: two changes of train, three tickets, eight hours of travel. Greece is practically isolated from the rest of the continent. 

Spain, when closing the Madrid-Lisbon link, decided to criticise the French authorities for barring access to Renfe. “We have every right to demand from Europe the opening and interoperability of the network, despite fundamentally French resistance,” Spanish Deputy Transport Minister Isabel Pardo de Vera said on November 16, after her government sent two letters in May 2020, one to the French authorities and one to the European Commission. The letters denounced French non-compliance with competition rules.

Spanish state-owned company Renfe is trying to get permission from Paris to take its trains from Lyon to Montpellier and Marseille and thus connect with Spain. The government complains of problems and delays accessing information on technical specifications, which rest in the hands of two SNCF subsidiaries — Eurailtest and CIM.  The train-building company Talgo has also been waiting for two years for the green light to run its Avril trains in France. Meanwhile, SNCF subsidiary Ouigo has been operating in Spain since May 2021 on various commercial routes. 

It sounds like a contradiction, and it is. Portuguese minister Pedro Nuno Santos says European laws are more attentive to competition than to the efficiency of the railways. “The EU considers that economic development has a “silver bullet”: competition. The EU thinks that this is also the silver bullet that will develop the railways. The various railway packages have shown that they do not contribute in any way to the growth of trains. Competition is important, but what we need in order to develop trains in Europe is public investment. There should be no doubt about that.” 

Pedro Nuno Santos explained the Portuguese position to us on board a train. This time, it was on a Lisbon-Oporto journey, set up to bring together, in a summit, the various players in the sector. At a long table inside a special carriage were the leaders of CP (which is by far the dominant operator in passenger transport), Fertágus (the first private operator on the short suburban line south of Lisbon), and private freight operators. There was also Infraestruturas de Portugal (IP), the public company that manages the network and charges “tolls” to the operators’ trains.

This separation between “wheels” (CP) and “rails” (IP) resulted from the first European railway directive of the 1990s. Portugal was one of the first countries to implement the separation. The first was England (which was also the first country to reverse it).

Another contradiction in this story is that large European countries like Germany, France and Italy never even implemented the law that they approved. They created a system where the separation exists in the letter of the law, but where companies are kept together under one holding company.

Portugal wanted to move forward with a similar model, but the current political situation has cooled this intention of Pedro Nuno Santos’ cabinet, at least until the next elections. 

Nuno Freitas, the CP CEO who resigned in the end of September 2021, criticised this separation, which he called “artificial” and wrong. 

Forced happy ending

When the old Portuguese Allan train arrives at Badajoz station, Renfe’s modern “599 series” is already waiting on the line. Even on diesel, the Spanish motorcar reaches speeds impossible for the Allan: 160 km/h. The first journey is short: Badajoz-Mérida. On the Renfe website, we choose the fastest time and connection. But we spend most of it in shock.

The Renfe employee who comes to check the tickets uses a machine to read the QR code. The whistle is shrill and the light is red. He repeats the scan, but nothing. He checks everything else — seat, carriage, train number — and nothing matches. The ticket doesn’t exist, he says with a disapproving look. 

We explain that it does exist — it was bought on the Renfe website, and we have a receipt for the payment. He says he doesn’t want to see the receipt. What’s the solution? “Buy another one,” he suggests. But why should we buy another one if we already have one? “The one you have isn’t right.” After much back and forth, the employee decides to get on the phone with the Spanish railway company. He returns shortly afterwards, but does not have good news. The seat on the next journey, from Merida to Madrid, doesn’t exist either, and the train is already full, he warns.

It is then that we decide to reveal the whole context of the journey to Renfe’s interlocutor. We are doing journalistic work to describe what it costs to go from the Portuguese capital to Madrid. Another phone conversation and finally a solution. “I’m going to speak to my colleague on the train to Madrid. You can get on and sit in the vacant seat that we will indicate to you.”

At 15.29, we board the train to Madrid at Mérida station. Until the final station, in Atocha, nobody will ask us for tickets again. But perhaps that is the happy conclusion of the story only for us journalists. Any other passenger would risk missing the connection, would not be reimbursed for it, and would not, to this day, know how they paid €40 for a ticket that does not exist on the Spanish company’s website.

Arrival in Madrid | Photo by Paulo Peña

It is just after eight in the evening when we arrive at the final destination of this long journey. We know that, in the future, high-speed trains will run between Lisbon and Madrid. The first should begin in 2023, but it is likely to be delayed because the work is behind schedule. Until then, it will continue to be easier to go to Madrid by car or plane. Who is responsible for this? The list of suspects is long, as we have seen. And it is likely that in this story, as in the one Agatha Christie wrote in 1934, there is not just one culprit.