Catalonia Calling! #21

What's Wrong with RENFE? - 13/2/2016

Catalonia Calling #21 is called What is wrong with RENFE? and focuses on the umpteenth disaster, which caused delays on the local railway network here in Barcelona. This might not seem important in political terms but it is because it shows an endemic problem of lack of investment and a model of state that concentrates most of its resources on the state capital, Madrid, whilst leaving peripheral powerhouses like Barcelona to go to rack and ruin.

Regarding the rest of the news ... there's been some bickering between Mariano Rajoy and Pedro Sánchez but no progress on the forming of the new government in Madrid, some puppeteers were arrested for a puppet show that exalted violence, the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont met with 50 foreign consuls in Barcelona to explain the independence project to them and it looks like the CUP are going to make it difficult for Junts pel Sí to get their essential budget through Parliament.

But this show is all about what's wrong with RENFE and the Spanish transport system, in general.


Another RENFE Disaster

This week the local train network in Catalonia run by state monopoly RENFE, when 100,000 passengers were subject to long delays. A fire apparently started in an abandoned railway station by some homeless people who were living there caused smoke to fill the tunnels and 210 trains were brought to a halt.

The big problem is that this is just the last in a long series of disasters. In 2007, when tens of thousands of furious passengers occupied the railway lines in Barcelona, central government promised to provide proper maintenance for its Catalan RENFE network. These promises were not met and breakdowns in the network have been frequent since then.

The president of the state company that manages the infrastructure, ADIF, blamed Catalan police for the latest incident because he said that it was their responsibility to make sure that and the president of ADIF refused to come to meeting about the problem hosted by the BCN City Council and the Catalan government. On the same day, an emergency meeting was called in Madrid because the local RENFE network there was running five minutes late.

Here in Catalonia, we're sick to the back teeth of the lack of investment which lead to the continual breakdowns but watching people, who were arriving late for work for the umpteemth time, being interviewed on television, there was a definite sense of resignation. I have to say that having spent many years working out of town in Montcada i Reixach, Granollers and Bellaterra and having to catch a Rodalies local train every day, one of the main improvements in my life has been becoming RENFE free over the last five years or so

Rodalies de Catalunya?

Here in Catalonia the local train network is called Rodalies de Catalunya - Rodalies is Cercanias in Spanish, by the way - and we are told that the system is run by the Generalitat of Catalonia. This is only partially true because the Spanish railway system as a whole is run by RENFE, the Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles or National Network of Spanish Railways, who operate all the lines that go to long and middle distance destinations outside Catalonia. This means that the Generalitat only actually administers the system and is responsible for little more than employing the workforce and deciding on the timetables.

The rolling stock belongs to RENFE and the stations and railway lines themselves belong to another company ADIF, the Administrador de Infraestructuras Ferroviarias or Administrator of Railway Infrastructures. So it is ADIF that really controls investment in and maintenance of the key elements of the railway network in Catalonia.

The local Catalan police have a responsibility to uphold the law and protect ADIF property but, as it's private property, the ultimate responsibility is down to ADIF. This means it was their responsibility to report the presence of homeless people in the disused station and then the Mossos d'Esquadra, the Catalan police, would have acted on that information.

Something similar happened a few months ago when the cables in a signal box on the high-speed AVE train line were cut by vandals. The Spanish government blamed lack of vigilance by the Catalan police. However, the Mossos can hardly be responsible for hundreds of relatively unprotected kilometres of railway lines. ADIF should either make sure their fences are in a condition to keep trespassers out or employ private security.

The obvious comparison is between RENFE Rodalies and the Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya, which are a local railway line somewhere between a metro and a local train network, a bit like the overground network in London. The Ferrocarrils are the completely responsibility of the Generalitat and seem to function perfectly as there are hardly ever complaints about delays or breakdowns.

I'll let you draw your own conclusions but Catalan journalist, Vicent Partal, has stated in a recent editorial: 'the fault of the chaos on the Catalan RENFE network is the fault of the Spanish government, there is no doubt about that' and suggests that the Catalan government should take over the entire network itself.

Comparing Catalonia and Madrid

To the annoyance of Barcelona passengers, who had been left without any train service for almost a whole day on Tuesday. On Wednesday, delays of 5 minutes provoked complaints and demonstrations in Madrid, which met with an immediate apology from the Spanish government so it is worth comparing the situation in Barcelona and Madrid.

Barcelona has 450 kilometres of local train lines whilst Madrid has 375 and in the last 20 years, there have been zero kilometres of line built in the Barcelona area whilst ADIF have built 84 kilometres of lines around Madrid.

Regarding stations, Barcelona has 107 and Madrid 99 and in the last 20 years, 8 new stations have been opened in the Barcelona area whilst Madrid has had 20 new stations.

In Madrid there is also a higher circulation of trains and passengers than in Barcelona. There are 1,00 trains every day with an average of 950,000 passengers whereas in the Barcelona metropolitan area there are 86 trains and only 345,000 passengers.

The single line factor is also important because where there is only one line for trains to use, whenever there's an accident or a delay, this creates a bottleneck that affects the whole network. Barcelona has 80 kilometres of sectors with only one line whereas Madrid only has 28 kilometres of single line.

What About the Barcelona and Madrid Metro Systems?

It's also worth looking at the figures for the metro lines in the two cities.The Barcelona Metro System has 123 kilometres of track, 165 stations and 11 lines whilst Madrid has 294 kilometres, 301 stations and 15 lines.

Since the year 2000, the metro network has increased by 124 kilometres and Barcelona by 32, a figure which includes the new section between the city centre and the airport that was opened on Friday.

This means that the metro line to the airport stated working from Madrid to Barajas in 1999, from Valencia city centre to its airport in 2007 and from Barcelona City Centre to Barcelona El Prat Airport only this week, and even so, the line only goes as far as Zona Universitaria because there still isn't enough money to finance the section that will go right to the city centre.

Most of the information above comes from an article by Vicent Partal in Catalan for Vilaweb, which you can find here.

A Centralist Attitude

I know I say this again and again but, in my opinion, the main problem is the centralist model of state that Spain adopted when Felipe II made the village of Madrid the capital of his empire in 1561. It was located right in the middle of the country without essental transport connections, in those days roads, to the major cities on the periphery, such as Seville, Valladolid, Burgos, Bilbao, Valencia or Barcelona.

The crown's solution was a massive building programme to constructions Caminos Reales or Royal Roads so that nobles could get from their homes in distant towns to the court in Madrid. In fact, the Royal Roads still exist today but are now the motorways that cross hundrees of kilometres of uninhabited Meseta, where sometimes you don't see another car for hours.

Incidentally, these are non-toll motorways unlike the overused ones in Catalonia and are in excellent condition, partly because they are hardly used and partly because there upkeep, which guarantees that his subjects can get to see the King and his government in Madrid, is still a national priority


In 1848, the very first train line in Spain was opened between Barcelona and Mataró. It had been built entirely using private money so it had to be profitable. The government had been confident that this new fangled invention called the train would never catch on but when they saw how successful it was, they wanted one of their own.

The Madrid system of investment was different, though. Private investors, often with court connections, invested in the new rail network. If a particular line was profitable they reaped the rewards but if it turned out to be a flop, their investment was guaranteed and their money was returned.

Essentially, this is still the way Spain works, and it can be clearly seen in the disastrous high-speed AVE railway network. Spain incidentally is the country with the second highest number of kilometres of luxury high-speed railway line in the world after China. You may have noticed that Spain is quite a lot smaller than China or the United States, which is third and has fewer kilometres of lines than Spain. By the way, France, which was one of the pioneering countries for high-speed train lines has half as many kilometres but about twice as many passengers, which means that, although some sections lose money, it is closer to be profitable.

The Spanish AVE has been a crazed disaster with billions of euros being invested in lines that go nowhere important, such as Albacete or Santiago de Compostela, which as a result only have tens of passengers a day. This means that the lines aren't just a wasted investment but their upkeep and maintenance is also costing the Spanish tax payer an arm and a leg.

The only journey with a chance of making a profit is Madrid-Barcelona, which incidentally only opened nearly 20 years after the much less essential Madrid-Seville line, also loses money. However, it does make sense as a nation building project, particularly since the connection into France and the rest of Europe in 2013.

However, what we have once agin is the centralist Royal Roads mindset with all the AVE lines fanning out radially from Madrid. The aim is to connect Madrid with every provincial capital in the country. This is complete lunacy particularly there no plans to connect Barcelona with either Bilbao or Valencia, which would make business sense.

The Mediterranean Corridor

To make matters worse, the AVE is completely unnecessary. Passenger services could easily be improved by moernising existing RENFE lines and many of the longer journeys are actually more easily covered by plane.

What Spain really needs is a better system for transporting goods. It's got one of the worst freight systems in Europe and most produce and goods are transported around the country using highly inefficient lorries.

One of the projects that has been on the table for decades is the Mediterranean Corridor, which would run along the coast through Algeciras, Malaga, Cartagena, Valencia and Barcelona and then up on into France. This would be a massive boost for Spanish trade as the Mediterranean ports would become container ports for shipping coming through the Suez canal from Asia. This would be win-win for both Spain and the Asian producers, who currently have to go all the way up to the port of Rotterdam.

However, the problem with the Mediterranean Corridor is that even though it's an EU priority and would receive important subsidies, it doesn't go through Madrid. The Spanish government wants a central corridor that goes from Madrid into France and would cost millions because it reuires blowing a massive tunnel through the Pyrenees. It also obviously wouldn't capitalise on the port traffic.

A Final Thought

I don't know what you think but Spain's transport policy is complete madness. I don't actually buy into the Catalan victimisation syndrome, well not completely anyway. I think the problem is the centralised model of state.

The Spanish government still behaves like a 16th century court and is incapable of modernising or delegating power to cities on the periphery. Spain would work much better if it was capable of decentralising. Unfortunately that's never going to happen so the only option for Catalonia is to go it alone.

Anyway, thanks very much for watching. Please subscribe, like and comment. Also remember that I do all this completely free. So if you want to support my work and research, you can click on an ad, buy my book Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective on Amazon or make a donation a

That's it from me for this week.

Viscal el Barça! Visca Catalunya! Look after yourselves.

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