High Speed Future for Spain

 A High Speed rail link between Valencia and Madrid opens on 18th December and the previous week another new line linking France and Spain is due to see its first trains. Spain now claims to be a world leader with the most kilometres of high speed train routes. Paul Needle has been finding out how these developments can speed up the journey between this region and the UK.
The Spanish railway industry is going into hyper-hype mode, justly proud of its new tunnels and viaducts which will reduce the train journey between Valencia and Madrid to just 90 minutes, cutting over three hours from the present timings. The original high speed trains (Alto Velocidad Éspana) known as AVE´s a word which means bird. The latest 220 mph model is known as the Pato – because of the designer duck-bill styling of the train´s front. The Valencia-Madrid line is likely to damage air travel between the two cities and with almost 3 million passengers a year expected it should be a commercial success from the outset.
Meanwhile North of Valencia
You may have sampled the present service northwards from Valencia, Castellon and Vinaros towards Barcelona but from Ampolla it can hardly be described as a high speed experience. As you enjoy your on-board movie the train shuttles along a series of single tracks with intricate passing arrangements for those in the opposite direction. North of Tarragona fast trains have to compete with local services and the quickest time currently between Castellon and Barcelona is 2 hours 21 minutes.
Alongside the AP7 motorway  near Hospitalitet you can see the earthworks for the new high speed line which will sweep away from the coast, past Cambrils – where they are building a flyover for the line to cross a road and sports pitch. The route then passes around the edge of Reus airport before joining the existing high speed AVE route at Tarragona´s new station. When all this is complete in the next few years the journey from Castellon will be longer in distance but should be considerably faster.
Barcelona to Perpignan
AVE between Barcelona and France was planned to open in 2009 and travellers on the AP7 towards La Jonquera and the French border will have seen the distinctive blue power supply equipment where the new route has been completed in part but frustratingly the high speed sections do not join up at the moment. South of Perpignan the new line, through an 8.3km (5.2 mile) tunnel under the Perthus Pass, bringing the railway into Spain has been ready since February last year and but stops at a temporary interchange station in Figueres.
SNCF, the French railway company has announced that from 12th December two TGV high-speed trains a day from Paris to Perpignan will be extended to Figueres where you can change onto a Spanish connecting service to Barcelona. My experience travelling by rail from London to Tarragona in a day (featured in the last edition of the Trader) would be at least an hour quicker from then.
Because of engineering difficulties tunnelling under Barcelona city centre and through Girona the full high speed link which will put Barcelona within an hour of Perpignan is predicted to open in 2012. To make the journey even faster a new French link has also been commissioned from Perpignan to Montpellier.
The Cost
I paid £65 pounds from London to Perpignan, 27 Euros (with a Tarjeta Dorada) from Perpignan to Barcelona then 20 Euros on the AVE to Tarragona. With metro connections in Paris and Barcelona that totals 115 Euros (approx £100). In Spain is the AVE is more than 15 minutes late you get a 50% refund and all your money back if it more than 30 minutes late!
How to Book
Rail Europe www.raileurope.co.uk is a good website to start with although they can only mail tickets to UK addresses.
Eurostar http://www.eurostar.com can book you between Perpignan and London, either via Paris which involves a change of station or via Lille where you merely change platforms. Bookings open 90 days before the travel date and the cheaper seats go quite quickly.
The SNCF website www.voyages-sncf.com is also useful for checking trains from France to Figueres (even Barcelona) with Eurostar providing the final leg from either Paris or Lille.
Why do it?
Eurostar says that it doesn´t see a big demand for travellers to Spain at present and believes customers are not interested in journeys taking over 6 hours. Although rail travel from England will not undercut the budget airlines in the short term the ability to take more baggage and fewer restrictions is a great advantage. While I am not to be found wearing an anorak on the platform in Benicarlo jotting down train numbers I have to confess to enjoying the experience of train travel. And at present there is still a sense of being a pioneer. As the Californian journalist Lincoln Steffens is alleged to have said on returning from a trip to the Soviet Union in 1932 “I have seen the future and it works!”
By Paul Needle

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