Spain is challenging the ‘elitist nature’ of high-speed trains with more services and lower prices. Spain is rapidly outpacing its European neighbours in high-speed rail.
Since 2021, EU member states have been obligated to open up their rail markets to foreign competitors – a reform that Spain has embraced wholeheartedly.
In a short period, the country has tripled its high-speed operators, leading to increased competition, greater availability of trains and lower prices for travellers.
So what can the rest of Europe learn from Spain’s radical rail transformation and why are some countries falling behind?
What’s behind Europe’s rail revolution?
When flight-shaming took off in 2018, it aimed to make people feel guilty enough to change their travel habits by highlighting the huge emissions we generate when flying.
Air travel currently makes up 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions, a figure that is expected to grow in coming decades.
But such a rapid change of attitudes has left many tourists wondering how they can realistically replace budget airline travel, especially if they only have a few days to get away.
Travelling by high-speed train is, in many cases, the natural alternative to short-haul flying. As countries race to reach net zero, they’re starting to support the trend.
France made headlines last year when it banned flights between cities that are linked by a train journey of fewer than 2.5 hours. Many governments have rushed to introduce cheap rail passes, such as Germany’s new €49 ticket.
As more people look to shift to rail in Europe, EU legislation is helping boost competition, giving travellers more choices and often lower prices.
Spain is one of the countries which has embraced the new EU rules most enthusiastically, and the results have been enormous.
Has Spain always been a leader in rail?
Until 2021, Spain’s Renfe was the only choice for people looking to travel by high-speed rail within the country. But, if you were looking to fly you could choose from Iberia, Vueling, Air Europa or Air Nostrum.
However, the arrival of Ouigo España marked the start of a rail shake-up in Spain and it later became the first EU country to have three different companies competing on a high-speed line.
Ouigo España, a subsidiary of the French state train company SNCF, now operates high-speed rail services in Spain which compete with the incumbent Renfe. To start with, Ouigo España only competed on the Madrid-Barcelona line, but in 2022 it also began running on the Madrid-Valencia line.
In response to this increased competition, Renfe launched its own Renfe Avlo brand which runs low-cost services using repainted and modified Renfe trains. This brand is still expanding with new services to Seville due to start in June of this year.
At the end of 2022, Renfe and Ouigo España were joined by a third competitor, iryo. The brand, which is partly owned by Italy’s Trenitalia rail firm and Spain’s Air Nostrum, entered the market offering fares from as little as €18.
While iryo CEO Simone Gorini stresses that the brand is not a low-cost operator, increased competition has reduced overall prices. In just two years, travellers in Spain have gone from having one rail company to three operators and four distinct brands.
“Competition has reduced prices and has made high-speed trains lose their elitist nature,” says Spain’s Transport Minister, Raquel Sanchez. This has increased the “social profitability of investments” and ensured “the right to mobility for all citizens” she adds.
More operators has also meant more trains running. The transport minister states this should eventually roughly double high-speed services on the Madrid-Barcelona, Madrid-Levante and Madrid-South routes.
The effects of lower prices and more competition have been a boost. Despite the impact of the pandemic, 310,000 passengers travelled between Madrid and Barcelona by rail last August, up from 265,000 in August 2019.
Why the sudden change in Spain’s rail operations?
The dramatic shift in Spain’s high-speed rail market is down to the EU’s Fourth Railway Package. Since 2021 this legislation has obligated EU countries to open up their domestic rail markets to competition – including from other states.
The legislation also requires EU countries to introduce structural and technical reforms that make it easier to operate cross-border trains.
“For Spain, [the package] has been the key to the liberalisation process and currently having an open railway market with three high-speed operators and four commercial brands,” says Gorini.
Where else in Europe is leading in rail?
While Spain is making headlines for its rapid transformation, it’s not the only European country where travellers can enjoy competitive railways and cheaper tickets.
Italy is the country where championing EU rail liberalisation has made the biggest difference.
“Italy is usually held up as an amazing success,” says Mark Smith, rail expert and owner of The Man in Seat 61 rail website.
“Competition between state-owned train company Trenitalia and privately owned Italo on the main high-speed line has driven up quality and passenger numbers, but pushed down prices by between 20 and 25 per cent,” he explains. “It’s to the benefit of everyone except domestic airlines.”
Germany, Italy, Spain: Crossing the EU by train will be faster and cheaper on these new routes
In fact, 2019 figures from the EU Commission show that the number of rail passengers between Rome and Milan almost quadrupled in a decade, from 1 million in 2008 to 3.6 million by 2018. Over two-thirds of people travelling between the two cities now take the train, and the share of flights on this route has substantially decreased.
In Italy, high-speed trains have been so successful that they contributed to the country’s flag-carrier airline going bust in 2021.
Which EU countries are falling behind on train travel?
While EU rules mean every member country should be implementing these rail changes, not all states have been as welcoming as Italy and Spain.
“It varies enormously across Europe,” says Smith. “Some countries seem to have really embraced it like Italy. Whereas others like France have sort of done the minimum they can get away with and it’s proving quite difficult to break into the French railway market dominated by SNCF,” he explains.
Spain, having opened up its markets to foreign competitors, is especially critical of countries that appear to be dragging their feet.
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“The competition we favour here [Spain] should be standard currency throughout the [European] Union,” Spain’s Transport Minister, Raquel Sánchez, declared in 2022 after iryo launched its Madrid-Valencia service. “I can only describe the obstacles to rail liberalisation that we are seeing in certain countries as unjustifiable.”
Countries that don’t comply are being threatened with legal action by the European Commission. Germany and Poland have already received warnings over failures to comply with certain areas of the new rules.
Even countries that do open up, such as Spain, still face challenges.
“Entry of new operators will depend to a large extent on Adif [Spain’s railway infrastructure management company] boosting the market by lowering the costs of access to the network and providing a clear regulatory framework that provides greater legal certainty,” says Gorini.
Yet even when costs are low and countries are open to competition, a lack of available second hand trains can prevent new operators from entering markets.
Where are rail operations improving in Europe?
The good news for environmentally friendly travellers is that many EU countries are overseeing a significant boost to the number of rail operators. This means increases in service frequency and a subsequent drop in prices are on the horizon.
Speaking with Euronews Travel, a European Commission spokesperson highlighted Czechia, Sweden and Austria in particular as examples of where the effects of rail liberalisation are being seen.
The opening up of railways and improvements in interoperability are also helping boost the revival of cross-border night trains, such as the resurrected Prague-Frankfurt sleeper train route.
European train travellers have more to look forward to
Such market transformations are only going to get more common. France has made multiple commitments, promising to open up routes such as the Paris-Lyon line before the end of the year.
As more EU countries are opening up their markets, new railways are also being built.
When new lines such as Rail Baltica, a giant project aiming to link the Baltic States to Poland, launch they should immediately reap the benefits of having multiple operators.
As lower prices attract more people to travel by rail, the incentive to improve rail links will only continue to grow. The EU’s rail revolution has left the station.