Spanish High-Speed Rail

The high-speed rail business is more than a technology. It is an attractive and environmentally friendly transportation mode and the solution for sustainable mobility needs.

Many different discussions have existed about the correct definition of high-speed rail. Most opinions agree with the idea of considering high-speed trains as those that are able to operate above 200 kilometers per hour (kph) (125 miles per hour (mph)). However, this speed is nowadays considered by experts as a relatively slow speed. Most high-speed trains today travel at 250 to 300 kph (150 to 185 mph). But many high-speed trains are technologically developed to reach more than 300 kph (185 mph) and in test tracks some have even reached more than 500 kph (300 mph).

High-speed rail saves time, gives additional capacity to other modes of transportation, reduces external costs negative in other transportion modes (congestion, noise, pollution, accidents), helps tourist development, expands markets and stimulates allocation of employment.

In terms of sustainability, high-speed rail is the most efficient mode of transport. Experts’ studies made by the UIC (International Union of Railways) show that high-speed trains generate five times less CO2 emissions than cars and air traffic with the same level of transport capacity. High-speed rail helps to protect the environment. Transportation accounts for 30 percent of CO2 emissions, due mainly to road and air traffic. For example, in Europe it is expected that 60 European airports will become congested in the next 20 years.

Spain has, during the last few decades, made an important commitment for the development, implementation and use of high-speed rail as a transportation mode. It is important to emphasize that the success of this development in Spain is a story full of social, political and economical commitment. High-speed rail in Spain is no longer a privilege, but an opportunity for all citizens no matter where they live.

During the last UIC Highspeed Conference in Amsterdam in March, the technical, political, commercial and environmental issues that will shape the evolution of high-speed rail travel over the next few years were debated. As Luc Aliadière, UIC chief executive, mentioned during this conference, “High-speed rail offers benefits to the whole of society in terms of its contribution to sustainable development. It is a powerful tool at the service of town and country planning and of economic and social development.”

Spain has embarked on an ambitious project to develop high-speed rail connections throughout the country. Spain will be the nation with the longest network of high-speed rail network in the world in service by the year 2010, before the leading countries in this mode of transportation: Japan and France. And by 2020, 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) of high-speed lines are forecasted.

In this process, many national companies are responsible for the technological development of products and solutions used later on trains, infrastructure, signalling, maintenance, traffic control, security, stations, etc.

By mid 2008 there will be 1,563 kilometers (971 miles) of high-speed lines operating in Spain. Additionally, the construction of another 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) is under way. Further, an investing effort is being made in Spain to update railway services, making progress in improving railway safety, which is increasingly becoming a fundamental matter. Therefore, the updating and normalization of signaling systems by implementing the European interoperable European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), as well as digital ASFA (the Spanish train protection system), has become an essential ally in the development of high-speed rail in Europe.

ERTMS is the union of the European Train Control System (ETCS) and Global System for Mobile communications – Railway (GSM-R) systems. ETCS is the new command-control system. GSM-R is the new radio system for voice and data communication. Together, they form ERTMS, the new signaling and management system for Europe, enabling interoperability throughout the European Rail Network.

Both systems contribute to an important reduction in human errors in rail driving. Consequently, Spain is leading in the implementation of ERTMS, with 1,045 kilometers (649 miles) of lines that already have this communication standard.

Thanks to the consolidation of already existing high-speed lines and the opening of new links, an important reduction in traveling time has been achieved. It is worth highlighting that the Madrid to Barcelona link will save passengers around two hours. Moreover, the Madrid to Malaga and the Madrid to Valladolid connections have cut traveling time by an hour and a half. There have also been significant reductions in traveling time in lines that are still not connected with high speed, thanks to the construction of axle exchangers and trains with different gauges. These reductions in time result in more than an hour and a half on the Madrid to Granada connection. Furthermore, travelling time to cities in the north of Spain, such as León, Oviedo, Gijon, Santander, Bilbao and San Sebastian, has been cut down by more than one hour.

As a country we have reached a very competitive technological level with companies providing equipment, components, civil works and construction that compete on the international market. We can be very proud of where we are and what we are doing, and show Spain development of high-speed rail as a model for other countries.

The Spanish public works companies should be noted, as they have a very important responsibility in the strong and fast development of Spanish high-speed rail development. Our position in this sector is shown for example by the following fact: of the world’s 10 largest public works concessionaires companies in recent years, seven are Spanish companies. They total some 165 concessions, indicating the high level of technology and the financial solvency of these groups. In the high-speed rail sector many of these companies have been involved in for the construction of infrastructures.

Some examples include ACS, Ferrovial, Sacyr, FCC, Abertis, OHL or Acciona.

Also, our partnership with engineering and consultancy companies was a remarkable factor in our high-speed rail infrastructure growth. Examples include: Ineco-Tifsa, Getinsa, Idom, Prointec, Sener, etc.

In terms of technology used for this mode of transport, the Spanish industry working for the railway sector, and especially for high-speed rail, has worked extremely hard during the last few decades, despite structural disadvantages against the railway mode of transportation prevalent in Spain, such as mountainous terrain and curving tracks. These factors directly affect the possibility of getting faster speeds. Spanish companies manufacturing high-speed trains like Talgo and Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF) have developed technology that allows the train to tilt into the center of the curve and therefore travel faster.

Another disadvantage turned into a need of developing our own technological solutions is the fact that in Spain we have a different track gauge from most of the rest of European countries. They have 1,435 millimeters (4.6 feet) and we have 1,668 millimeters (5.5 feet) track gauge. This particular aspect of the Spanish conventional railway network has forced us to develop solutions for gauge switching in the trains, not only in terms of high-speed ones, but also for those crossing borders of our country.

Some years ago, any train that wanted to cross from Spain to France had to stop, the wheels had to be reorganized and the front car and engine had to be changed. Now, Spanish train manufacturers have developed automatic gauge changeover systems. This makes it possible to adapt the train to the different gauge. This is important not only to cross borders with France, but also to permit a train to travel through conventional lines and through high-speed lines built under the European widthtrack gauge.

Spain solved these disadvantages with new technological solutions. We have also taken advantage of the expertise of Spanish companies in other sectors to adapt their solutions into the high-speed rail. One example is the company Indra. This company is well known worldwide because of its solutions to air traffic control systems. Of every five flights in the world, three are controlled by Indra air traffic control systems. For high- speed rail, Indra has developed a solution called “Da Vinci,” a system that integrates all relevant information into a unified platform and automates system structure of the system, so the operator can focus on traffic flow.

The system collects data on exact location of the trains at any moment, but also other kinds of information important to the functioning of the entire system: data from different types of detectors, electricity demands in different parts of the line, objects fallen along rail paths, etc.

The key of to this solution is that it has been able to totally integrate all these aspects that previously where were controlled by different systems. Another important device developed by Indra is on-board ASFA digital. This system enhances the quantity and efficiency of the driving controls. Its digital components greatly improve the equipment reliability. For the future, more accurate signaling systems will allow trains to go faster and this will demand automatically a continuation of the innovation of this solution to make it even more automatic and coordinated.

Signaling presents one of the greatest challenges for the future. On one side, it affects the speed that trains can reach; on the other, it affects the interoperability of high-speed rail across the entire European network. Since May 2006, Spain is the first country in Europe using Da Vinci. The benefits of it are long-term cost reduction, the highest level of safety, possibility of more trains per line, interoperability on railway networks and open market for signaling systems.

But to emphasize some other points crucial to the high speed it must be said that high-speed rail is not only a technology, a business or a mode of transportation. High-speed rail is a system. It should be understood by governments and institutions working for the development of high-speed rail that it is a system that:

  • Is highly beneficial for society
  • Needs intensive long-term investments on public infrastructure that promote public-private partnerships (PPPs)
  • Needs promotion of international partnerships
  • Needs to upgrade existing lines to complement the high-speed network
  • Is a complex system
  • Is not the same concept everywhere, and it must be adapted in each case, in each country

It should also be understood that communication during the implementation process is crucial; each high-speed project needs a specific communication strategy adapted to its different goals, and the job of good communication is as important as the one of the engineers.

Also, the supplier industry has its own responsibilities in the future success and development of high-speed rail. During UIC’s Highspeed Conference in Amsterdam, some interesting conclusions were mentioned as messages to be listened by the supply industry:

  • Continue working on innovation
  • Make high-speed rail the sustainable transport mode
  • Optimize energy efficiency
  • Promote world standards, reducing costs through standard components or sub-systems

Also important is:

  • Interoperability onboard comfort
  • Security issues: self-protected trains
  • Development of new technologies

According to the latest forecasts, the high-speed network could reach a total length of 35,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) in the next 15 years. High-speed networks are planned in all parts of the world (e.g. China, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Morocco), why not in the United States?

Pedro Fortea is the director of Mafex, the Spanish railway industry association.

More Related Information:
Archived Article: Global Rail Safety: Equipment and Technologies
Mass Transit Buyer’s Guide: Railroad Engineering, Construction, Installation Contractors