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When will Renfe start operations in Portugal?

by Staff

Information is hard to come by, but rumours are not. Apparently, Renfe has allocated €15 million to adapt and homologate part of its fleet so that it can circulate on Portuguese rails. The new international routes would depart from Madrid and A Coruña, but there are many ‘challenges’ to overcome.

Signalling and tension, two of the obstacles

To take trains across the border, Renfe will have to face several technical difficulties with complex solutions. The first of them is the electrical voltage of the Portuguese rail network, which has a voltage of 25 kV in alternating current, compared to 3 kV in direct current of the Spanish network. This will be resolved when Adif executes the pending electrifications in the connections in Salamanca and south of Vigo, planned for the coming years.

On the other hand, there is a problem with the signalling system. The Portuguese tracks are equipped with a signal reader called Convel, for which there are no spare parts or units available, and which is necessary for any train to circulate through the Portuguese network. To solve this, a consortium of private operators launched a project to translate this Convel system into another called ERTMS, the standard for all of Europe, but which will not arrive, at the earliest, until 2025.

That’s just the start

There are so many challenges for Renfe to start offering services in Portugal, you have to ask the question why they want to do this. Portugal is the ‘missing link’ in the European network. The EU wants to promote taking the train, not the plane, and it’s entirely possible. Renfe is already offering their AVE (high-speed) services to French customers. Renfe has confirmed its schedules for 2024 to reach Paris and expand its operations across France with up to 16 AVE trains per day. Paris London may take a couple of years, but applications have been made to use the channel tunnel.

Renfe’s operational plan rolled out in France contemplates going from the current four daily operations to 16 AVE (high-speed) trains per day, competing in the main French rail corridor as a new player, which connects Paris with Lyon and Marseille, and increasing international routes between Spain and France to connect Paris and Barcelona with AVE (high-speed) trains, as well as Lyon and Barcelona and Marseille with Barcelona and Madrid.

Credits: Supplied Image;

The ambition of the current Renfe management leadership is to achieve the entry of its trains into Portugal next year. They have the trains, they have the finances, and more importantly, they have a vision which neither Portugal or France have. It will do so once the construction of the first Portuguese high-speed line is completed, which will link Elvas, near Badajoz, with the town of Évora, about 100 kilometres away. This work will reduce arrival times between Lisbon and Badajoz to around two hours. The leader of the Socialist Party and former Minister of Infrastructure, Pedro Nuno Santos, announced on January 30, that the new train connection between Madrid and Lisbon “is underway”. As vague statements go, this is not very informative. The Infrastructures Portugal site has some impressive photos of the new connection but little information. According to several authorities and press outlets, this line was due to be finished by the end of last year (2023).

Infraestruturas de Portugal and Comboios de Portugal (CP) say they have not yet received formal notification of Renfe’s plans. The Portuguese press has published several times about the Renfe plans. However, in early 2023, the Spanish and Portuguese Prime Ministers approved plans to improve the rail link between the two countries, in line with the European Union’s plan to open more European railways.

Sleeper trains, when will they return

Renfe stopped operating the Trenhotel Lusitania Madrid-Lisbon in May 2020 due to the global health situation and never resumed the service. As soon as the new line connecting Lisbon to the Spanish border is complete you can be sure that the Trenhotel service will be resumed.

Paris Madrid direct at high speed is only months away, add the onward link to Lisbon and hopefully a sleeper service, and taking the train will become a very attractive alternative to flying. All that’s needed now is to complete the Lisbon-Madrid link.

It’s close to becoming a reality and Renfe clearly have the drive and ambition to make this happen.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman

The views expressed on this page are those of the author and not of The Portugal News.

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