HomeHigh Speed RailSpain at high speed

Spain at high speed

Listen to this article

“This is one of the sections we designed.” There’s a brief pause in conversation as Fernando Mesa, project director of transport infrastructure at AECOM, points to lineside features rapidly passing by on the high speed line from Madrid to Barcelona.

“This is our viaduct. Just here. See? ” It’s gone in a flash.

“Oh well, there’s another in a moment”. “This is one of our tunnels”.

There’s a few seconds darkness and then back into the brilliant sunshine.

The train is speeding along at 290km/hr as indicated by the display at the end of the saloon – which also shows that the outside temperature is 15°C.

Madrid to Barcelona
The cab of the Siemens Velaro E is spacious with plenty of seating for ‘guests’. The driver, seated centrally, surveys his desk of illuminated displays and explains their purpose with staccato hand movements – not easily understood as they are all in Spanish. His is a monitoring role. The driving is done by ‘the computer’. This is ERTMS level 2 in action.
The distance approaches at alarming speed. Bridges and tunnels grow rapidly and then are gone – so what hope conventional signals?The journey started from Madrid Puerta de Atocha station in the early morning. Despite the sunshine, the Madrileños were muffled from what they perceived to be a distinct chill – tropical by UK standards. Madrid station is a huge multilevel complex that has extended the old station which is now a mixture of St. Pancras and Kew gardens. Trains no longer occupy its high elegant roof. It’s a circulating area that prepares you for the new station and the state-of-the-art high speed running that is spreading throughout Spain.

Burying good news

The Spaniards love their high speed rail. Sure, they’ve had air travel between many of the main centres of population for a long time, but few want to experience the dubious delights of the queues, the uncertainties, the spectacular delays and the rigorous security checks. There is security before boarding a high speed train, but somehow it seems more welcoming, even when arriving just minutes before departure.

But although Spaniards love to have high speed rail, many don’t want to see it – especially in urban areas – so they’ve developed a technique of burying good news. The same applies to their road systems within cities. Far better to see open parkland and traffic-free zones than gaze over vital transport links. So high speed rail goes underground. Not deep underground, just enough to be out of sight.

Spanish railway revival

Away from the city, the scenery changes rapidly with the route forging its way through striking stratified rock cuttings that are so much a feature of the Spanish landscape. With layer on layer of sandstones, marls and gypsum they are a geologist’s dream, that is if there was time to see them. And, as for Fernando’s section, it seemed to have disappeared very quickly. Why was it so short? Well, this simple question prompts a look back at the early days of the Spanish railway revival, the scale of which is unprecedented.

Perhaps there’s a tendency to think of Spanish railways as being locked into the era of the Iberian gauge – the old track gauge that the country inherited from the 19th century. It didn’t catch on anywhere else and Spanish railways became isolated. Almost the rest of Europe and indeed most of the world, adopted the international 1435mm – give or take the odd millimetre. Spain held onto 1668mm. Until recently, Spain suffered from two types of border: International borders – largely solved by joining the EU – and also their internal borders where the normal gauge met the Iberian gauge. This latter problem has been solved with the innovative use of gauge changing axles, but this involves special rolling stock and really the Iberian gauge track is never going to be updated.

Surviving politics

Nevertheless, Spain is forging ahead with its network. In fact, apart from China, whom nobody will ever match in mileage terms, Spain is in second position with more high speed track in service than even Japan, France and Germany.

Central government is the driving force behind this with a strategy born more than twenty years ago. Government initiatives can fall prey to political exigencies, but high speed rail seems to have survived all this. The main political parties are in agreement, by and large, on the need for a robust system of high speed lines so that main centres of commerce can be linked and outlying areas can benefit from the prosperity that high speed lines can generate. Indeed, there was a commitment that no main city of Spain should be further than fifty kilometres from a high speed line.

In the early days, the infrastructure was under the stewardship of the Ministry of Works. They employed engineers and had developed a sound in-house knowledge of railway construction, operation and maintenance.

Design capability

Then, in 2003, came the split between the operator of the railways, Renfe Operadora, generally now referred to as just Renfe, and the infrastructure administrator, Adif (Administrador de Infraestructuras Ferroviarias).

Adif further developed its expertise and went out to the market to augment its capabilities of designing and delivering the burgeoning network of lines.

But, earlier than that, in 1993 INOCSA, an already established private company experienced in the design and delivery of motorways and general highways, became involved. They, along with other related companies, worked with Adif to build on the experience of the early years in the compilation of standards and manuals of best practice. This shrewd move has meant that high speed railway engineering in Spain has sound provenance and is ever developing. AECOM, having acquired INOCSA in 2010, is now well able to offer high speed design and supervision throughout the globe as a result of much of this earlier work.


So, back to the seemingly short sections of railway design contracts. Why split a 600km route into so many 15km chunks? Well, for a start, these sections don’t involve track, signalling or power. They focus on the design of the route, the bridges, viaducts, tunnels and track substructure. The provision of track is dealt with in longer sections and contracts for the control systems and power are route specific. This ensures that there are no complications with unnecessary interfaces or joints. But for the sub-structure it is possible, especially with modern data systems, to abut separate design submissions without inconsistencies – especially if the whole process is overseen by a competent central organisation such as exists within Adif.

The awarding of short sections is all to do with competition and, to an extent, as a way of reducing client risk. Adif is able to call upon respected design houses knowing that, as there is considerable competition, they will be assured of sensible prices along with the innovation that the process encourages.

The ferocious competition extends to the construction phase as well. An example involves the construction of a pair of single bore tunnels through one of the many Spanish mountains. Spain, incidentally, is reputed to be the second most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland – something that gives railway designers plenty to think about.

So, with two bores to be driven, the contract between a couple of contractors was not split with one bore each. Rather, the contract for each bore was arranged so that a different contractor started at each end of a bore. This is truly an aggressive competitive strategy.

Bidding for international work

Javier Gutiérrez del Olmo, European director of the AECOM Madrid Transportation Design Centre, is at ease with this spirit of competition that has been firmly embedded into the Spanish tendering system. Continuing successes in delivering both initial and detailed designs for all of the emerging branches of the Spanish high speed network have put AECOM in a strong position for bidding for work outside of Spain.

A recent enquiry for a motorway design from Romania was delivered in just three months starting from a position of having no initial survey data whatsoever. Javier considers using a suite of staffing arrangements depending on the circumstances. From his team of around 70 or 80 engineers he can select a few and embed them with a client or he can run a design completely from arm’s length. On the other hand, if the opportunity arises, he is happy to consider a structured exchange of personnel to give the ultimate arrangement of collaborative working.

Aecom may be known to British readers as the company that recently acquired Faber Maunsell. It is a global provider of professional technical and management support services to a broad range of markets, including transportation, facilities, energy, environmental, water and government. With approximately 45,000 employees around the world and an
annual revenue of £5.1 billion, AECOM serves clients in more than 130 countries providing a blend of global reach, local knowledge, innovation and technical excellence.

Link to France

After just over two and a half hours the train enters Barcelona Sants station. Up until the opening of this high speed line there was no convenient rail link from Madrid – just a succession of Iberian gauge, relatively slow services. The Barcelona link in fact brings new traffic to the capital of this region in direct competition to air traffic.

At the moment though, this is the extent of the journey. But from early January a new link in the high speed line network will be opened to join Madrid with Figueras, just before the French border, through Barcelona. This link has involved the construction of a tunnel from Barcelona Sants station through to the station area at La Sagrera, which is where the line to France continues.

Up until recently, La Sagrera has been a forgotten railway area with a lowly commuter station, Sant Andreu Comtal station, set in a large area of barren railway surroundings separating two communities. The integration of a high speed line through the area has prompted the establishment of an urban regeneration company that involves the local and regional councils, Adif and Renfe. With planning and feasibility work started in about 2002, there is now firm ground level evidence of a massive scheme that will bring an important rail link to this part of the city, completely regenerating the area and unifying the communities.

Landscaped parkland

In keeping with the general Spanish preference, the railway will exist – but only out of sight. The footprint of the scheme, which includes two maintenance depots and the rearrangement of urban and high speed lines, is enormous. It will be one of the largest buildings in Barcelona and yet it will be hidden under new landscaped parkland. AECOM were involved in all of the initial and final design work for all of this and, since 2008, have taken on the role of contract supervision for Adif. Isaac Calvo and his technical director, Gloria Sánchez, have been liaising with a multitude of players and have received strong support from AECOM’s head office in Madrid. Isaac says that the AECOM remit included all of the track formation, bridges and tunnels up to, but excluding, the station area. This distinct separation of contracts is easily seen from the breezy vantage point of a tall Adif building – eventually to be demolished. AECOM has another team involved, coordinating between the station project and the rest of the works being undertaken in the area.

Temporary alignment

As Fernando Mesa, project director of transport infrastructure at AECOM, points out, all the concrete work at each end is AECOM designed – the hole in the middle is the station work. It is here that a vast excavation is appearing which, in places, will extend to six metres below the level of the sea which is unnervingly close. In the final arrangement, the high speed line will go through the new station, but at the moment it follows a temporary alignment around the construction site. This stretch of line is now undergoing testing before commissioning in early January when it will be linked to the section from Madrid and to the existing high speed link to France.

Best practice

Returning to Madrid in the late afternoon, the train speeds again over more sections of line that Javier proudly identifies as being designed by his team. “We start with just a 1:50,000 plan, develop it to 1:5000 and then finally to the 1:1000 construction plans. Once the design contract is done we can then compete for the role of contract supervision. In this way we are continually enhancing our understanding of this specialist design work for this generation and future generations of our engineers. This best practice in Spanish high speed rail will be invaluable to other countries adding high speed rail to their infrastructure.”

The speed indicator rises steadily to 300km/hr, the outside temperature stays stubbornly above 10°C and the sun shines relentlessly.

A nearby Blackberry® device yields the information that the UK is in the grip of winter. Stansted airport has been closed by snow…. “Déjame quedarme en España un poco más!”

Grahame Taylor
Grahame Taylorhttp://therailengineer.com

Structures, railway systems, railway construction, digital data

Grahame Taylor started his railway career as a sandwich course student with British Railways in October 1965, during which he had very wide experience of all aspects of railway civil engineering.

By privatisation, he was in charge of all structural and track maintenance for the Regional Railways’ business in the North West of England.

In 1996, he became an independent consultant, setting up his own company that specialised in the capturing of railway permanent way engineering knowledge using the then-new digital media. As a skilled computer programmer he has developed railway control systems and continues to exploit his detailed knowledge of all railway engineering and operations.

He started to write for Rail Engineer in 2006, and became editor two years later. During this time, he has written over 250 wide-ranging articles and editorials, all the while encouraging the magazine’s more readable style of engineering reporting.


  1. “The Spaniards love their high speed rail”

    Errrr… Not so much.

    High-speed rail ridership in Spain stays at 14.5 million per year (25 million if you include long-distance, conventional services using HS lines). http://www.europapress.es/economia/noticia-renfe-alcanza-record-25-millones-viajeros-transportados-ano-20131229130846.html

    This is to compare with 125 million in France and 300 million in Japan (I. Barrón – UIC – High Speed in Europe. Lessons learned & experiences – UNECE – Geneva, 25 October 2013).

    If we take into account that “in mileage terms, Spain (HS network) is in second position with more high speed track in service than even Japan, France and Germany”, we can easily conclude that Spaniards DO NOT “love to have high speed rail” at all.

    Even if they had already paid for it.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.