Trains in Spain

Rail network, train standards and tickets

The Spanish rail network is operated by the state-owned company Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles (RENFE). The RENFE network takes in all major cities, although it doesn’t run to many small towns, and is supplemented by a few suburban networks such as the Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya city lines in Barcelona and private narrow-gauge railways.

Little freight is transported by train within Spain or to other European Union (EU) countries, compared with the tens of thousands of tonnes shipped by road.

Like most state-owned businesses in Spain, the railways were grossly under-funded under Franco and RENFE remains western Europe’s most idiosyncratic railway (many lines are still single track), despite huge investments in new rolling stock. Occasional accidents occur on Spain’s rail network, but travelling by train is usually very safe and considerably safer than travelling by car.

Spain’s railway network is well below average by European standards, particularly regarding punctuality, although it’s also one of the continent’s cheapest. However, RENFE has undergone a comprehensive modernisation programme in the last decade, during which journey times have been reduced by up to 50 per cent. There are high speed trains ( Tren de Alta Velocidad Española/AVE) from Madrid to Seville, to Toledo, to Zaragoza, to Huesca and Lleida. The AVE (which also means big bird in Spanish) employs ‘disguised’ French TGV trains running on special lines. Refunds are offered if an AVE train is late arriving at its destination.

The AVE

The AVE service is currently being extended countrywide and when the network is finished, all provincial capitals will be under four hours journey time from Madrid and all provinces under six and a half hours journey time from Barcelona. The stretches that are currently under construction are Madrid-Barcelona, Madrid-Malaga, Madrid-Segovia-Valladolid, and Madrid-Valencia. The AVE will eventually comprise part of a Europewide, high-speed rail network (unlike other Spanish trains, AVE trains run on European standard-gauge track) connecting to the French and Portuguese networks. There are three classes of AVE trains: first ( club), business ( preferente) and tourist ( turista), plus sleeping accommodation for international travel. AVE trains are air-conditioned and equipped with reclining seats, televisions (films are shown), a restaurant and cafeteria, a drinks/refreshment trolley service and, in first class, free newspapers and the AVE magazine ( Revista Paisajes).

Other first-class, long-distance ( largo recorrido) trains include the Talgo and the Talgo 200, which has first and tourist class seats and is similarly equipped to AVE trains. Talgo trains are generally slower than the AVE. The main Talgo routes are from Madrid to Malaga and from Barcelona along the Mediterranean coast.

RENFE operates a variety of trains and services, most with different fare structures, but there are generally three types of service: long-distance ( largo recorrido), medium-distance ( medio recorrido) and local or suburban ( cercanías). A variety of trains operate on the long- and medium-distance routes, and vary greatly in speed. In general, fast trains stop only at main stations, while slow trains stop at all stations. Long- and medium-distance trains usually have first and second class carriages, although there’s a bewildering variety of fares within each class and for different train types. Local and suburban trains are second/tourist class ( turista) only and stop at all stations. Despite their names, an exprés is a slow night train, usually with sleeping cars, and a rápido is a daytime version of the exprés. Night trains have various types of couchette ( literas) and bed.

Rail fares in Spain

Spanish rail fares are low by European standards, although supplements can increase fares by up to 80 per cent. Fares are graded according to a train’s speed and comfort and there are surcharges ( suplementos) on fast trains, including TER, Talgo, Intercity and ELT trains. A first class ticket costs around 50 per cent more than second/tourist class ( turista). If you aren’t in a hurry, it’s advisable to compare the cost of slow trains with fast trains, as the savings are considerable on slow trains (and they allow plenty of time to enjoy the sights).

Car trains run to all parts of Spain (e.g. you can transport your car by train from Barcelona, Bilbao or Madrid to Malaga) and include an autoexpreso, which carries cars, motorcycles, light boats and canoes, and (on some routes) a motoexpreso, carrying only motorcycles.

Further information is available from the RENFE website (http://www.renfe.es ) or from the telephone helpline ( 902-240 202), open from 5am to 11pm.

International Trains

Spain also has many international services, although they’re slow and expensive compared with air travel. There are direct trains to many western European cities (e.g. Geneva, Milan, Montpellier, Paris and Zurich) and there’s even a train from Madrid to Moscow taking around three days. International trains usually have two classes, first ( gran clase) and second/tourist ( turista), plus sleeping cars ( coches camas) with a choice of individual compartments or couchettes.

At border stops it may be necessary to change trains due to Spain’s wider gauge than the rest of Europe, except for Talgo and TEE trains which have adjustable axles. RENFE also operate a Train-hotel ( Trenhotel) service running from Madrid to Paris ( Francisco de Goya) and from Barcelona to Milan ( Salvador Dalí), to Paris ( Joan Miró) and to Zurich ( Pau Casals). Beware of thieves on overnight international trains, as there have been robberies in recent years, particularly those travelling between France and Spain.

Further information is available from the RENFE website (http://www.renfe.es) or from the telephone helpline for international enquiries (902-243 402), open from 7am to 11pm.

Spanish Network & Main Stations

The Spanish railway system is centred on Madrid, from where three main lines radiate out to other parts of the country (two extend to the French border and the other to Andalusia and the Levante). Consequently, there are good links between Madrid and other cities, although to get to a destination without going via Madrid often requires a circuitous journey. Madrid has two main stations:

  • Chamartín serves A Coruña, Albacete, Alicante, Barcelona, Bilbao, Cartagena, Irún, León, Lugo, Ourense, Oviedo, Salamanca, Santander, Soria, Vallodolid, Zamora and Zaragossa, as well as destinations in France and the local area.
  • Puerta de Atocha station (south of the Prado museum and recently extensively restored and renovated) serves Castilla-La Mancha, Andalusia and Extremadura, including Almeria, Badajoz, Cadiz, Ciudad Real, Cordoba, Cuenca, Granada, Malaga, Mérida, Salamanca, Seville, Toledo and Valencia, as well as destinations in Portugal and the local area.

The main stations in Barcelona are França and Sants (the more important), which has a link to Barcelona airport. Trains to all major Spanish cities and to France (via Gerona) leave from Sants, while França has daily international trains to Geneva, Milan, Paris and Zurich. Note that in smaller towns, stations are often located a few kilometres from the town centre and there may be no bus service.

Tourist Trains

Spain has a number of ‘tourist’ trains, many of which run on narrow-gauge lines. The Al-Andalus Express ( http://www.alandalusexpreso.com) is a unique travel experience on a luxurious converted ’20s train and a wonderful introduction to Spain, with the round trip commencing in Seville and taking in Cordoba, Granada and Jerez. El Transcantábrico (http://www.transcantabrico.feve.es) is another ’20s train operating between Santiago de Compostela and León in the north of Spain along the longest stretch of narrow-gauge railway in Europe.

It takes in stunning mountain scenery and offers excursions to a number of enchanting villages and towns during its eight day journey. Although it isn’t a tourist train, one of the most spectacular train journeys in southern Spain is on the RENFE line from Ronda to Jimena de la Frontera (British built in the 1890s).

Other trains include the independent Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat Valenciana ( FGV) narrow-gauge line operating the Costa Blanca Exprés running along the Costa Blanca from Denia to Alicante and the Limón Exprés operating between Benidorm and Gata de Gorgos. A coal-burning steam train ( Tren de la Fresa) with wooden seats runs from Madrid to Aranjuez on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays from May to October. In Majorca, railway enthusiasts can enjoy a trip on the vintage train running from Palma to Sóller (the only other train in the Balearics runs from Palma to Inca).

It travels through tunnels and mountains and provides some of the best views on the island. From Sóller an equally ancient tramcar runs through orange and lemon groves to Puerto de Sóller. RENFE organise many day and weekend excursion trains, including ‘theme park trains’ and ‘tourist trains’ to Spain’s most historic cities – train tickets usually include entrance to the main tourist attractions or theme park and one-night’s hotel accommodation. An interesting book is Spain and Portugal by Rail by Norman Renouf (Bradt Travel Guides).

General Information

  • All AVE and long-distance trains have a bar-buffet and/or a restaurant car ( wagón restaurante) with waiter service. Medium distance trains have a refreshment trolley ( carrito de restauración) offering drinks and snacks at your seat. Note that catering on trains is expensive and isn’t good quality by Spanish standards (many passengers prefer to provide their own picnic).
  • Main railway stations provide a variety of services, including an information booth; tourist office; post office; accommodation service; luggage lockers and storage; wash, shower and brush-up facilities; car rental; telephones; cafeterias and restaurants; bank with ATMs; currency exchange; photocopiers; instant passport photograph machines and assorted shops and kiosks.
  • Smoking is forbidden on all trains, including sleeping cars. Smoking is only permitted on platforms.
  • Public telephones are available on AVE and other fast trains, and accept domestic and international calls. They must be used with a Telefónica phone card available from train cafeterias.
  • Platforms ( andenes) aren’t always clearly numbered, so make sure you’re waiting at the correct one. Lines often have different numbers from platforms, which can be confusing. The destination of trains is usually written or displayed on the outside of carriages.
  • Car parks are often provided close to railway stations, where long-term parking costs around €12 per day (monthly season tickets are available to commuters).
  • You can rent a car from many main railway stations and leave it at another major city station. Cars can be reserved at travel agencies to coincide with your train journey.
  • Beware of thieves when travelling on trains and try to store your bags in an overhead rack where you can keep an eye on them.
  • Self-service luggage lockers ( consignas) and left-luggage offices are usually available at major railway stations, but for security reasons they may be closed. Main stations also have left luggage offices open from around 8am until 10pm. Luggage forwarding up to 20kg is free for long-distance rail passengers.

Buying Tickets

Buying train tickets ( billetes) can be confusing, as there’s a baffling range of fares ( precios/importes) and trains to choose from. Confusion is widespread and ticket office clerks aren’t always familiar with the variety of special tickets and reductions available. You should double check to ensure that you pay the lowest possible fare for a journey . Fares for long-distance and high-speed trains, such as AVE, are published in leaflets available from stations and RENFE offices, and all fare information is available on the RENFE website (http://www.renfe.es ). Children under four years of age travel free (including sleeping accommodation) and those aged between 4 and 11 (inclusive) travel for half fare on local trains and for a 40 per cent discount on regional ( regionales) trains.

Tickets can be purchased at station ticket windows ( taquillas de billetes), from ticket machines ( máquinas de billetes) accepting cash and credit cards, at RENFE offices, and from RENFE appointed travel agents. Tickets can also be bought online or by telephone through RENFE’s secure booking service, TIKNET, requiring online or telephone registration, a code name and password, both of which must be used in order to buy tickets. TIKNET ( 902-157 507) is open from 7am to 11pm.

The first time you buy tickets you must collect them in person from any RENFE station where you must show some identification (passport or residence permit) and give the booking reference number. Tickets bought in subsequent purchases can be printed or collected from your departure station (up to one hour before the train leaves), on the train, if it’s a long-distance journey, on regional or Grandes Líneas trains or at access point to AVE, Talgo and Lanzadera trains.

A single ticket is un billete de ida and a return (round trip) is ida y vuelta. There may be an information ( información) or international information window at major stations, where staff may speak English and other foreign languages. A ticket must be purchased and validated before boarding a train, unless there’s no ticket office (or it’s closed) at the station where you’re boarding. It’s possible to buy a ticket on a train from the ticket collector/conductor ( revisor), although you may need to pay a surcharge, depending on the type of train and the length of your journey.

It usually pays to avoid station ticket windows, where there are usually long queues, and buy your ticket at a RENFE office, from a travel agent, by phone or online. Ticket windows at stations usually open around an hour before train departures (but in some cases, open just a few minutes before a train is due to arrive). To purchase a ticket at some stations you must take a number from a machine and wait for it to be called (so you must understand Spanish numbers).

At main stations, there are a number of ticket windows, which may include local trains ( cercanías) and long-distance ( largos recorridos), advance tickets ( venta anticipada) and imminent departure ( venta inmediata) i.e. up to two hours before departure. There’s also usually a window for international tickets ( billetes internacionales) at some stations in Madrid and Barcelona. A computerised RENFE ticket shows the train number ( No Tren), carriage ( coche) and seat number ( No Plaza).

There are two classes on most long-distance trains: first class ( preferente) and second/tourist class ( turista). On some services, such as fast AVE trains, there are three fare classes: turista, preferente and club. Some trains such as Intercity and TEE international trains are first class only.

There are different fares depending on the type of train ( tipo de tren) and how long the journey takes. The difference between the cheapest and most expensive fare can be as much as 150 per cent. Apart from the extra cost, it’s best to avoid travelling on public holidays or over long weekends ( puentes), when the whole nation takes to the rails (those that aren’t on the roads).

Bookings and reservations

Bookings (reservations) can be made on routes between two months and one hour before departure. On AVE trains, open tickets ( billetes abiertos) are valid for six months and bookings can be made ten minutes before train departures. Many stations have advance booking offices, although it’s usually better to book at a RENFE office or a RENFE-appointed travel agent ( agencias de viajes), displaying the blue and yellow RENFE logo. Seats should be reserved as far in advance as possible, particularly during the main tourist season and before public holidays.

When you make a booking via the phone or internet you’re given a code number. You must then go to any station or RENFE travel agent within two days of making the booking , quote this number and show identification. Tickets can be paid for with cash and various credit and charge cards, including MasterCard and Visa. If you pay by credit card you must show identification. Note that seat and (in particular) sleeper bookings are compulsory on many long-distance trains. Train tickets purchased abroad must be stamped before each journey, at a RENFE office or at a station before departure.

It’s possible to change the date and time of travel on pre-booked tickets. Changes can be made up to five minutes before the train’s departure and cost 10 per cent of the ticket price, but there’s no charge if the change is for travel on the same day. Cancellations are free of charge unless the ticket or reservation is cancelled within two hours of travel in which case a 15 per cent surcharge is charged. You can change the departure date of a ticket with a reserved seat without penalty up to two hours before the scheduled departure. Cancellation and refund of a ticket for AVE and Talgo trains can be done up to five minutes before departure.

Season & Special Tickets

Many season tickets ( abonos) and special discount ( descuento) tickets are available in Spain. These include discounts for students and youths (16 to 25), senior citizens, disabled passengers, commuters and groups. Most special tickets can be changed or cancelled. Information is obtainable from information and ticket offices at any station.

Senior citizens over 60 and disabled passengers are eligible for a ‘gold card’ ( tarjeta dorada), offering discounts of 40 per cent on all trains except AVE and Talgo 200 long-distance trains, where the discount is 40 per cent from Monday to Thursday (inclusive) and 25 per cent on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

There are various commuter tickets, including monthly season tickets ( bonos mensuales) offering discounts of up to 40 per cent. For further information enquire at any RENFE ticket office. Season tickets are also available on long-distance trains such as the Talgo 200 between Malaga and Madrid.

A student card ( carnet joven) is available from local municipal youth departments for students aged between 12 and 26 and provides a 25 per cent discount on RENFE regional trains, but no discount on AVE or Talgo trains. A passport or residence permit ( residencia) and a passport-sized photograph are required. Students can also benefit from the Tarjeta Studio which is valid for one term and allows unlimited travel on local train networks in Asturias, Barcelona, Cadiz, Malaga, Murcia, Seville and Valencia. Prices depend on the area.

On AVE and Talgo 200 trains there’s a 40 per cent discount for children aged from 4 to 13. On other trains the discount is for children aged from 4 to 11. Children under four travel free on all trains.

Groups of 10 to 25 people receive a 15 per cent discount on AVE and Talgo 200 trains (for groups above 25, contact RENFE).

Holders of a Eurailpass, Eurodomino or Inter-rail pass may travel on AVE and Talgo 200 trains, but a supplement is usually payable. Student discounts of up to 40 per cent are available from offices of Wasteels (European travel agents that specialise in train tickets).

Timetables

If you use trains regularly, you should obtain route maps ( mapas de carreteras) and timetables ( horarios) on arrival in Spain. However, bear in mind that most times are approximate only, and with the exception of timetables for fast (e.g. AVE) and international trains, they shouldn’t be relied upon, although local trains are generally punctual. At major stations, arrivals ( llegadas) and departures ( salidas) are shown on large electronic boards. It’s wise to double-check departure times and not rely on announcements. You also shouldn’t trust the list of trains posted at a station, but confirm trains and times at a ticket or information office. When you buy a train ticket with a reserved seat, the train number and departure time are printed on it.

Train timetables ( horarios de trenes) are published in national, regional and local versions, and also for individual routes and train types (e.g. long-distance). All timetables are available online and RENFE publish a range of special guides and information, plus an ‘Atlas of Spanish Railways’ ( Atlas de Ferrocarriles Españoles) containing a selection of maps of Spain. Train timetables are printed for most major domestic and international rail routes, often in the form of a handy pocket card.

Note that many services operate daily ( diario) or only on working days ( laborables), which may include Saturdays, and a limited service is operated on Sundays and holidays ( domingos y festivos).

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here: