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Spain's trains to Portugal: Delays ahead


Plans by Renfe, Spain's national rail operator, to become a significant player in the Portuguese market may be on a slower track than its invasion of France, which is well underway.

The problem is that while France, and Renfe's high-speed lines, operate on the same rail gauge, signal systems and electrical power, Portugal's do not. Nearly all of Portugal's rail trackage is on 'Iberian gauge,' just over 9" wider than 'standard' gauge.

Some of the Renfe plans must also wait for final construction of links between its lines and the limited high-speed trackage that has been built so far in Portugal.

Renfe is planning to use equipment that can shift between the two gauges without delays, but the signal and electrical issues may be more difficult. Portugal's network operates on 25kV alternating current, now mandated as an EU standard, while parts of Spain's lines to Portugal are still using 3kV direct current. That's being switched over, but hasn't been completed yet.

A more serious obstacle may be the signaling system. Portugal's tracks all use a signal reader called Convel, which is no longer in production and for which no more spare parts or replacement units are available. A consortium of operators is developing a system to translate Convel signals to match the current European standard, but that will not be available until 2025.

In the meantime, there are Spanish trains headed to Portuguese destinations, but these are the older Spanish trains that operate on Iberian gauge, not the standard gauge of the newer high-speed lines.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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