Jan 092011

Train Travel in Spain
Many British travellers will dread the thought of train travel, based mainly on their experiences at the mercy of British Rail and its various successors. Cancelled trains, delayed services, overcrowding and general decay of the infrastructure make rail travel in the UK an experience not to be relished. Certainly, some improvements have been made in rolling stock, but even so if you do happen to get on a punctual and comfortable train, the chances are that you will still feel you have paid a high price for the privilege.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I embarked on my first long distance train journey in Spain, namely from Valencia to Barcelona. However, I had used my local train on many occasions to reach Valencia City, and had always been impressed with the reliability and relative comfort of this short-distance service, so was prepared to embark on this longer trip with an open mind.

The first thing to do of course for any trip is to buy the ticket. Being well accustomed to purchasing air tickets on-line, I decided to try and see if this was possible with the Spanish national rail company – Renfe. Visiting their website at www.renfe.com was excellent. You can choose your language if you don’t feel confident at negotiating the site in Spanish, put in your travel dates, your starting point and destination, and hit “enter”. The entire choice of trains for the route in question on your days of travel there and (if applicable) back appear, together with the fares on offer for each train. These will vary according to the time of day, speed of the train, class of seat and availability still left on each train – much the same principle as when purchasing a budget airline ticket. Special offers are highlighted with symbols to draw your attention to them. If you are booking 2 or 3 weeks in advance, it is possible, for example, to travel from Valencia to Barcelona for as little as €17. Once you have selected your preferred option, you enter your debit or credit card details (no extra charge for using them, either!), click to continue, and the purchase is complete. You can then either print your tickets at home (which is probably the simplest option), or obtain them at a railway ticket machine by entering your unique booking reference number.

Having now used trains to both Barcelona and Madrid (the latter using the new high-speed “AVE” service), I can only say that it is a totally different, and much more civilised, experience compared to rail travel in Great Britain. You present your ticket at the entrance to the platform, put your luggage on the X-ray scanner machine, and board the train. The coaches are clearly numbered, so you simply find your coach, and then your reserved seat according to the number that is printed on your ticket. All ticket purchases incorporate a reserved seat, so there is no overcrowding, everyone has their own seat, and never have I seen anyone have to stand for any part of their journey!

I decided to travel “Turista” class (2nd class), so was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did I have a reserved seat, (which was extremely comfortable with plenty of leg-room), but I was also presented with complimentary headphones so that I could either listen to the soundtrack of the film that was being shown, or listen to the choice of music channels available in the armrest of my seat. This is standard practice in Renfe long-distance trains, although of course there is no feature film in the high-speed train due to lack of time – only a documentary!

The cafeteria service is adequate, although not over-impressive, with a choice of sandwiches, drinks and hot snacks. However, the prices are by no means excessive, and certainly you don’t leave with the feeling that you have been ripped off, simply because they have a captive market on their trains.

My experience of the stations themselves is also favourable, with information desks clearly signposted, plenty of refreshment areas, and arrival and departure information clearly displayed. The only slightly confusing aspect of the information boards in the larger stations is that the local, medium distance and long distance trains appear on separate boards from each other, so a moment of panic can occur when looking for your platform for a departing train, and your train is not listed – just move to the appropriate board for your type of train! One thing that did draw my attention when scanning all the information boards at Barcelona Sants station for my connection, was that with all the trains listed – and from Barcelona you can get to virtually any part of the country – none was posted as cancelled or delayed! I was only looking for the platform for a local train out to the airport, but in doing so looked at all the departures from the station – and they all seemed to be running to schedule!!

Spain has an extensive rail network, and one which has seen considerable investment in the last ten years or so. All major cities are well connected, and the high-speed trains are a further and on-going improvement to an already advanced service that makes rail travel an experience that should be considered as a convenient and cost-effective means of getting around the country.
It is true that Spain has extensive internal airline connections, using not only Iberia and its regional subsidiaries but also other carriers as well. However, although it is sometimes possible to find bargain fares on these airlines, when you bear in mind the check-in times, security procedures and travel times from city centres to the airports, it often works out quicker to go by train instead. Certainly with the on-line ticket purchase done a little time in advance, you will find a very reasonable train fare, which will get you to your destination in comfort, on time, and to the centre of the city, rather than being faced with a further journey to and from the airports.

Altogether a very civilised method of travel in Spain!