Four trains and 11 hours: Lisbon and Madrid less well connected than in 1881 | International

No traveler today can repeat the route inaugurated on October 8, 1881 by the kings of Spain and Portugal, Alfonso XII and Luis I, between Madrid and Lisbon. No train directly connects both cities, neither through the route of Valencia de Alcántara (Cáceres) that premiered that year or through any other of those drawn later. If you want to travel from Lisbon to Madrid you need to take four trains and spend about 11 hours. The imminent opening of a high-speed section between Badajoz and Plasencia will be just a palliative, which will leave the expedition in three trains and ten hours. Both capitals have never been worse connected since the direct line between the two was launched in 1881 with such enthusiasm that a bullfight was organized with Frascuelo. “It is incomprehensible that the two neighbors have railway connections as fragile as the ones we have,” observes the Minister of Infrastructure and Housing of Portugal, Pedro Nuno Santos, during an interview with EL PAÍS.

Today, the only international connection between Spain and Portugal joins the cities of Vigo and Porto. Although the line is electrified, the two and a half hour journey to cover the 150 kilometers of distance, it is carried out in a diesel car from the eighties, “the worst material that circulates in Portugal, old, highly polluting and noisy,” criticizes Carlos Cipriano, a journalist for the Portuguese newspaper Public specialized in railway information. Portugal was connected by train to Galicia in 1886 and the following year inaugurated the Sud Expresso, which allowed travel from Lisbon to Salamanca, Madrid, Paris and Calais. At its peak, the two neighbors had five railway borders and 12 trains in daily circulation, according to Cipriano.

This newspaper made the itinerary between Lisbon and Madrid on Monday, May 23. The first train left the Santa Apolonia station at 8:45. Only an American tourist who had just started his vacation in Europe got on board with the intention of reaching Spain. Most passengers make short trips like Elisabete Lamy da Luz, who lives in Lisbon and teaches at the School of Nursing in Santarém, just over an hour away. “By car I would have to spend about 400 euros a month on gasoline, by train it costs me 90 and I save driving,” she explains.

After an hour and a half of travel, the regional train arrives at Entroncamento, a traditional railway junction in the center of Portugal, from where the diesel car that will cross the border to Badajoz departs. Cristiana Pimentel, a 21-year-old nursing student who travels to Portalegre every Monday and returns every Thursday, gets on the station. “There are days when a lot of people come and it’s very hot,” she describes. The Allen car is rattling, noisy, and has a sporadic smell of diesel. Although it was modernized in 2000, it drags the years: it was manufactured in Holland in 1953. Several dozen Ukrainian refugees entered Portugal on this train after traveling more than 4,000 kilometers to leave the war behind.

Cristiana Pimentel, Nursing student, on the train from Entroncamento to Badajoz.
Cristiana Pimentel, Nursing student, on the train from Entroncamento to Badajoz. Tereixa Constenla

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From the window you can see the cork oaks and white farmhouses of the beautiful Alto Alentejo. It will take two hours and 45 minutes to get to Badajoz, 180 kilometers from Entroncamento. When it stops in the Extremaduran city, only two passengers from Lisbon get off: this correspondent and the American tourist, Rick Parker, who has had the audacity to open his one-month European rail pass there.

You barely have five minutes to transfer to the regional train that runs between Badajoz and Puertollano with a stop in Mérida. It is more comfortable and faster than the Portuguese railways, sometimes reaching 160 kilometers per hour. It circulates next to the high-speed rail that will come into operation in a few weeks and that the Spanish Minister of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda, Raquel Sánchez, will travel this Thursday on a test trip by commercial train. The departure from Mérida of the medium distance is delayed 19 minutes, nothing serious compared to some experiences suffered by passengers from Extremadura in recent years. You cannot buy water in the vending machines, which have been closed since the pandemic. A public address announcement causes unease: a student who travels to Plasencia to take an exam at the UNED breaks down crying when she hears that she will have to change to a bus in Monfragüe. She won’t make it in time for the test. The questioned reviewers know nothing of the matter. It was a false warning.

The train arrives at the Cercanías de Atocha station at 8:22, almost eleven hours after the departure in Lisbon (one hour difference between Portugal and Spain must be taken into account). With the exception of the years of the Civil War and the Second World War, the direct line between the two cities had been maintained without interruption since the 19th century, although with different services. The last was the Lusitania overnight train-hotel, opened in 1995 and closed during the coronavirus, as was the historic Sud Express. However, the end of the pandemic restrictions did not end the short circuit between the two capitals. Renfe has eliminated all night services due to its deficit and has shown no interest in resuming the Lusitania or the Sud Express, as the public company Comboios de Portugal intends. The two lines that depend on the Portuguese Government, the Celtic Train (Oporto-Vigo) and the regional one from Entroncamento to Badajoz, were restored in the summer of 2020.

A passenger from Lisbon gets off the diesel railcar leaving Entroncamento at the Badajoz station.
A passenger from Lisbon gets off the diesel railcar leaving Entroncamento at the Badajoz station.Tereixa Constenla

The Iberian disconnection goes against the grain. With the energy transition as a political objective, the European Commission is betting on long-distance and cross-border travel by rail, which generates 2% of total greenhouse gas emissions compared to 13% of air traffic or 7% of road traffic. Spain has the second largest high-speed network in the world after China, but La Raya was left out. The Algarve was disconnected from Andalusia and the center of Portugal from Castilla y León. Paradoxically, the stations were closed while the flow of money and people between the two neighbors is increasing.

In 2019, the last year before the pandemic, tourism between the two countries mobilized 8.7 million people. The Spanish-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce and Industry speaks of the good pace of business in a report: Spain is the country that exports the most to Portugal (24,800 million euros in 2021) while Portugal has Spain as its main client (13,500 million ). “Until the entry into the European Union we have turned our backs, but since then trade has not stopped growing. Spain sells more to Portugal than to all of Latin America”, underlines the president of the Chamber, Miguel Seco.

In a meeting organized in Lisbon by this institution, the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, was ambiguous about the future of the train. “The important thing is not so much if there is an AVE between Madrid and Lisbon, but how Portugal adapts to the high-speed connection, see with the Spanish Government what is the best way and decide for ourselves if we want to be inside or outside”, responded to a question from Antonio García Salas, coordinator of the Iberian Southwest Corridor, a lobby cross-border that tries to structure the territory on both sides of the Raya with better communications. García Salas recalled that perhaps the black hole of the joint candidacy of Spain and Portugal to organize the 2030 World Cup is mobility between venues, currently dependent on cars and planes.

Portugal’s plans are committed to a North-South high-speed Atlantic corridor (Vigo-Oporto-Lisbon), which is being addressed in a coordinated manner between both countries, and three lines in the West-East direction: Aveiro-Salamanca-Madrid , Lisbon-Badajoz-Madrid and Faro-Vila Real de Santo Antonio-Huelva. “The day we have these four will be a great victory for the Portuguese and Spanish, but there is a long way to go to get there,” says Minister Pedro Nuno Santos. Not all of them are exciting lines in Spain. “The development of the Spanish network has a center of gravity that is Madrid. Historically, the railway network was born with its back to Portugal, whose connection with Europe does not go through Madrid”, points out the Portuguese historian Gilberto António Gomes.

In Spain it has been difficult to abandon the radial model, where all roads led to Madrid. The great objective is to have an AVE between the two capitals. The good relations between both governments have brought positions closer together. In June 2021, the railway infrastructure managers of both countries have signed an agreement to reverse cross-border abandonment, including the modernization of the historic line from Salamanca to Fuentes de Oñoro, essential to connect Aveiro and Madrid. António Costa, who considered it taboo to talk about the high speed between Lisbon and Madrid when he arrived at the Government in 2015 (the matter was associated with waste and corruption during the period of Socialist Prime Minister José Sócrates), admitted for the first time, in the last Iberian summit in Trujillo (Cáceres) that the Sines-Lisboa-Badajoz high-speed line would allow passenger traffic, in addition to the passage of goods, for which it was initially conceived.

Portugal aspires to have its high speed between Lisbon and Porto operational in 2030. Priority will be given to the Aveiro-Madrid link. “We have to make elections and when we look at the map of the Peninsula, we see that the great concentration of population is between Porto, Braga, Vigo, Santiago and A Coruña. A connection through the interior to Madrid would be faster but it passes through territories with low demographics. For years I have defended the complementarity between the north of Portugal and Galicia, we want to take advantage of the connection with Vigo and promote our Sá Carneiro airport, which has a clear influence in the Galician territory”, defends the mayor of Porto, the independent Rui Moreira.

While the future has not arrived, the present of the cross-border train is dying unless Renfe and Comboios de Portugal agree to establish some transitory service. The Spanish operator has proposed a direct daytime train between Madrid and Lisbon, although it does not give details. In the Ministry of Infrastructure and Housing of Portugal they respond that there are some “operational problems” that should be resolved and, above all, they intend to address the cross-border map as a whole. “We would also like to include in this negotiation some improvements to the Celtic Train and the return of night services, in a model that can be more sustainable,” they point out, referring to the trend in central Europe to recover night railways. In Renfe they remember that the night buses that operated in Spain had an annual deficit of 25 million euros.

Badajoz station, after its remodeling to adapt it to high speed.
Badajoz station, after its remodeling to adapt it to high speed.Tereixa Constenla

In a few weeks, the high-speed section between Badajoz and Plasencia (150 kilometres) will come into service with renewed trains. Adif has completed the infrastructure, but is awaiting authorization from the State Railway Safety Agency. The 68.6 kilometers between Plasencia and Oropesa are under construction or completed, although the final stage from Oropesa to Madrid only has an informative study prepared. “But the most difficult part is the part of the route that has already been completed,” observes the president of the Junta de Extremadura, Guillermo Fernández Vara. “This is going to be a before and after, the time with Madrid will be cut by one hour and the service will be improved in terms of quality and safety,” he adds.

As of December 2023, in addition, it will be possible to go from Lisbon to Badajoz at an average speed of 250 kilometers per hour, according to Minister Pedro Nuno Santos. It will no longer be necessary to spend eleven hours or jump from region to region to travel between the two Iberian capitals. If both countries reach an agreement, it would be goodbye to today’s Trans-Siberian expedition.

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