The liberalisation of passenger transport in Spain is already a reality


The liberalisation of the passenger railway service began its journey in Spain on 10th May 2021. This way, the new scenario that the railway will experience in this country becomes a reality, where the exclusivity of this service by the public company Renfe is left behind.  That day the first convoy of Ouigo, a low-cost subsidiary of the French public company SNCF (French National Railway Company) began to operate in the Madrid – Barcelona corridor.

This segment of the transport market is already open to operators wishing to offer their high-speed passenger services, a further step after the effective date of the European Directive of the “fourth railway package” on 14th December 2020. This regulation sought to promote the development of mobility by railway as one of the most sustainable means of transport and with a lower emission of CO2 into the atmosphere, to achieve the goal of becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

Fourth railway package

It should be borne in mind that the “fourth railway package” was approved by the European Parliament in April 2016. It prepared for the entry of operators other than those of each country into the Member States. The aim was to allow competition to increase the use of the railway, to make it the transport of choice for passengers and to improve the quality of its services. For EU members to bring themselves up to date with their parliamentary terms in line with the EU directive, the liberalisation process was lengthened over time, setting the 1st of January 2020 as the date for the possible entry of new operators, so that they could offer services on 14th December 2020.

Along these lines, the Spanish Government approved in the Council of Ministers of 21st December 2018 a Royal Decree-Law that authorised new companies to operate in the national territory in long distance and high-speed services. This Decree marked out the timetable that had to be followed so that on that date of December 2020 any company that had the appropriate license for the transport of passengers and the safety certificate granted by the State Railway Safety Agency,  could be eligible for the tender process of paths in the three main Spanish high-speed corridors: The Madrid Corridor with the French Border, through Barcelona, the most sought-after; the Levante Corridor; and the Southern Corridor (Andalusia).

Public services

This regulation also specified that the opening up to competition did not affect services considered to be Public Service Obligations (PSOs), that is, those which include Commuter trains, Mid-Distance trains and the Avant, since the European legal opinion allows the Member States for this type of transport, considered essential for communication, not to be compulsorily tendered until 2023.

The tender was automatically opened by the Railway Infrastructure Manager (ADIF-ADIF AV) for those companies that wanted to bid in the process to operate in the three high-speed corridors.

During the first months of 2019, more than 25 companies, individually or in partnership, showed their interest. Of those, at least eleven had the appropriate permits for the transport of passengers, and others had it for goods and were waiting for the second. These companies were: Renfe Operadora; SNCF; Continental Rail; Alsa Ferrocarril; Veloy Rail; Eco Rail; InterBus, Interurbana de Autobuses; Ferrovial Railway; AISA Tren S.A.U; Avanza Tren S.A.U; and Intermodalidad de Levante (Air Nostrum). Some interest was also shown by CAF, Talgo, Flixbus, which already operated in Germany, NTV and Virgin, among others.

“With liberalisation, services and offers are expanded in price and frequency for the passenger”.

Analysis phase

On 31st October, the deadline for bidders closed, and the manager admitted for processing the proposals presented by six of these companies, starting the process of analysing the capacity to comply with the required service, as well as evaluating the service that each one could offer. In this phase of analysis, the documentation received was assessed from four points of view: administrative compliance, financial capacity, technical capacity and compatibility between requests.

Six companies or partnerships were selected, Motion Rail –Trailantic, Globalvia, SCNF, Renfe Operadora, Ilsa (Air Nostrum -Trenitalia) and Eco Rail.

In addition, from Adif three packages were designed for the distribution of the railway paths: “Framework Capacity Offer”. Package A, for a traffic of two trains per hour on the connection between Madrid and Barcelona; one per hour between Barcelona and Valencia and the same for the Levante corridor: one with Valencia and another one with Alicante. Although in the Andalusian corridor two trains per hour were offered from Madrid to Seville and one per hour on the journey between Madrid and Malaga. This package has about 104 daily trips, of which 32 correspond to the connection with the city of Barcelona, 32 with the Levante area and 40 with Andalusia. This package was practically reserved for Renfe because it is the only company with sufficient capacity to meet these requirements.

Packages B and C are the ones that Adif put out to tender for the entry of private companies in competition with Renfe Operadora. The first aimed at a traffic of 16 trains a day in each of the aforementioned corridors, while the second restricted operations to five trains per day on each of the three.

On 27th November, the award was made public and the Board of Directors of Adif decided to select Rielsfera, (Ouigo, low-cost subsidiary of SCNF), ILSA (partnership formed by Air Nostrum and the Italian public company Treintalia), and Renfe Operadora as the first operators to be competitors of Renfe.

Package A was exclusively for Renfe Operadora; while package B was assigned to the Intermodalidad Levante (ILSA) partnership, and package C was for SCNF, which will operate it through its subsidiary Rielsfera (Ouiglo). Eco Rail did not qualify despite having submitted a good offer, according to the company itself. However, these companies did not take on all the paths offered by Adif. In the case of package A, Renfe has chosen 86% of the paths, leaving 14%; while, in the package B, Intermodalidad Levante has chosen 70%, 30% of the offer remaining vacant; and in the case of package C, the 100% acceptance by Rielsfera (SCNF) has been fulfilled.  It is hoped that in the medium-term other companies will be able to take part to occupy those available paths.

The low cost offered by Ouigos is already a reality in the northwest corridor, and the company has announced the intention to operate before the end of the year in the Levantine corridor and by 2022 in Andalusia. In the meantime, Ilsa will start offering its services from March next year with connections in all three corridors. Faced with the competition of low-cost prices, the response of Renfe Operadora has been to prepare a new service of the same characteristics, the Avlo, which will start its operations from 23rd July between Madrid and Barcelona.