France-Barcelona : standard connection by high speed train

Analysis of - Signalling technician and railways observer
(version française disponible ici)
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It was long overdue: the France-Barcelona Service with "standard gauge" has finally become a reality through the new line of TP Ferro and its extension to the Catalan capital. Spain, which has reconfiguring its railway by a large high-speed network is now connected to Europe with the gauge of 1.435mm. A brief overview.

The Talgo time
Let us remember : spanish and portuguese gauges are 1.668mm instead the “standard European gauge” of 1.435mm. There exist still some doubts from many historians about the reasons of this choice. The British decision to end the anarchy of many constructors of railways in UK could be the answer. Rolling stock built with broad gauge were be sold ... to a country which had any railroad before October 1848. The result : a full transfer between trains in the border and complete isolation of the Iberian rail network with the rest of Europe , making the heyday of twins stations of Irun / Hendaye and Port-Bou/Cerbère . Creative company Talgo invented 100 years later an articulated train which, from June 1969, can to switch between gauges thanks to its " rodadura desplazable " (RD), a independent wheels systems that plugs automatically on the gauge of France or Spain . Here begins the great period of Talgo III RD which ride in France, as the famous TEE Catalan - Talgo (Barcelona- Geneva from 1969 to 1982 and then as Euro –City limited in Montpellier) and the night services with the Elypsos services to latter days, reaching Paris - Austerlitz. December 2013 marks the end of this time of 44 years ... (1)

The Trans-Europ-Express Talgo in 70's : locomotive also changes of the gauge at Port-Bou ( collection)

A new High Speed Line
The idea came in 1992 at the time when Europe dreaming of a large high speed line network through the Continent, and the decision was taken in 1995. The works started only in 2004 with the little – but difficult - section between Perpignan and Figueres.  The line is granted to the private company TP Ferro which is equity held by Eiffage (FR) and ACS (SP).  The private section of 44,4km was delivered on time in january 2009, just 3km before the city of Figueres, including the tunnel of Perthus (8km). The whole project costed ca 1.000 billions €. Problem was the spanish section to join Barcelona  was seriously overdue. The delay in Spain forced his government to compensate TP Ferro - without traffic - to pay compensation and to extend the concession from 50 to 53 years. In autumn 2010, a first little section to Figueres-Vilafant was delivered (schema below). That permitted to start a first train service between France and Spain by SNCF TGVDuplex with gauge of 1.435mm, but limited to Figueres where a Civia of Renfe was connected to reach Barcelona. Complete journey Paris-Barcelona took ca 7h37 to 7h40, partially under 25kV and ETCS 2 version 2.3.0d (TVM and KVB in France). This first step have stopped unfortunately the two day-return Talgo services : the Catalan-Talgo and the Mare-Nostrum, to and from Montpellier.

Schema of the HSL line : private section by TP Ferro (in red) and the rest  by national ADIF (in blue) (schema by

With a temporary track with Iberian gauge, the station gave immediate connection with a Renfe Emu Civia to reach Barcelona via the classic line at 3kV, offering a journey from Paris to Barcelona about 7:37 to 7:40. In January 2013, nine AVE class S-103 per day joined Madrid to Figueres via Barcelona when the full section Barcelona-Figueres was open. During summer 2013, many rumors spread by medias talk about a full service open between Paris and Barcelona. Technically, reading balises were correct in one direction but not in the other for TGV SNCF. Info or may be intox, it was without counting the political horse-trading about the distribution of services France to Spain.

Catalonia, RENFE, Siemens and Alstom
Like Belgium, Catalonia has sent lately political signs showing his "difference" with his country. During 2013, Catalonia shown his preference towards the French SNCF rather than the Spanish RENFE for his railway network. But the HSL Barcelona- Figueres is owned by ADIF, the Spanish infrastructure manager, on which run trains of the Spanish RENFE. Catalonia has not the full control ! On other side, the rolling stock used between Madrid and Figueres is the AVE class S-103, a sister of the ICE 3 from Siemens, while the TGV Duplex come from Alstom. To strike an appropriate balance between the two countries, twelve AVE S-101, sister of the TGV-Atlantic, were sent to Alstom-Belfort for installation of the KVB and the French high speed system TVM, and finally tested.

The balance of the exploitation
The map above - seen on the website of RENFE (2) - indicates the following balance: no AVE S-101 reaches Paris, and no TGV Duplex reaches Madrid ... Both SNCF Parisians day return are "compensated" by 3 RENFE day return "South of France" touching Toulouse, Lyon and Marseille, the latter city being the only directly connected with Madrid. The Barcelona-Lyon route makes undoubtedly think to the veteran TEE "Catalan-Talgo", and it is not excluded that an extension to Geneva would take place at the future. Route with Toulouse in 3 hours is a novelty which is subjected to interrogation about his sustainability : schedule is design for a half day in Toulouse, but not for French in Barcelona, except by a change of train at Narbonne !
Schema of the schedules in 15 december 2013 : in red TGV Duplex SNCF and the rest AVE S-101 of Renfe.
Girona and Figueres maintain 7 domestic connections on 9 with Madrid and 3 others by a change of train at Barcelona-Sants. RENFE and SNCF hope more than 1 million international travelers in 2014 on these trains. The schedules can be seen below :

Schema of the schedules in 15 december 2013 (compilation by

The HSL France-Barcelona can also count with another project : the railway “ring” which start at the north of Barcelona (at Montmello), to bypass the city and to join the harbor area at Morrot. This line include two gauges and 3 rails (standard + Spanish). This bypass permits for the harbor to be connected directly with the rest of the European containers network.

Consequential damages
The renewal of the train service between France and Spain has his consequential damages. Firstly by the closure of the two Elypsos night’s Talgo services to and from Madrid, Barcelona and Paris : station Paris-Austerlitz is to be emptied of international content. Officially Talgo is now not represented in France. Secondly, the route by the twins station Cerbère/Port-Bou fall down dramatically, except maybe of some freight services. Let us remember that the catalan HSL is a mixing line which accepts freight trains with 750m of length, to compare with the 450m of length on the classic network of ADIF.  Many forwarders will be tempted to move the freight traffic via the new HSL. The “Vermeille” coast stations are preparing for enter to a state of torpor for many years…

Today, Figueres-Vilafant replace Port-Bou as entry gate of Catalonia (picture by

For the next ?
It will depend of the good desires of each : at the moment, HSL from north of Europe stop at Montpellier and no project to reach Perpignan through the Languedoc region is planned for the next decades, except if political changes come in France…When the financial crisis came, the political orientation turned in favor of the commuters railways traffic, which provide the better political potential growth. With the missing section of HSL in Languedoc, we cannot dream exactly of a long high speed route of 1.435mm between Amsterdam and Sevilla…

The only sanction will be the verdict of the market on a catalan route with a double axis of concurrence. Firstly with SNCF, which is not hiding the fact of his expansion in Spain, a new market. And secondly, by the change of strategy of the low-cost airliners which want now to operate air routes to and from the big airports, and not only regional airports (3). That would force SNCF and RENFE to maintain their fares Paris-Barcelona under 70€ if they want to stay in the race…

(1) To read (in spanish langage) : the Talgos
(2) The website de la RENFE
(3) See the recent tactic of Ryannair to operate from Brussels-National Airport, which would mean a reposition towards major airports, a reality valid throughout Europe ....