Why take the train in Spain?
Because the most rewarding and relaxing way to travel through this beautiful country - twice the size of Britain - is by rail. The latest high-speed trains now connect Madrid and Barcelona, Spain's two biggest cities, at a cruising speed of 300km/h. They sweep across arid plateaux, through mountain ranges and along river valleys. At the other end of the spectrum, narrow-gauge lines claw their way through spectacular scenery across the north of Spain. Fast or slow, Spain's ferrocarriles (literally "iron ways", abbreviated to FFCC) provide the perfect wide-screen panorama.
Even if you do not plan to take a grand tour of the nation, the usually punctual and always good-value trains of Spain can prove handy for holidaymakers. The leading Mediterranean resort areas - the Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca and Costa Brava - each benefit from frequent trains trundling up and down. Cities such as Barcelona and Málaga enjoy good airport links by rail, connecting the terminals with the city centre quickly and cheaply. And for exploring the fascinating hinterland of the classic Spanish cities, there is no better way than rail.
Out of step with the rest of Europe?
Yes. Trains in Spain run on three different gauges. The main network, operated by the national rail enterprise Renfe, is "Iberian gauge" - wider than the rest of Europe, and shared only with Portugal. The rails in the north-west of the country, from the French frontier at Hendaye to the port of Ferrol (near Santiago de Compostela), and from Bilbao inland to León are only one metre apart - much narrower than the European norm. Most are operated by Feve, believed to be the world's biggest metric-gauge rail enterprise, though the stretch from Hendaye via San Sebastian to Bilbao is run by EuskoTren - part of the Basque administration.
Over the past 16 years, though, the Renfe network has moved progressively towards standard gauge, which will soon enable it to be connected with the rest of Europe - starting with a new link from Barcelona to Perpignan. This is the next part of the AVE network - high-speed trains that have revolutionised rail travel in Spain over the past 16 years.
AVE once stood for Alta Velocidad Española (but now it is a brand name), and conveniently also translates as "bird". Trains fly at 300km/h (186mph) from Madrid via Córdoba to Seville (the original line) and onwards to Málaga; from the capital to Valladolid, with plans for extensions northwards; and, for the past two months, between Madrid and Barcelona - with non-stop trains covering the 600km journey in around two-and-a-half hours.
How does AVE compare with Europe's other high-speed trains?
Very favourably, starting with passenger comfort. The rolling stock operating on the Madrid-Barcelona link is the most modern in the world, offering high standards of comfort - and excellent views - even in second class. The best-quality ride is in Club or Preferente class, where passengers are served complimentary meals and drinks, plus a selection of international newspapers and magazines; there is also a mains supply for laptops and mobile phones. The only difference between the two premium classes appears to be seating layout; the Club version is less regimented and, yes, feels more like a club.
All travellers, even those in Turista class (second) are given earphones to enable them to listen to several channels of audio or watch the on-board films. Most though, will be content to look out of the window. The relative straightness of the new line provides lots of great views - and a certain amount of slicing through deep cuttings (where you can see the layers of rock and earth) and tunnels (where you can't). The near ground is a blur, but the hazy mountains on the horizon that seem an ever-present element of inland Spain look inviting - especially on the Madrid-Barcelona run, when the Pyrenees first appear on the left as the train dashes between Zaragoza and the Catalan city of Lleida.
As the train accelerates to its cruising speed, you can feel a nudge in the small of your back - just like Concorde when it accelerated to twice the speed of sound. And, also like Concorde, there is an illuminated display at the end of the cabin telling you how fast you are going.
The exacting engineering standards mean that the u otrain track is beautifully cambered around bends, which you notice only when the train is running below its usual high speed and centrifugal force does not apply with its designed intensity.
Commensurate with the high standards, fares are significantly higher than corresponding "classic" trains; for example, the basic slow train between Málaga and Seville costs €17.50 (£13.50), but fare for the new high-speed link is nearly double. The second-class full fare between Madrid and Barcelona is €102 (£78; €81.60/£63 if you buy a return), though anyone who books online in advance at www.renfe.es can access a wide range of lower fares - starting at just €40.50 (£31). If a train should arrive at its destination more than five minutes late, and Renfe is responsible, fares are refunded in full on the Seville line (on the other lines, a 15-minute delay gives you a 50 per cent refund; 100 per cent for a 30-minute delay).
All baggage is checked by X-ray before passengers are allowed on board. In order to avoid delaying trains, no access to this security checkpoint is allowed less than two minutes before departure (compared with 35 minutes, incidentally, at Heathrow's new Terminal 5).
How slow are the slower lines?
Getting faster. Renfe separates its operations into several divisions, including a "medium distance" category that is dedicated to enhancing speeds and standards on links up to around 250km (150 miles). Examples of brisk, comfortable Media Distancia trains include Granada to Seville and Madrid to Salamanca, each taking a couple of hours to whizz through splendid scenery.
Suburban trains around the big conurbations are branded Cercanías, but even these can be relatively speedy, connecting Madrid to fascinating neighbouring towns such as Aranjuez and Alcalá in half-an-hour or so.
For cross-country journeys must I change trains in Madrid?
No. Even though the capital is the hub for high-speed services, there are plenty of lines that bypass Madrid. For example, you can travel from La Coruña on the north-west coast to Valencia on the Mediterranean on lines that avoid the capital, passing through cities such as Zaragoza and Burgos (both of which are well worth a break of journey). To the south, a trunk line meanders across from Cádiz via Seville and Córdoba to the Mediterranean coast, serving Valencia, Alicante and Barcelona. Note, however, that faster journeys are often possible if you use the AVE links via Madrid. Because high-speed services to Seville, Málaga and Barcelona are concentrated on Atocha station in the south-west of the capital, interconnections from one high-speed train to another are easier.
Indeed, a few AVE services each day are timetabled to connect Andalucia with Catalonia. These all travel to Atocha station in Madrid, from where they must turnaround, but the wait here is kept as short as possible - allowing the journey from Málaga to Barcelona, for example, to be completed in around six hours.
Note, however, if you are connecting from the south to north, that AVE services to Valladolid, and many "classic" trains serving the north of Spain from the capital, use Chamartí*station, inconveniently located in the northern suburbs of Madrid.
Are many stations out of the centre?
Some. The layout of the typical Spanish "old town" makes it impossible to locate a station closer than the fringes. Expansion, too, is difficult within the confines of a city centre. This is why, for example, Zaragoza's main station, Las Delicias, is on the site of a small and previously unimportant suburban halt to the west of the city centre. However others are impeccably well-placed for the city - Bilbao's narrow gauge and broad gauge termini are bunched together in the heart of the biggest city in the Basque region.
As with high-speed lines elsewhere in Europe, some new stations are well away from existing centres of population - notably Camp de Tarragona, a 20-minute bus ride from the city of Tarragona on the Mediterranean.
Barcelona is a special case. Its main hub is Sants, away from the centre. But many trains serve Plaça Catalunya, Passeig de Gràcia and the beautiful Estació de França, all of which are handy for the tourist areas.
Where are the most beautiful lines?
As defined by the compilers of the Thomas Cook Rail Map Europe (£8.99), as follows: Algeciras to Almería; Málaga to La Roda de Andalucía; the final 20km of the line from Murcia to Águilas; Zafra to Huelva, paralleling the Portuguese border; Sagunt (just north of Valencia) to Zaragoza; Madrid to Burgos; Barcelona to Puigcerdà; Leó*to Mataporquera; Guillarei via Leó*to Mieres; and most of the narrow-gauge line on the north coast between Ferrol and Llanes. The Mallorcan line from Palma to Soller also gets a commendation. In addition to these, though, many more will prove rewarding - such as the train that trundles from Madrid's Atocha station to the wild western landscapes of Extremadura, ending in the fair city of Badajoz.
To the future...
Besides the Barcelona-Perpignan high-speed line, the most significant development is known as the "Basque Y" - an extension of the AVE network connecting the three big cities in the Basque Country: Bilbao, Vitoria and San Sebastián. Journey times will be approximately halved, both within the region and to and from Madrid.
If you just "turn up and go", you may be impressed how speedy the process is; most stations have a special ticket window for immediate departures. Planning ahead is recommended, though; not only might you save money, but availability is in short supply for peak AVE services. You can book through specialist agents such as European Rail (020-7387 0444; www.europeanrail.com), Rail Europe (0844 848 4069; www.raileurope.co.uk) and Trainseurope (0871 700 7722 ; www.trainseurope.co.uk). In addition, the Renfe website, www.renfe.es, should be running in a full English-language version soon. Tickets bought in advance online, and printed at home or in your office, offer the lowest fares - as little as €26 (£20) one-way between Madrid and Barcelona.
The single best source for more information online is www.seat61.com, devised and managed by the international railway guru Mark Smith.
A VIEW FROM THE TOP: MAJESTY IN MALLORCA by Angela Coffill
One of Europe's great little railway journeys is an essential component of the public-transport network on Spain's most popular holiday island. From Mallorca's capital, Palma, a wooden train has been running on a metre-gauge line across the mountains since 1912. The train travels round many bends for 27.3km, through the beautiful Sierra de Alfabia mountains before arriving in Sóller. The town's port is located 3km away and is easily accessible by a tram from outside the station. Trains depart five times a day in each direction, price €14 (£11) each way (€7/£5.50 for children aged 3-6). You buy a ticket on board. For more information: 00 34 971 752 051; www.trendesoller.com; www.illesbalears.es.
Renfe's overnight services provide a comfortable and effective way of covering long distances. Spain's best overnight trains are the unique articulated "Train Hotels", with restaurant car, cafe-bar, sleepers and reclining seats, including Gran Clase sleepers with en-suite shower/toilet. The most useful domestic route for tourists is probably Barcelona to Seville/ Málaga/Granada, with another between Madrid and Santiago de Compostela.
In Gran Clase you may dine in a remarkably well-provisioned restaurant car, or simply sip the complimentary mineral water as you inspect the contents of the amenity kit - containing everything you would expect from a good hotel bathroom (including shower cap, sewing kit, toothbrush and paste) plus a pair of slippers and a pair of earplugs. Oh, and a bar of chocolate on the pillow.
The ultimate in luxury is represented by El Transcantábrico (see pages 2-3). This is an indulgent "cruise train", where passengers can spend a week on board, with excursions to prime attractions along the way. The narrow-gauge enterprise, Feve, runs El Transcantábrico. More details can be found at www.feve.es.