Travel news: Spanish trains get on track

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The Independent Travel

Rail journeys between the two largest Spanish cities are set to accelerate this month when new trains are brought into service on the Madrid-Barcelona route. Between 17 and 28 May, the latest brand of high-speed trains, known as "Albia" is to be introduced.

The new rolling stock should cut up to half an hour from the present journey time, allowing the trip between the capitals of Spain and Catalonia to be made by rail in under five hours for the first time.

Fifteen years ago, Spanish railways were way behind the rest of Europe in terms of comfort, reliability and especially speed. Since then, the government has invested heavily in new high-speed lines, known as AVE services (Alta Velocidad Española). A brand-new high-speed link between Madrid and Barcelona is under construction, though the project has been beset with delays.

Kevin Flynn, who specialises in Iberian railways for the Thomas Cook European Timetable, says "the official estimate of 2007 for completion to the Catalan capital is thought by most observers to be very over-optimistic".

Elsewhere in Spain, plans for new lines are gathering momentum. In Andalucia work is in hand for two high-speed links that should benefit visitors greatly: Cordoba to Malaga and Sevilla to Granada. In addition, a high-speed line from Perpignan to Barcelona should help make rail a more creditable competitor for air among travellers to Spain. It is due to open in 2009, but in the past completion dates for similar projects have proved flexible.

Mr Flynn cautions that, in Spain, the term "under construction" indicates merely that contracts have been awarded, and does not necessarily mean that major engineering works are taking place: it can signify "no more than the clearing of undergrowth for surveying purposes".

All these high-speed lines are being built to the same standard gauge as the rest of Europe - which renders them incompatible with the rest of Spain's rail network. The "Iberian gauge" used on most lines in Spain (and Portugal) is wider. Nevertheless, the rail network is investing in upgrades on a number of existing lines, including Seville to Cadiz and Vigo to Santiago de Compostela.

Other new lines and upgrades are in the early stages of planning. These include the northern arc from Burgos via Vitoria to Bilbao and San Sebastian; Madrid to Valencia; and a high-speed link connecting the capital with Lisbon.

* Five years ago, Balearic bus drivers and Iberia pilots went on strike at the height of the holiday season; this summer, it may be the turn of the hotel workers to take industrial action. Two Spanish trade unions are asking for pay rises for housekeeping, catering and reception staff, and threatening strikes if their demands are not met. A total of 14 days of strikes have been planned for late June, late July and early August - but a spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents says it is "extremely unlikely" that the strikes will go ahead. If they were to take place, package holiday companies have a duty of care towards their customers - but independent travellers get no such protection.

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