Cercanias train in the Puente de los Fierros station, in Spain

Spain spends €258m on trains that don’t fit through tunnels

Image credit: WikiCommons

Two Spanish transport executives have been fired after a train fiasco that saw the design of 31 trains that were too big for the tunnels on the line where they would run.

Spain recently spent €258m (£228m) in designing 31 trains that will be delayed by several years due to a major design flaw. 

The train designs were meant to be used in the FEVE line, which runs through the areas of Asturias and Cantabria. This line dates back to the 19th century, and so its tracks have track gauges narrower than the standard 1,435mm (4ft 8.5in), something that the manufacturer failed to notice in the designs.  

Renfe, Spain’s national rail operator, Adif, the track company, and the country’s Left-wing coalition government have all faced harsh criticism after failing to notice the design fault.

CAF, the Basque manufacturer in charge of the construction of the trains, first raised concerns about the sizing in March 2021. The company had signed a €258m (£228m) contract in June 2020 to build 31 trains - 30 for Cantabria and 10 for Asturias - by October 2024. 

The mistake was spotted before any train was constructed but it has delayed the delivery of the project by several years. The trains will now likely arrive in 2026. 

Train by Apeadero de Salinas, Castrillón, Asturias, España

Train by Apeadero de Salinas, Castrillón, Asturias, España/ WikiCommons

Image credit: WikiCommons

The Ministry of Transport has commissioned an internal audit, while Renfe revealed that its rolling stock manager had been fired along with the head of Adif’s technology inspectorate.

The root of the problem seems to relate to a Declaration of the Network statement published by Adif in 2019 and used by Renfe to describe the technical characteristics of the new trains. However, the document did not describe the gauge of railway lines. 

“The problem is that the ‘official’ measurements of the tunnels do not correspond to reality,” a Renfe spokesperson said. 

However, Adif argued that it is not responsible for errors in the contract specifications by Renfe.

Sources in the railway sector told El Español that “it seems that Renfe interpreted that the standard gauges of the Gauges Railway Instruction are those existing throughout the network, without realising that they are the ones applied in new and refurbishment works.”

In order to address the issue, officials have said they will use the "comparative method", which relies on using a train already circulating on the network as a reference for the size of the new designs.

This solution has been used successfully in the UK in the past, but never in Spain, which means it will require the authorisation of the Spanish railway safety authority. 

Railway station in Pinzales

Railway station in Pinzales/ WikiCommons

Image credit: WikiCommons

Pedro Sánchez, Spain's president, said he only found out about the problem “shortly before it was public knowledge” and that he had taken immediate measures to address it. 

However, the government’s infrastructure secretary, Xavier Flores has admitted to knowing about the issue for several months.

“It was the first time that we were faced with buying a train on this line,” he added. 

Miguel Angel Revilla, the president of Cantabria, who has long complained of poor transport infrastructure in his region, described the mix-up as an “outrageous botch-up”.

“When a project is launched, one assumes the company in charge knows what it has to provide,” he said. “If it is a train, it has to know the width of the wheels and if the train has to go through a tunnel.

“Someone has to pay for this and we need those trains now because one of the biggest issues in this region [is that] our trains are from the Wild West era,” he added.  

The two years between the signing of the contract and the change in strategy have been said to have been spent in “technical discussions”, although the Spanish government has said it considers the process has not been “diligent enough”. 

The trains must now be redesigned to ensure they can pass safely through tunnels on their intended routes. Both companies have committed to cooperate with the audit of the Ministry of Transport with absolute transparency.

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