Trains that don’t fit in tunnels cause political turmoil in Spain | trains

There was still not a single train ready, but an error detected by the manufacturer in the design phase of the 31 new metric gauge railcars was enough to cause a political storm in Spain that pushed the Secretary of State with the portfolio of transports out of the ministry, Isabel Pardo de Vera, and the president of the state railway operator Renfe, Isaías Táboas. If they were built with the measures indicated in the tender, the railcars would not comply with the safety margins in the many tunnels of the Asturian and Cantabrian network.

In June 2019, Renfe published the opening of a tender to renew part of the fleet of meter gauge trains circulating in northern Spain. About a year later, it awarded the manufacture to the Basque construction company CAF, for 258 million euros, defining that the first train had to arrive in October 2024. But it is the construction company CAF itself that realizes that the dimensions presented by Renfe, and that contained in the network directory of the infrastructure manager in Spain (Adif), did not match the security requirements of the network itself, and could cause problems in tunnels and bridges.

The problem, which would probably have been resolved internally without major damage, given the early stage in which the error was detected, jumped into the media sphere after a newspaper article published in the Asturian “El Comercio”. It was the last straw for users of the Spanish railway who complain about the continued abandonment of the meter gauge network by Renfe and Adif to the detriment of the high-speed network, which receives the bulk of public investment in Spain.

That’s when the push game begins: Renfe says it only followed the gauge measures presented in Adif’s network directory, and Adif apologizes to Renfe for not proving that the measures were correct for rail operations. Allegedly, the origin of the problems lies in the interventions that the various tunnels have undergone over the years and that change the margins for safe circulation, allowing, for example, a correct evacuation in the event of an accident.

To calm the waters, the “gabaritogate” initially led to the dismissal of Adif’s head of Inspection and Technology and the head of Renfe’s rolling stock management area. But the glass had already overflowed and the proximity of the municipal and autonomic elections led, this Monday, to the dismissals of the Galician Pardo de Vera and the Valencian Isaías Táboas, already under fire due to the successive breakdowns in the Extremadura rail network.

These departures also try to pass, according to the Spanish press, a message of political responsibility on the part of the socialist wing of the Government, after there were no dismissals motivated by the failure of the “Lay of only yes is yes”: a proposal by Unidas Podemos that has led to a downward revision of sentences for those convicted of crimes of sexual assault.

In order not to fail in the design of new trains, CAF will now use the comparative method, which had not yet been tried in Spain. Basically, the manufacturer will take one of the current trains on the network and use it as a reference for the new models. The new solution delays the entire process by at least three years.

Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country have a dense nearby rail network, with trains serving many of the region’s towns and villages. However, a policy of continued disinvestment since the Spanish Government extinguished, on December 31, 2012, the former FEVE – responsible for operating most of the metric gauge lines – uniting the entire railway operation into Renfe, has led to criticism policy makers and users, who complain about the sharp degradation of the service, with fewer timetables and longer travel times. For example, between Ferrol and Oviedo, the train takes half an hour longer today than in 1999.

Now, and unable to give Asturians and Cantabrians new trains before 2026, the Minister of Transport, Raquel Sánchez, who says she is the “first indignant” with this controversy, hastily promised free trains until the new ones arrive. A pact was also signed with the presidents of the regional governments of Asturias and Cantabria, guaranteeing a significant investment to modernize the meter gauge network, more timetables and standardization of ticketing between the conventional network in Iberian gauge and the meter gauge network, which currently operate on a segregated basis. It was also planned that the order for the 31 trains would be increased to a maximum of 38 and it was defined that a new tender would be held to buy more narrow gauge rolling stock.

The Catalan socialist politician Raül Blanco, a strange name for the Spanish railway company, was chosen for the position of president of Renfe, and the Madrid-born David Lucas Parrón moves from the Urban Agenda and Housing to the Secretary of State for Transport.

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