Ordered trains in Spain too wide for tunnels, secretary of State and head of rail operator step down

Spain ordered new trains for the provinces of Cantabria and Asturias but they would have been too wide for some old tunnels. The head of Renfe and the secretary of State for Transport stepped down as a consequence of the mistake.

tunnel Spain
The design of new trains for the provinces of Cantabria and Asturias are too large for some tunnels | © Javier Ruiz, Twitter

In 2020, Spain’s rail operator Renfe announced plans to modernize the fleet of old commuter trains and medium-distance trains in the autonomous northern provinces of Cantabria and Asturias. The contract was worth 258 million euros (274 million dollars) for 31 new trains.

But their designs are too large for some tunnels and commuters will still need to wait until the poor conditions of the rail system in the regions get any better.

The issue was revealed publicly earlier in January and created a vivid controversy in Spain.

Renfe ordered the trains in 2020. However, the Basque manufacturer, CAF, realized that the dimensions for the trains were inaccurate in March 2021. Renfe says it provided measurements based on infrastructure specifications provided by Adif, Spain’s railway infrastructure operator. The State Agency for Railway Safety (AESF) also played a part in the fiasco.

As a consequence of the outcry the mistake has caused in the country, the head of Spain’s rail operator Renfe, Isaías Tábo, and the secretary of State for Transport, Isabel Pardo de Vera, both stepped down from their roles on February 20. Ms. Pardo de Vera used to be the chief executive and chairwoman at Adif between 2018 and 2021.

Earlier this month, a rolling stock manager at Renfe and Adif’s head of track technology were fired over the blunder.

The minister for Transport Raquel Sánchez said on Monday the central government “takes responsibility for the delay in the delivery of trains,” while also defending that “this government is also responsible for having implemented measures to improve commuter trains and promote their use like no government before.” The Minister of Transportation also stated that an internal audit would be conducted to further identify the reasons for this error.

Commuting service conditions in Cantabria and Asturias are described as those of a “third world” country by Miguel Ángel Revilla, the president of Cantabria.

Mr. Revilla had earlier called the debacle a “monumentally botched job” and wanted some heads rolling over the affair. Adrián Barbón, the president of the Principality of Asturias and member of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party that is part of the country’s coalition government, said he was “baffled, angry and disappointed.”

The two autonomous regions have a mountainous landscape and Spain’s rail network system from the 19th century includes a number of tunnels in the regions whose sizes don’t fit the more modern dimensions of trains.

Trains were originally supposed to be completed by 2024 but have not been manufactured yet as they were still in the design phase. The ministry for Transport assured in a note on Saturday that since the inconsistencies were detected in the early stages of the design process, this “has not implied the waste of public resources.”

The design of the new trains is supposed to be ready by the end of 2023-beginning of 2024 to immediately start production. Trains are now expected to be in circulation in the first half of 2026, which also shows the previously contracted deadline was already unlikely to be met before the news broke out publicly.

Because of the poor connections, the rail commuter service in Cantabria and Asturias is free. This agreement with the government of Spain was supposed to stop at the end of 2023 and the original contracted delivery date.

But the free service has now been extended until the new trains come into circulation, following an agreement between the minister and the two presidents.

Spanish minister of Transport Raquel Sánchez
The president of the Principality of Asturias (left), Adrián Barbón, the Minister of Transport (center), Raquel Sánchez, and the president of Cantabria (right), Miguel Ángel Revilla, appeared before the media at the end of the meeting on February 20 | © Principado de Asturias

As compensation, a total of 38 trains will also now be manufactured rather than 31 as initially planned, seven more units will be delivered to the Asturias instead of 10. It activates a clause included in the contract, which doesn’t “imply a significant modification of the contract,” according to the agreement. In addition, new complementary contracts will be articulated to guarantee the total renewal of the fleet of these trains that circulate on meter-gauge railways in both regions.

The council of ministers on Tuesday approved the appointment of Raül Blanco Díaz as the new president of Renfe. From June 2018 and until last December, Mr. Blanco held the position of secretary general for Industry and Small and Medium Enterprises. David Lucas becomes the new secretary of State for Transport, Mobility and Urban planning, an extension of his previous perimeter as secretary of State for Urban planning and Housing.

In 2014 already in France, the French train operator SNCF ordered 2,000 regional trains that were too wide for the network’s platforms because the infrastructure manager didn’t take into account the older structures. Trains were already manufactured though but no government member stepped down because of it.

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Partido Regionalista de Cantabria, February 2023, Unsecure access

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