New Spanish high-speed

By Jay Brunhouse

by Jay Brunhouse

RENFE’s 205-mph Talgo 350 trains are known as “patos” (ducks) for their aerodynamic profile. Photo: Brunhouse

The sensation of riding on Spain’s high-speed train from Madrid to Zaragoza (Saragossa) is, more than anything, one of smoothness, without the bumps and jolts common on some of Spanish Railroads’ (RENFE’s) teeth-rattling old trains. The journey passes so comfortably, in fact, that it is easy for a rider to forget the blazing speeds at which his or her train is traveling — unless, of course, the rider happens to be standing in the driver’s cabin, which is almost the case in the lounge of RENFE’s train Valero E (“E” for España).

From the driver’s vantage point, scenery zips alongside as tunnels loom ahead, and then the train quickly plunges into darkness before darting out once again into the light. The speed, the most important trait of high-speed rail, turns from simply a number on paper into an experience.

In Madrid’s Atocha Station, you pass through security and pull your luggage down a ramp to a long platform where you board either a 205- or 218-mph train.

Departing right on time, your high-speed train heads southeast on the line toward Seville until it branches at a triangular junction onto the new line to Zaragoza and crosses through the growing residential suburbs of Spain’s capital city. You climb gradually through the Henares Valley to Guadalajara’s new park-and-ride train station.

Europe’s highest high-speed

Heading northeast, your train accelerates on the highest high-speed line in Europe, between Gajanejos and Calatayud. Most of the route is above 3,300 feet, and it reaches about 4,000 feet at Alcolea del Pinar. Past Alcolea you descend through rough, wild, remote, forgotten countryside. Through several tunnels, you meet the earlier Madrid-Zaragoza line a few miles before Calatayud, in the Jalón Valley.

You almost expect to hear monkeys chattering in the former train hall of Madrid’s Eiffel-built Atocha Station. Photo: Patricia Wood

As your train zips through the new Calatayud Station, notice that the station has platforms for broad-gauge trains in addition to the European-gauge rails that your train is traveling upon.

You continue into the most difficult section of your route, following River Jalón and entering a series of gorges. You cross numerous viaducts and pass through several tunnels, keeping high on the mountainsides above the Jalón River.

Past Ricla, the landscape opens and you enter the flourishing Ebro River basin. Leaving the Jalón River, you cut across the low sierras into Zaragoza’s 2003 Delicias Station.

Zaragoza’s spick-and-span station has five tracks of both wide and European gauges 25 feet below the level of the main concourse. Surprisingly, the new train/bus/car park station is uncluttered by stalls and vendors selling sausages, pastries, neckties, souvenirs, beauty products and dolls in regional costumes so that you walk freely from the 1,300-foot-long arrivals platform to the exit. The business/first-class lounge is located outside the security check.

When RENFE opens segment two of the 218-mph line in 2008, your high-speed train will follow the River Lleida and take you into Barcelona’s expanded Sants Station.

New trains

RENFE lavished €741 million (with support from the European Union) to provide new trains for the Madrid-Zaragoza-Barcelona line. Its largess was equally divided between Talgo/Bombardier and Siemens consortia for a total of 32 train sets capable of 218-mph operation.

The Talgo 350 trains seat 318 in 12-carriage formations. Siemens’ 8-carriage Valero E seats 404 passengers and is a reworked German ICE3. Siemens supplied the electrical components, with the rest shared between RENFE, CAF and Alstom. In addition, an order for 30 Talgo 350 trains was later placed for future delivery.

With departures nearly hourly but not at regular-intervals, Talgo 350 trains (designated S-102 by RENFE) arrive in Zaragoza’s Delicias Station one hour and 44 minutes after departure from Atocha Station, covering 216 miles at an average speed of 125 mph. Siemens’ modified ICE3 trains (designated Valero E) take one hour and 30 minutes at 144 mph. By comparison, wide-gauge Talgo III trains required three hours at 70 mph on the old line.

All of RENFE’s trains formerly ran on wide-gauge (five feet, six inches) rails, but the decision to build all new high-speed tracks to the European standard (four feet, 8½ inches) made Spain a country with trains running on two gauges (three, if you count the meter-gauge FEVE railroad in the north). Ingenious, on-the-move, gauge-changing machines allow trains to cross between lines of different gauges.

Flying ducks

Talgo stands for “Tren Articulado Ligero Goicoechea y Oriol.” The last two names are those of the inventors of the system and the first three words mean “lightweight articulated train.” Because they are articulated units, the string of shorter, connected, low-profile parlors bends around curves like a rubber snake.

Valero E passengers can enjoy the rushing scenery through the glass wall behind the driver. Photo courtesy of DB

Talgo 350s are known as “patos” (ducks) because of the aerodynamic profile of their power cars, but they can fly! The Talgo 350 is faster than a jet-assisted mallard, yet it is, more than anything, comfortable to ride. 318 seats are spread in club, business and coach sections. Coach-class seats are arranged two-opposite-two, while business class is arranged two-opposite-one. The most expensive, salon class, is one-opposite-one.

Polite waiters serve snacks or light meals to business-class passengers who fold down their tables to enjoy the meals. Breakfast consists of a choice between scrambled eggs with green asparagus or a chicken brochette with tomato sauce. Both are served with potatoes as well as bread rolls, croissant, butter, marmalade and olive oil. Dessert is a tasty vanilla cream, and, of course, coffee comes after the meal.

Busy with riders flocking from coach class, the café is convivial with passengers enjoying RENFE’s choice of seven different regional Spanish wines as well as breakfast snacks.

You can watch route and arrival announcements as well as entertainment on screens.

Valero E

The second of RENFE’s new trains, Valero E, is the Spanish adaptation of the German ICE3. ICE3’s power equipment is distributed throughout the train and eliminates the traditional power car. The powered driving cars do not have pantographs, which designers placed on intermediate carriages to permit roller-coaster running over hilly terrain.

Because the train does not have power cars, the whole length of the train is available for passenger seats, including the first car. The so-called lounge seats are located behind the driver, separated only by a glass wall.

The lounge in the Valero E is an eye-opener because the oncoming scenery and tracks rush past you over the driver’s shoulder through the cockpit window, but the leather-covered seats throughout the train relax you even at high-speed. You can use the standard-equipment laptop and audio connections in the coach-class seats as well as the business- and salon-class seats.


I thank the Tourist Office of Spain, Chicago, for arranging my transatlantic flights aboard Iberia Airlines from Chicago (Iberia also has nonstop flights from New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Miami) and train travel. The Talgo 350 business-class ticket from Madrid to Zaragoza cost €58.40 (near $75); return cost €35.05 ($45). Log onto for Spain information.

In Madrid we stayed at the 5-star Hotel NH Eurobuilding (phone 91/353 73 00,, with rates from €120 ($$155), and the 4-star Hotel Catalonia Centro (phone 91/781 4949,, with rates from €135 ($174).

In June we’ll explore the highlights of Zaragoza and the Expo there.