Madrid To Barcelona - Rail Wins Over Plane

posted on 9th Jan 2023 07:28

In late November 2022 the Comisión Nacional de los Mercados y la Competencia (CNMC) published its annual report on rail traffic trends in Spain. Ever since the Madrid to Barcelona high speed line was completed in early 2008 there has been OUIGO a running battle with the frequent and popular 'air bridge' service between the two cities. In the early days the two modes were level-pegging for clientele. But with the introduction of Renfe’s AVLO low-cost services (21 June 2021) and the open access operators OUIGO (10 May 2021) and now (25 November 2022) Iryo the plane could well be flapping its last. 

During 2022 CNMC noted that on long established high speed rail routes the number of passengers started to exceed ridership levels recorded in 2019. In particular this was notable on Madrid to Alacant services (a 28.8 % increase) and on those between Madrid and Barcelona (a 20.0 % increase). Between Madrid and Barcelona during 2021 ridership was only 3.1 % lower than in 2019 and in second quarter of 2022 was 9.5 % higher than in second quarter of 2019.

Between third quarter of 2021 and second quarter 2022 of OUIGO carried around 500 000 passengers. In spring 2022 it became necessary to increase capacity by over 30 % and run some TGVs in multiple. but OUIGO's good performance did not occur to the detriment ridership on Renfe Viajeros' AVE and AVLO services. During second quarter of 2022 Renfe Viajeros maintained an 80.9 % market share on Madrid to Barcelona services. This was in spite of the operator providing 17.4 % less capacity (seats) on the route than in second quarter of 2019. 

But what is most significant during this period is that the three types of high speed train service have managed to whittle away at the once-popular 'air bridge' linking the Spanish and Catalan capitals. The presence of low fares could be one reason. Another - though this is difficult to ascertain given quirky Spanish culture - is that passengers perceive the train to be a potentially less infectious travelling environment than the aircraft. In 2019 rail enjoyed a 63.3 % market share on the Madrid to Barcelona route. The only observations in the media were that, month on month, the ridership in March 2021 was 20 % greater than that in March 2019. No actual figures were revealed. 

At the end of December 2022 more data came to light. During the third quarter of 2019 OUIGO had captured 29 % of the passenger market between Madrid, Zaragoza and Barcelona, thanks to increasing service levels and using its TGVs in multiple. AVLO had captured 14 % of the market, while Renfe's AVE services had a 57 % share. But the number of passengers has increased considerably. In the third quarter of 2022 it was up by 43 % on the number carried during the third quarter of 2019.

One reaction of Renfe Viajeros to low cost competition was to simplify its fares structure on AVE and Larga Distancia services. This took place in April 2021, with 148 different fare types being replaced by three options, Básico, Elige and Premium, which are like their predecessors yield management, and vary according to demand. All tickets are now personalised - it is not possible to hand one's ticket to another person for a journey. 

It has to be borne in mind that during 2021 there were still certain restrictions on mobility caused by the pandemic and Renfe had still not restored its complete pre-pandemic service level. The prospects for rail operators during 2022 look even brighter but as yet no ridership data have been released. Early indications are that during 2021 and 2022 railfreight in Spain also recovered some of its ailing market share.

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