posted on 6th Mar 2023 14:09
In June 2022 MITMA announced that the Variante between La Robla and Pola de Lena, under construction since 2004 at cost which is likely to exceed 4 billion EUR (the original estimate in 2003 was around 1.5 million EUR!) would be inaugurated in May 2023, with the first technical and safety test runs taking place in February 2023. By mid-January it was becoming clear that this would not be the case.
The blame this time was laid at the door of the pandemic, delays in delivery of materials, and the increases in the cost of the latter, aggravated by the Russia - Ukraine war. Also complicating matters was the assessment of evacuation procedures from the twin-bore 25 km base tunnel, which will be used by both passenger and freight trains. This will be the first time such a long tunnel has been used by mixed traffic in Spain, and there is still a degree of uncertainty regarding the amount of safety testing that will be necessary, and the types of scenarios that will have to be assessed.
Before the Variante can be opened for commercial operation, there are seven specific areas which in early 2023 were still awaiting attention:
- Fine-tuning of the overhead contact wire. This was in progress during February.
- Although in both bores of the base tunnel fire protection, power supplies, ventilation and communication equipment were in place, these installations still had to be completed in the connecting and emergency exit galleries and in the various equipment and operations rooms. This should be done by April, with the work continuing while the first test runs are being made.
- In Vega de Ciego and Pico de Siero tunnels, in the Huerna valley in Asturias, the evacuation galleries were still being excavated in early February 2023.
- During January and February 2023 testing and verification of telecommunications and train control equipment was still taking place.
- The gas pipeline between León and Asturias has to be relocated. This project is still at planning stage, and will not be completed until early 2024.
- The two heliports at either end of the base tunnels were scheduled for completion in February.
- A new water purification system is currently being built, to deal with the huge quantity of water coming out of the Asturian end of the base tunnels. This will replace the existing one in Los Pontones.
All auscultation tests on the track have now been completed between La Robla and the gauge changers at Campomanes, with speeds of 200 km/h being reached during dynamic testing using one of Adif's laboratory trains. It has also been possible to test on-board and wayside ETCS Level 2, with trains running in full Supervision mode. On viaducts, load tests, static and dynamic, have been undertaken, with the exception of those on the viaduct immediately to the south of Pola de Lena ´between here and Campomanes there is only 1,668 mm gauge track.
During March 2023 dynamic testing is to start, with the actual train types to be used on commercial services running at the maximum permitted line speeds. This will also enable ETCS to be tested at either end of the new line, and the performance of different types of passenger and freight train to be assessed under real conditions.
Operational safety is playing a major role in preparations for inauguration. Nobody wants a repeat performance of Angrois (Santiago, 2013) on the approach to Pola de Lena station. Adif is collaborating with Renfe Operadora, AESF (Agencia Estatal de Seguridad Ferroviaria), and with the various civil protection groups in Asturias and Castilla y León, and during the spring simulations of emergency train evacuations are scheduled to take place. The definitive line speed maxima will only be established once this aspect of the testing is completed.
At present it is reckoned that the fastest trains will be able to cover the Oviedo to Madrid journey in three hours, without intermediate stops and with 300 km/h running where possible. As regards service frequency, the minimum offer is likely to be an early morning and an evening AVE train pair, enabling return journeys for business purposes in either Madrid or Asturias within one day, probably using variable gauge Class 106 Avrils. To these will be added the existing Alvia services operated by Class 130s.
In early February Talgo announced that the authorisation testing of the variable gauge Avrils was nearing completion and that this had been much easier to complete than that for fixed-gauge Avrils, since the variable-gauge trains have more component communality (and thus a higher level of component verification) with the Class 130s than do the fixed-gauge ones, on which authorisation is proceeding at a satisfactory pace. At a final stage, driver training and route learning have to take place on the Class 106s.
At present the inauguration is anticipated to take place 'sometime during the summer' - possibly August. Nobody is keen to specify a date. Around then the Avrils will be ready for use - each train has to undergo verification testing before being put in service.