The first railway line in Spain, from Barcelona to Mataro a few miles up the coast towards the French border, was built in 1848 by British workers and with British expertise. I was reflecting on this, and the huge difference today between the services provided by our two countries’ railways, as the train passed through Mataro on the way to Girona. The 90-minute journey, for those of us of a certain age with a tarjeta dorada, cost five euros. The return journey to Barcelona by express train took 38 minutes and cost less than ten euros.
Train travel in Spain is not only amazingly cheap; it is comfortable, efficient and almost always punctual. When you buy a ticket, you are automatically allocated a seat, and a screen in each carriage gives the destination, intermediate stops, the time and outside temperature. A recorded announcement of the next stop is made three minutes before arrival, in Spanish and English. In pleasing contrast to the experience on English trains, there are no irritating interruptions from a ‘train manager’ telling you that the buffet is closed or to check that you have all your belongings before leaving the train. Sunday timetables, unlike those in Britain, are similar to weekdays.
When Spain’s railway lines were first laid, a broader gauge was adopted than that used in France — apparently to deter another French invasion, this time by train, only a few decades after Napoleon had crossed the Pyrenees and deposed the Spanish king. Along the north coast the trains still run (slowly) on a narrow-gauge track, stopping at stations every few minutes on the delightful route between Galicia and the Basque country.
In the 1920s V.S. Pritchett commented that ‘the trains are as slow as oxen and as rare as eagles’.