If you are fed up with airports, budget airlines, closely packed seating, endless delays and long time-consuming security and transport to and from the airport, the dream of high-speed rail, comfortable seating, sleeping cars, good catering and quick and easy boarding, you are bound to ask, what’s holding everything up? The EU is pouring money into rail development and promoting the ‘dream’ of efficient high-speed rail connections.

Portugal’s rail network is lacking development

The government has clearly realised that high-speed rail development urgently needs investment to catch up with the Iberian peninsular and France and the UK. They have identified two routes that need modernisation and work has started. Lisbon Porto is well underway, the ‘missing link’ is the Évora-Elvas line that will enable fast trains between Lisbon and Madrid. (Image: Work on the Evora Elvas line)

The EU is funding the project ‘Connecting Europe by train’ and this consists of 10 pilot services to boost cross-border rail. Lisbon to A Coruña and Lisbon to Madrid are two of the connections considered of high importance.

The project to upgrade the Evora Elvas line was brought forward by the Portuguese government in 2018. Back then, the country’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa defined the initiative as the “biggest new railway line work of the last 100 years”. Progress on this construction is hard to track, completion dates of 2024 are common but unlikely.

Lisbon Madrid at high speed is still the missing link. Renfe hopes to run two daily services on the main line to Portugal. If everything goes to plan then by 2030 this route will eventually have a high-speed track, which should substantially increase its demand.

Renfe continues to ‘eye Portugal

According to EuroWeekly, ‘as they revealed during the electoral campaign, the ambition of the current Renfe board of directors is to achieve the entry of its trains into Portugal as early as 2024. However, Renfe’s intentions do not stop there. As La Información reported, the company has activated a plan with a horizon of 2027 to provide new services along the Portuguese Atlantic coast, connecting its large cities with Madrid’.

Strangely, CP continues to deny any approach from Renfe to use its lines, but the Portuguese press are full of reports about this. Despite some technical problems such as signalling systems and power supply, it's clear that Renfe are pushing ahead, and they have the trains and capital to achieve their aims.

According to La Información The Spanish-Portuguese summit held last March has resulted in an agreement for the governments of Spain and Portugal to improve rail connectivity between both countries, which is currently practically non-existent. This pact opens the door to the return to Lisbon of Renfe, which until the arrival of the pandemic provided a train-hotel service that disappeared due to its operating deficit. Sánchez and Costa endorsed in Lanzarote a series of agreements to improve routes on both sides of the border that also respond to the demands for liberalisation and integration of systems proposed by the European Commission.

More train operators want to use the Channel tunnel

For UK travellers more services using the Channel Tunnel are critical. At present London Paris is the main option if you are heading South, but it's not just Renfe who wants to operate from London to the South of Europe direct. UK National Express have formed a consortium now called Mobico, which has continental partners, including Spanish consortium Cosmen and potentially French manufacturer Alstom.

Sleeper trains across Europe are making a comeback

As travellers want to be more eco-friendly, sleeper trains are on track to be one of the most popular ways to get around Europe. The past couple of years has seen the launch of many new overnight routes though mainly in central Europe. There are several new companies such as Midnight Trains who are targeting Southern Europe, including Portugal.

The demand is there, we just need the rails to be completed. The ‘dream’ route? London, Barcelona, Madrid, and Lisbon with no train changes.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman