Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters

Spain’s national rail operator has quietly become a leader in Europe. Now it wants to compete with its neighbor to the north.

Even an avid rail enthusiast could be forgiven for not noticing the meteoric rise of Spain’s AVE high-speed rail network.

Starting only in 1992, Spain’s super-fast train service grew slowly compared to other European networks, and its reputation has lagged far behind international superstars like Japan’s Shinkansen and France’s TGV. Now, however, its days as a straggler are coming to an end.

Spain’s AVE (“Alta Velocidad Española” or “Spanish High Speed”) is already the most extensive high-speed network anywhere in Europe—a status it reached in 2017. Now, it’s undergoing a significant expansion of its destinations across the country. More strikingly, the national carrier that runs it, Spain’s Renfe, is now set to bring its high-speed services into the country usually seen as Europe’s pace-setter for all things rail-related: France. Following an announcement early this week, Renfe is bidding to run high-speed services north of the border, going head to head in competing with the TGV as soon as 2021.

Before we cheer for the rise of Spanish high-speed, it’s worth lifting the lid on exactly how it has gained this opportunity to compete internationally. The move is possible due to France opening up its rail network to competition, forced by the Macron government in the face of strong resistance from rail unions. Starting in 2021, multiple rail companies will be able to run high-speed services across the country, running trains alongside French carrier SNCF’s TGV, recently rebranded in premium and economy versions as Inoui and Ouigo. (Regional services are also being opened up for competition, but along different lines: In this sector, all companies will be able to bid to run a service, but the winning service chosen by the authorities will run its selected route exclusively.)

For high-speed rail, that means non-French companies are muscling their way onto the network. Already Italy’s Thello is bidding to run a service on the Milan-Turin-Lyon-Paris route. Renfe’s initial bid goes further, with the company expected run two to five services daily on the Lyon-Marseille and Lyon-Montpelier routes.

Taking on this international high-speed service would be a big leap for Renfe, but is part of a broader pattern of ongoing expansion. Last month, AVE launched a new service from Madrid to Granada, the first installment of many new links arriving in the next five years. Soon, passengers will be able to take high-speed trains from Madrid to the cities of Bilbao, San Sebastian, Badajoz, and Gijon, while new fast services are opening from Seville to Granada, from Alicante to Almería, and, in an upgrade of an already partly high-speed line, from Barcelona to Valencia. For a network whose coverage of its home country will soon be pretty close to comprehensive, moving abroad seems a logical next step.

It’s still a matter of debate, however, whether the liberalization of the French rail network to include competitors is a good thing overall for passengers. The Macron government presented the changes as a way of getting a heavily indebted SNCF back on an even keel after years when high-speed funding had been prioritized over regional and local services. Experiences in other countries that have liberalized nonetheless remain mixed. As Le Monde notes, Italy’s liberalization in 2000 saw price drops on high-speed lines, but also a reduction in capacity and quality of slower regional services that provided vital social and economic links between cities.

Renfe’s upcoming French high-speed services may be an impressive step for a national carrier with a relatively low international profile, but its gain might still end up being part of France’s loss.

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