AVE, an acronym for Alta Velocidad Española (literally, "Spanish High Speed," but also a play on the word ave, meaning "bird" in Spanish), is a service of high speed trains operating at speeds of up to on dedicated track in Spain.
Unlike the rest of the Spanish broad-gauge network, the AVE uses standard gauge, permitting direct connections outside Spain in the future. All AVE trains are currently operated by RENFE, the Spanish state railway company, although it is possible that private companies may be allowed to run lines in the future. On the line from Madrid to Sevilla, the service guarantees arrival within a 5 minutes of the advertised time, and offers a full refund if the train is delayed further, although only 0.16% of trains have been so. In this regard, the punctuality of the AVE is exceptional compared to other non long distance RENFE services. On other AVE lines, this punctuality promise is more lax (15 minutes on the Barcelona line).
It has been suggested that the PSOE government chose the French Alstom bid over the Siemens and Talgo bids for political rather than technical reasons, rewarding the French government for its assistance in capturing ETA activists who took "sanctuary" across the border in southern France. Seville's hosting of the 1992 World's Fair prompted its choice for the inaugural AVE line, but there were also accusations that the Spanish head of government Felipe González favoured his home city; apparently, he conceded to support Barcelona in bidding for the 1992 Summer Olympics if Seville would be connected to the AVE first. On the other hand, Seville is still the fourth biggest city in Spain, after Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, with a population of some 700,000.
In January 1993 the Talgo 200 Madrid–Málaga service commenced, which used AVE lines as far as Cordoba and then Spanish gauge conventional track to reach Malaga. On 23 April of that year, the AVE set a new top speed of on a test run. Later in 1993 the mixed-method services Talgo 200 Madrid–Cádiz and Talgo 200 Madrid–Huelva began.
Although in 1999 RENFE began a mixed-service Talgo 200 Madrid–Algeciras route, this was, along with the other mixed services, transferred to Grandes Líneas Renfe (RENFE's Spanish gauge long-distance brand) following changes to plans for high speed rail in Spain.
The construction of a stretch of high speed line from Madrid to Toledo allowed the inauguration of a medium distance service in November 2005. The journey time between the two cities is now less than 30 minutes. The high speed link combined with high property prices in Madrid has encouraged many Madrid commuters to settle in Ciudad Real, the first stop on the Madrid-Seville line. There has, however, been controversy over the construction of this line as the change to standard gauge track meant that large towns such as Getafe, Aranjuez and Algodor, which now has no commercial services, lost their direct services to Toledo. Furthermore since Toledo is now connected by standard gauge track it is impossible for other passenger or goods trains to reach it that haven't come from other high speed lines.
Further Avant services have been launched with the expansion of the AVE to Valladolid and Barcelona. See below for details of all Avant services.
There are also other series of trains that are considered high speed, but don't run under the AVE name. They run under the brand Alvia, and are variable gauge trains. They can run on High speed lines at a maximum of , and can also change between standard and Iberian gauge lines without stopping. The trains that are operated under the Alvia brand are:
The central hub of the system is Madrid's Puerta de Atocha, except for the Valladolid line, which terminates at Chamartin Station.
The line from Barcelona to Figueres is scheduled to open in 2012, while the line from Figueres to Perpignan is set to open in 2009. France has yet to commit to the construction of the section between Perpignan and Montpellier. As a result trains will use the existing regular railway line north of Perpignan to reach the TGV Network at Montpellier.
The line will be operated by Talgo and Siemens AG train sets, although it will require special train sets. The French line Perpignan - Montpellier is electrified at 1.5 kv DC, but Spanish trains use 25 kV AC. However French trains are dual-voltage allowing both TGV and regional trains to operate on the line. All Spanish trains are single-voltage.
In the long term the Spanish government has an ambitious plan to make of high-speed railway operational by 2010, with all provincial capitals at most only 4 hours from Madrid, and 6½ hours from Barcelona. According to the Strategic Plan for railway infrastructures developed by the Spanish Ministerio de Fomento Ministry of Public Works, called PEIT, a second expansion programme is planned to start in 2010-11, when the last lines of the first programme still under construction begin operation. This plan has a ten-year scope, ending 2020, and its ambition is to make the network reach by the end of that year. This would be the most extensive network in Europe, with several operational links with France and Portugal and is by far the most ambitious high speed rail plan in the European Union.
Critics of this scheme point out that raising the average speed of Spain's regional trains would achieve a much greater global impact at much less cost. At present, there are some rural lines where average speeds barely exceed . The speed between some provincial capitals is little better; for example, it takes some 9½ hours to cover the between León and Barcelona.
On the other hand there has been a great improvement of speed and time with trains that link Madrid with other capitals that do not have direct AVE connections, but that use the high speed line for most of the route, such as:
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