Cercanías: sabotage, incidents and complaints for the most used but also most underfunded service

Blinded by the glare of the flashes caused by the inaugurations of lines of high speed, the successive governments of one color or another that Spain has had in recent decades prioritized investment in railways in this service. But having the second most extensive network in the world, with more than 4,000 kilometers – although also one of the most underused and, for some experts such as those at Fedea, of dubious profitability – has had a cost. And not only because of the 56,000 million euros invested to build it, but because of what has not been allocated to other services. Especially the most used ones: conventional and Cercanías.

Although last year more than 490 million travelers used Renfe public services -Cercanías, Media Distancia and Avant-, the truth is that the funds that have been dedicated to them have not been, even remotely, in line with their needs. In the case of Cercanías, we are talking about a service that, as Pepa Paez, general secretary of the railway sector of Comisiones Obreras, assures, “there have been times when with 95% of the total passengers transported have only received 3 or 4% of the investment total”.

Between 2008 and 2019, according to Adif data, 32,601 million euros were allocated to high speed, compared to just 7,027 that the conventional route received, much busier and, at the same time, extensive, as it exceeds 15,000 kilometers.

In recent years, the trend has begun to reverse and both the 2022 and 2023 General State Budgets already included slightly higher amounts for the conventional network.

But even though in the political arena the focus is almost exclusively on investments, professionals emphasize what they consider to be the true germ of the Commuter's problems: the lack of spending.

More spending and less investment

How he maintains Eduard Albors, an expert in mobility and who spent various professional stages at both Adif and Renfe, where he was responsible for Cercanías; «more than investments – which also, although selective– Renfe and Adif must be provided with more operating budgetto resolve the devilish dynamics of incidents, with a management team that knows how to prioritize the actions to be carried out.

Albors assures that “more than doing, what is necessary is to maintain what exists” with ordinary annual spending and not with extraordinary investments.

A reflection in which he supports Arturo Vega, head of the CSIF union at Renfe. «There is a lack of investment in both preventive and corrective maintenance. For a long time now, preventive measures (aimed at detecting problems that may exist in the network) have been greatly reduced, which prevents many small breakdowns that, added together, cause many delays,” he explains.

Vega also assures that there is a lack of money for rolling stock, something that the train drivers agree on. “The maintenance of the trains is somewhat deficient, it is the most deteriorated,” he explains. Alejandro Martínez Treceño, Secretary of Communication of the Semaf union.

Regarding rolling stock, the Government argues that it has been 14 years since a single new train has been purchased and that Renfe has made a great effort beyond the 3.5 billion euros to acquire more than 250 units. A policy that Albors calls into question. “Switzerland, for example, has a network and trains that are many years old and which they maintain at great expense” in very good condition, as he explains.

The free service approved by the Government has not helped either. As Pepa Paez assures, as trips increase, so do the probabilities of incidents increasing.

External causes

To this accumulation of circumstances attributable to the infrastructure manager and the service operator are added those beyond their responsibility, such as, for example, the windings. Every year, more than a hundred occur and, as Vega says, they are “inevitable” and cause “monumental delays” that can last up to two hours.

Also frequent are copper thefts or lane for sale on the black market, a difficult problem to solve. As Albors explains, the Cercanías network is less protected than the high-speed network. In addition, it is made of copper, while that of fast trains is made of fiber optics.

Image of the fire caused on the railway line after the sabotage in RodalíesTHE REASON

In the matter of incidents unrelated to Renfe and Adif, the situation is especially serious in the case of Rodalies, the Cercanías de Catalunya. It was reported a few days ago by the Minister of Transport, Óscar Puente, due to the alleged sabotage of the Montcada bifurcation installation – the department has reported it so that a court can determine what happened – which caused the service to drop on the day of the Catalan elections. ; and the workers support it. Puente assured that between 2019 and 2023, 11,151 incidents of this type were recorded throughout Spain, of which 52% occurred in Catalonia. “Investment is requested, but if they throw stones at you or place a tree in the middle of the road, no matter how good the service is, you cannot provide it efficiently,” laments Martínez Treceño.

Albors considers that after the repeated attacks on Rodalies there is a “underlying political problem” and that the service is boycotted because, in some way, Renfe is the representation of the State that some sectors do not want to recognize in Catalonia.

In Catalonia, problems are increasing due to sabotage for political reasons

Whether due to problems attributable to Renfe or Adif or to others, the truth is that the incidents on Cercanías in recent months, with travelers walking along the Atocha tracks after a train stop or the alleged sabotage in Catalonia, have increased discomfort among some users which, as Semaf assures, ends up being paid by the ticket office employees and the train drivers, who in many cases have no knowledge of what happened. “The driver has no information and cannot convey it to the travelers, who, not having anyone else on hand, vent their anger against the driver,” explains Martínez Treceño. «Coordination between Adif and Renfe must be improved. It cannot be that breakdowns that are not so serious end up causing serious incidents,” says the Semaf manager.

Despite the incidents and sabotage that the service faces, the Government maintains that its operation continues. to more than reasonable standards. After the latest problems in Madrid and the criticism from the Community of Madrid, Óscar Puente has assured that The punctuality of each Cercanías Madrid line ranges between 87% and 96%which is “a little” better than that of 2019. “If we compare ourselves with the rest of the EU countries and commuter services in large capitals such as London or Paris, it is the highest punctuality,” according to Puente, who assured that In Germany, “one in two trains arrives late to its destination.”

In the case of Rodalies, the Generalitat of Catalonia assured at the end of 2023 that, despite the multiple sabotage it endures, the average punctuality of its trains was 92%.