Friends have taken Spain’s AVE trains multiple times and despite being from the US (where talking about fast trains is fightin’ words) I’m no stranger to high speed rail, but it’s been more on the TGV, including a wonderfully delicious trip four years ago where striking farmers dumped carrots on the tracks and forced it to divert. French is not the language of love, it is the language of civil unrest in case you didn’t know…
But finally, the day has come where I’ve taken the AVE. Not from Barcelona to Madrid mind you, but from Barcelona to Figueres. Well, actually Figueres-Vilafant which is a joke of a station created due to corrupt politicians that were trying to cash in on property speculation instead of just allowing the train to run in to the center as it has for over a century. Besides this though, this rail link was quite crucial given that it has finally connected Spain’s high speed rail system to the rest of Europe. Historically, there has a break of gauge at the French-Spanish border to thwart any possible invasion by train due to that being such a common war tactic back in… oh, never.
So, naturally, how is the ride? It’s good because it’s damned fast. Normally, this trip takes about 2:15 to 2:30 on the Regional trains and 1:50 on the Mitja Distancia trains–when they’re not running behind schedule, which is pretty much always. The AVE trip on the other hand take 0:57. You almost don’t even know what’s happened because you’re arriving so incredibly fast. Of course it helps that there is only one stop in Girona and honestly, this could be even faster if it didn’t wait five minutes there for some inane reason.
There are however countless downsides to this train. The first is cost. The Mitja Distancia is 15€ and if you look around and plan your trip, you can take an AVE “Avant” train for 20€. Or, you can buy a block of tickets ahead of time and it’s even cheaper. But, this is somewhat all for naught given that you can only take the train at Barcelona Sants currently and unless you live in that neighborhood, it will take time and money to get out to that non-central, main train station. Then there’s the other end with this damned Figueres-Vilafant station which is in the middle of nowhere, here. Thankfully, I had in-laws to pick me up. If you don’t you either have to take a bus (which costs more money) or park at the station (which costs even more). You absolutely cannot walk to this station. There are no sidewalks leading up to it and they’ve constructed the station in such a way that the driveway in is really long. That and you would have to pass through a notorious “gypsy neighborhood” in Figueres that everyone advises passing through if you enjoy maintaining what valuables you have.
While impressed with the speed, I was not impressed with the train. It felt like it had made the run from Madrid to Sevilla many, many times in the past and the decor made me think that a young Wesley Snipes or Steven Seagal were going to kick down the door at any moment and tell us that the train had been taken hostage. When the speed started hitting 300kph, the wagons knocked around a bit. Also, the seats would not stay upright as their lock mechanism was stuck in “decline”. It’s not a huge deal given how short the ride is, but still it’s a bit annoying when you’re paying a higher price than the Mitja Distancia and getting to sit in a much crappier ride.
For business travelers, it’s lost time. It is nearly impossible to maintain a mobile signal nor data on the whole trip. Coverage in Spain is pretty shitty outside the main cities and tossed in to this is the fact that this journey passes through many, many tunnels.
Oh and one other joy is that there are no escalators in the Figueres-Vilafant station. This seems to be a deisgn cue they took from the main Figueres station wherein despite the fact that nearly everyone is traveling with luggage they insist on building stairs when ramps would work far better. Sure, they put in elevators, but those serve four people at a time, which isn’t practical for a train with several hundred people on it.
Will I take this trip again? Most likely as I need to go up to Paris this summer and you have to switch at this station. Will I take it again to go to Figueres? Absofuckingly not.