By Train to Barcelona | Spain | Living in Mexico

By Train to Barcelona

In Europe, travel by train is efficient, pleasant and inexpensive. But not in Spain.

Long distance travel from Madrid begins at the Atocha Station, a turn-of-the-19th-Century building that has barely managed to escape the wrecker's ball.


Intact is the ornately mullioned north window, the curved roof, the winged lions and globe at the peak of the façade, and the wonderful old clock surmounted by a crown. I'd love to show you the elegant belle époque wings that perfectly flank the center vault, but pulling back would reveal the detritus of a construction project. Maybe the project will include razing that awful '60s-era clock poking out of the roof.

Inside, what once was a series of platforms alongside panting steam locomotives is now some kind of tropical garden.


How many ways is this bad?

First of all, what the hell do tropical plants have to do with train travel? Seriously, nobody cares about them. They're thinking about the night train to Paris.

Then there's the issue of the heat and humidity inside the building: good when you're touring a conservatory of rare plants, bad when you're shlepping a hundred pounds of luggage, trying to make your train. Hundreds of nozzles on tall poles spray mist for the benefit of the bromeliads—and the discomfort of the passengers.

Finally, with that unique logic that works only in the minds of bureaucrats, the paths through the plantings are roped off. Yep. No public access is allowed in over 50% of the train station.

Why does space matter? Let's take a look at the effect of insufficient space on customer satisfaction.


These are passengers waiting in line to buy tickets. The average wait when this image was taken was about an hour. The lines result from too few ticket windows. Because there's not enough space. Because so much is taken up by plants, the humidity and heat from which make the waiting even less bearable resulting in displays of bad temper.

You can avoid waiting in line by getting a numbered ticket for a turn at special "reserved" ticket windows. "Now serving #689." You only can do this on certain qualifying routes. The rules are too arcane for the likes of you and me, so the counter where you get your numbered ticket is staffed by an official. This expert in train schedule arcana asks you about your route, then explains your choices as to which trains you should take. Pick the right one, and you qualify for a ticket to avoid the lines. Pick the wrong one, and you're sent back to the purgatory pictured above.

Holding a ticket for your turn won't save you any time. What you have to do is watch for your number to come up on a tote board. Then you have about 60 seconds to make it over to the indicated window before your turn is given to someone else. When I took a number from the official, I asked how long before my turn would come up. He said about an hour and a half.

There's one other option. If you're tech-savvy and can read Spanish, you can beat the wait.


Before using one of these touch screen ticket vending machines, you need to analyze train schedules between your origin and destination, selecting two or three alternatives based on time of departure, number of stops and type of service. You also need to have your credit card handy, with your PIN. Finally, you have to perform a mind meld with the designer of the touch screen menus in order to comprehend the page-to-page navigation scheme. A couple thousand hours of web surfing experience is essential. All this is good, because it disqualifies 99% of ticket buyers, so there's no lines.

With these prerequisites in place, it took me and Jean only three tries to buy our tickets for the trip from Madrid to Barcelona. But it sure beat waiting in line.

I'll briefly mention two other customer satisfaction opportunities for RENFE, the national railroad company. First, we have the customer service center.


I was amazed to find this airy, uncrowded office with comfy chairs and bright-looking attendants, given the hell-hole of the ticket windows. Planning the next stage of our travels, I asked for a schedule for the Barcelona—Bilbao route:

"We don't have any."

"Where can I get one?"

"In Barcelona."

"Are there trains that run from Barcelona to Bilbao?"

"I don't know."

It became clear why the Customer Service Center was uncrowded.

Then there's the matter of the ladies' restroom.


These women were waiting with all the resigned patience of Mexicans paying their power bills. Jean, an impatient American, took one look at the line and stomped off to find another solution.

We passed through an airport-style security point and finally reached the departure lounge, where the combined cybernetic capacity of RENFE was unable to assign us a platform until five minutes before scheduled departure. An informational sign informed us that we would be denied boarding two minutes before scheduled departure. Hmmm. That left us three minutes to get from one end of the platform to the other, assuming we immediately noticed when our gate number came up on the announcement screen.

A stampede of panicky passengers ensued when our platform was announced. We formed a line which crept slowly forward, our progress impeded by an officious little prig who made a great show of carefully inspecting each ticket. He actually lisped. BarTHelona.

(Lisping in Spanish is like a 1930s Hollywood starlet, newly arrived from Possum Crotch, Missouri, speaking with a British accent. It's affected, snobbish.)

Our tickets having passed inspection (graTHias), we boarded our train for the four-hour ride.


Aircraft-style seats, a pretty good meal (better by far than the airlines) and occasionally interesting scenery—once you get on the train, it's not a bad experience. It only takes an hour longer than flying and costs about €60 less. Now if only you could buy tickets online...