For years Miguel has followed the same routine when he goes out on a Saturday night. He takes the last train on the suburban line from Victoria Kent station in Malaga and gets off in Torremolinos, at the Plaza de la Nogalera in the town centre. It is a one-way trip, because the timetable means he can't go home the same way. Even though it is one of the most profitable lines with the highest number of users, the C-1 service which runs between Malaga and Fuengirola ceases to operate for six hours at night. The last train leaves Malaga at 11.30pm and the one from Fuengirola departs at 12.20am.
Irene is 19 and lives in Benalmádena. A night out in Malaga, where most of her friends live, requires an exercise in logistics which normally starts with a request: "Can somebody please stay with me until 5.20am, which is the time of the first train I can catch home?". When her friends decide to go out in Torremolinos, Arroyo de la Miel or Fuengirola, it is even worse. The first train for Malaga leaves after 6am.
For Miguel, and the other people who use the Cercanías service at night, there aren't many other alternatives. There is a bus, the M-110 line, which runs until 4am in the summer and at weekends, but there isn't another one for two hours after that. Once the summer is over, the last bus is at 2am. Again, there is a gap of several hours until 6.30am, during which time there is no public transport available along the coast despite the considerable demand.
"We haven't been to Torremolinos for ages, because of the transport problems. I understand they can't run a train every 20 minutes all through the night, but at least there could be one an hour. As it is, we have to take a taxi home if we don't want to have to drive. Taxis and Uber are very expensive, so there ought to be public transport of some type," Miguel says.
Plane and train connections
The frustration of finding a railway station closed doesn't only affect those who want to enjoy the nightlife on the Costa del Sol. The last AVE high-speed train to arrive in Malaga from Madrid gets into María Zambrano station at 11.40pm. The last train on the Cercanías service from the same station leaves at 11.33, seven minutes earlier, so there is no onward connection for the passengers on the AVE. Travellers who arrive at Malaga airport after midnight are in the same situation. There are no trains.
Every night, bemused tourists can be seen outside the locked door of the railway station, metres away from an airport which prides itself on its connectivity. The earliest train from the airport leaves at 6.44am, nearly six hours after the last one at 12.54am, so for passengers arriving at the airport during the night the train is not an option.
In May this year the Junta de Andalucía warned that the rail service "could experience capacity problems", especially at peak travelling times. The report says this line is used by more than 72,000 people daily. It highlights the main problems regarding mobility, including the number of people who use the Cercanías service, causing queues every day, and it says these could be reduced if more trains were made available.
"Isolated at night"
This week the tourism sector and mayors of towns along the Costa del Sol added their voices to the call for Renfe to change its policy for the Cercanías service.
The president of the Malaga provincial government, Francisco Salado, is one of the strongest supporters of a nighttime service: "It's clear that we have a transport problem on the Costa. It is absolutely necessary to expand the Cercanías timetable at night, basically because we are an area with a strong focus on leisure. This needs to be done, not only for safety reasons but also because it will benefit tourism and people who live locally," he says.
Salado, who is well aware of the inconvenience of a major airport having no nighttime train service, goes even further and says there needs to be an improvement to the entire metropolitan transport system. "It's the same with the buses. It's not right for large towns to be isolated at night," he insists.
At Malaga city hall, they also think the Cercanías service "leaves much to be desired". The councillor for Mobility, José del Río, is calling for the Spanish government to "take into account the city we live in, which needs a nighttime train service". He thinks there should be trains between Malaga and Fuengirola at least every 45 minutes or at least every hour.
"I have seen, for example, that more people would have come to see the Cirque du Soleil if there had been a rail service at night, because a lot of tourists would come to Malaga if they knew they could get back to the Costa del Sol," he says.
"A handicap in the future"
The mayors of towns on the coast affected by the lack of nighttime trains would also like to see the problem resolved. The mayor of Benalmádena, Víctor Navas, for example. "Times change, and so do people's habits, but I think they are running the train service the same way they did 30 years ago," he says. He believes that unless something is done, the economic development of the Costa del Sol could be affected. "Not having an adequate rail service will prove to be a handicap in the future," he says. He also wants a new station to be built in the Nueva Torrequebrada area.
The mayor of Torremolinos, José Ortiz, has already told Madrid that the trains should run more frequently during the day and there should be a nighttime service, when the council was analysing its accessibility project for La Nogalera station. "Malaga and Torremolinos form part of an enormous tourism nucleus which is in need of suitable public transport, and more people are coming here from Malaga city all the time, especially in the winter," he says.
Hotel owners and managers are not impressed by the current timetable, either. Carlos Franco, the manager of the Meliá Costa del Sol hotel in Torremolinos, says the ideal would be for the C-1 line to operate at night, although he is aware that the solution would have to be acceptable to Renfe, the railway company. "I think it would be best to extend the train timetable by two hours at night, until 2am, and start it an hour and a half earlier in the morning, at 5am," he suggests.
The president of Aehcos, the hotel association of the Costa del Sol, Luis Callejón, says hotels are also affected by the lack of a nighttime rail service.
"We are already part of the forum calling for the Cercanías line to be extended to Marbella, but it is also necessary for the trains to run at night because we organise activities in the evenings all through the year," he says.
Aware of Renfe's reluctance to modify its timetable, Callejón suggests the possibility of running a service day and night at least in Easter week, something which is already done for two days, and during the Malaga Fair. "It puts people off if they know they are going to have to wait until 6 o'clock in the morning to get back," he says.
So far, Renfe says it is not prepared to extend the timetable on the Cercanías line. As a public service it would need a ministerial decree in order to do so, although it is evident that it is possible. At Easter the extra nighttime service means there are 74,000 more places available. At that time the stations are closed for less than two hours a day, between 3.30 and 5.20am in Malaga and from 4.20 and 6.10am in Fuengirola.
However, the Cercanías line is not exclusively for suburban trains, unlike the metro lines which are only used for that type of transport. Different types of trains travel along the Cercanía lines, including long-distance and those carrying cargo. The hours when the service is closed are also used for maintenance and clearning of trains and lines. With the progressive segregation of rails, Renfe has increased the frequency of the service in the past few years, but a further extension seems highly improbable. The company points out that the service in Madrid and Barcelona has similar timetables.
The absence of a nighttime service applies to a line which has seen incomparable growth in recent years. It attracts more new passengers than anywhere else in Spain and is fourth in the national ranking with 11.4 million users, according to the latest figures from Renfe. Last year's figure (11.3 million) was in itself a record. The Cercanías line along the Costa del Sol has already broken it.