Whether due to a lack of foresight in replacing drivers or because there has been an unexpected amount of sick leave, the fact is that the local train service in Malaga, the Costa del Sol and the Guadalhorce valley are in a particularly unfortunate situation.
Despite being near the bottom of the list in terms of kilometres of track (and at the top in passenger numbers), the 'Cercanías' rail service in this area is suffering some of the biggest cutbacks to services in Spain.
First, let us compare the size of the local networks. Malaga is second-to-last in Andalucía and at the back of the pack (with Bilbao, Cadiz and Zaragoza) in terms of the amount of local Cercanías railway line it has. The C-1 (Málaga Centro-Alameda to Fuengirola) line is 31 kilometres long and the C-2 (Málaga Centro-Alameda to Álora) 38. In total, there are 69 kilometres of line and 26 stations.
This is a very different situation to Barcelona (which has the most at 615 kilometres) and Madrid, with 370 kms. It is also less than places with a smaller or similar population, such as Asturias (369.5), Valencia (323), Seville (198 in total) and Murcia-Alicante (202). The case of Bilbao is very similar to that of Malaga, because the passenger numbers there are also high despite the short length of line (67 kilometres in total, 75 if you take overlaps into account).
There is a noticeable contrast, between the number of travellers in each area. A joint report published at the end of 2017, before the pandemic, by the government and consultants Ineco, is a useful reference for comparing the situation for these services when things return to normal, because the current usage is still altered by Covid.
According to this document, the ranking of local networks with the most users has Malaga in fifth place, very close to Bilbao, which is fourth. The city where this form of transport is used most is Madrid, with 228 million passengers, followed by Barcelona (113.5 million).
In the middle group of cities are Valencia (15.8 million), Bilbao (10.1 million) and Malaga (9.9 million). However, it should be noted that the Costa del Sol reached peaks of 11.4 million users in 2018, although this volume has dropped drastically since the pandemic began. Seville, despite having one of the most extensive rail networks, is only in sixth place with 7.5 million users.
The study also takes into account the degree to which the capacity is taken up or the occupancy, in other words the number of travellers on each journey compared with the maximum who can be carried.
In this case, the trains in Malaga are those which most optimise their capacity, with the highest occupancy levels on every train in service. The average is especially high at 50.6 per cent, which is far above the national average. It is followed by Madrid (39.9%), Murcia/Alicante (35.8%), Valencia (34%), Cadiz (31.7%) and San Sebastián (28.8%). Seville, one of the cities with the most kilometres of track, is only at 22 per cent. The national average is 36.3 per cent.
Despite these positive figures and being in theory one of the most manageable hubs, in the sense that there are only two lines and journeys are shorter, Malaga is suffering some of the worst cutbacks in service in the country. In fact, it is the only one in the group of those with the most passengers which has been obliged to reschedule as many as 25 per cent of its services.
This means that in off-peak hours, when there is the least demand, the frequency has changed from every 20 minutes to every 40, every day of the week and with nobody knowing when this could return to normal. This is due to the crisis caused by the lack of drivers and the time it takes to train new ones, and to a greater or lesser extent it is also affecting other areas such as Barcelona, Valencia, Seville and Cadiz.
In fact, though, only ten more drivers would be needed in Malaga for the service to return to 100 per cent, as it used to be. As not all of them would be incorporated at the same time (we still do not know when they will start), the railway operator has promised to increase the services gradually from the present 75 per cent to 85 per cent as soon as there are enough new drivers to do so and replacements are guaranteed. Some of these are professionals who are already employed by the company and who have asked to be transferred from Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia to Malaga. The normal process for training and gaining experience lasts between three and six months, and at present around 900 people are undergoing this process.
The local rail network in Malaga has lost a total of 34 trains a day, indefinitely. Due to the chaos caused by cancellations, delays and the lack of information suffered by passengers in recent months, the company has decided to restructure its timetables and withdraw some trains in order to be able to operate the service with the drivers it has at present.
Because the training for new drivers cannot be accelerated to maintain the 136 daily journeys on lines C-1 and C-2 in Malaga, Renfe decided to withdraw 32 trains between Malaga and Fuengirola (16 in each direction) and two (one in each direction) on the Álora line.
At the moment there are 76 trains on the C-1 line and 26 on C-2. According to train operator Renfe, between 1 January and 31 October this year a total of 576 services on these lines in Malaga province had to be cancelled due to a lack of drivers, most of them on the Malaga-Fuengirola line.
On the C-1 (Malaga-Fuengirola) line, which is the one used by the most passengers, trains run every 20 minutes early in the morning and every 40 minutes in the middle of the day. With this rescheduling, 75 per cent of normal services are in operation, which Renfe says is a sufficient margin for a demand which is 50 per cent lower than it was before the pandemic. The current schedule respects the original frequency of trains at peak travelling times, and for the rest of the day there is one train every 20 or 40 minutes.
José Ángel Ferrero, who is Renfe's Public Service Manager in Andalucía, stresses that demand is still 50 per cent lower than it was in 2019 and that 75 per cent of services are still in operation. "This is a temporary measure, of course, which we are taking for as short a time as possible while the new drivers are completing their training, and we believe it is better for customers to have a fairly decent service than to face uncertainty because timetables cannot be met," he says.
Renfe expected to incorporate 920 new drivers nationally in 2020 and 2021. The pandemic and state of alarm in March 2020 paralysed the hiring process.