Portugal – plans, projects and priorities

Posted: 28 July 2006 | | No comments yet

In the wake of Directive 440/91 CEE, Portugal decided to set up a new model for the railway sector.

In the wake of Directive 440/91 CEE, Portugal decided to set up a new model for the railway sector.

In the wake of Directive 440/91 CEE, Portugal decided to set up a new model for the railway sector.

The new model includes:

  • Allocation of the following responsibilities of REFER:
    1. Maintenance, capacity management, path allocation and traffic control
    2. Interface construction, renewal and management
    3. Setting infrastructure user charges
  • The independent Regulator – INSTITUTO NACIONAL DO TRANSPORTE FERROVIÁRIO, INTF – oversees the Rules for Access, Licensing of Operators and Regulation of Railway Activity ( Development, Safety, Quality, Environment)
  • The Railway undertakers provide railway transport services for passengers and freight

REFER was set up in April 1997, by separating the engineering activities from the parent company – CP – CAMINHOS DE FERRO PORTUGUESES. Later, in January 1998, maintenance activities migrated from CP to REFER and, in June 1998, the capacity management was transferred. Finally, in January 1999, traffic command and control made the move.

The Regulator took up office in September 1998 and then, one month later, the first private railway undertaking (FERTÁGUS) began running a commuter service between Lisbon and the South, over the 25th April bridge.

The incumbent State-owned RU (CP – Comboios de Portugal) runs passenger and freight services, throughout the network.

The first Railway Package (Directives nº 2001/12/CE, 2001/13/CE, 2001/14/CE) has been transposed into Portuguese law (decree-law nº 270/2003, dated 28th October, 2003). The Network statement has been published since 2003 (an English translation has been available since April 2004).

REFER Missions and Governance

REFER have two main missions:

  • To run the railway infrastructure that is part of the national railway network
  • To build, install and renew the infrastructures

The former mission – infrastructure management – includes three main components:

  • Capacity management, using technical timetables for the railway undertakings, scheduling temporarily reductions in capacity and conducting infrastructure operations studies
  • Management of the railway infrastructure maintenance program, in order to ensure its availability with the levels of safety and quality required by the different operators
  • Management of regulation and safety systems, i.e., managing train circulation in real time, safely, efficiently and with due care

The network in operation has a total length of 2,839km, the majority of it being in Iberian track gauge (1,668mm), approximately 600km of double track network and 1436km are electrified.

REFER have approximately 4,000 employees with an employment structure consisting of:

  • A Board, as top management, with a Chairman and four Members.
  • Two General Directorates – Engineering and Operations and Maintenance – who oversee the core businesses
  • Nine ‘Staff departments’ with a focus on strategic activities and five ‘Corporative’ ones having a more service based outlook

Main Priorities

The National Rail Network Master Plan and the Rail Gauge Changeover Plan are the main priorities at the moment.
With the working out of the National Railway Network Master Plan, the company intends to consolidate the future railway network as a whole, guarantying a progressive integration between the conventional and the high speed networks, and with the Iberian and European networks. It is also important to ensure correct articulation with the national Logistic System, as well as, with all the other modes of transport.

On the other hand, working in tandem with the construction of new high speed lines using the UIC gauge, there will be two different gauges on the fundamental network. Therefore, it is necessary to implement a Migration Plan from the Iberian gauge to the UIC gauge. That plan must be the reference framework, so that the interventions to be performed on the conventional network, on successive steps, do not cause danger with the essential articulations for a rational operation of the infrastructure, i.e., in a way that the interoperability between the two components could never be decreased.

Furthermore, taking into account the articulation between the Portuguese and the Spanish conventional networks, REFER can not ignore the future impacts that a change of gauge on such a network might produce on the Portuguese one.

Despite all the effort that High Speed will require over the coming years, REFER will also have to make major investments in upgrading the conventional system. The government manifesto stated that the main investments in the near future would focus on the following points:

  • Greater intermobility, connecting the rail network with the other domestic logistics, airport and seaport systems
  • Easier access and urban commuting with shorter journey times
  • Linking the domestic network with the rest of Europe to make the country more competitive and assemble Portugal into a logistics hub

REFER is also studying the necessary measures to create, progressively, the conditions for the economic and financial sustainability of the company. This is essential if it is to survive in the long term and will entail changes to its organisation, and resources, while maintaining the levels of safety demanded for rail operations. Improved corporate governance will mean that public money is put to better use and savings will arise as a result. The way to be followed must also include a new public service contractual framework with the State.

Main investments

The main programmed investment is, naturally, the launch of the High Speed Network.

First, the lines Lisbon-Madrid (207km as far as the border and a new crossing of the Tagus River) and Lisbon-Oporto (313km) will be built. Lisbon-Madrid will be prepared for mixed traffic and a maximum speed for passengers of 350km/h, and Lisbon-Oporto will be prepared for passenger traffic and a maximum project speed of 300km/h.

REFER estimates an investment of approximately 7.7 thousand million euros for these two lines, with an expected opening date between 2013 and 2015.

Also under preparation is the connection Oporto-Vigo (border with Spain, in the north of Portugal), and at a later phase, the connections Aveiro-Salamanca (link with Spain in the centre of the country) and Évora-Faro-Huelva (link with Spain in the South) will be studied.

Simultaneously, REFER has prepared a list of the most urgent public investments needed on the conventional network over the coming years. Freight needs access abroad and better links with the ports and logistics hubs (Sines-Elvas line and the connection to the port of Aveiro). Passengers need a better link with the inland (Beira Baixa line) and improvements around the cities (Cascais line upgrade).

The Sines-Elvas freight link, in particular, is of strategic importance for the country. It will be a competitive freight route between the port of Sines and Spain and then to the rest of Europe. The line is part of Priority Project no. 16 of the Trans European Network.

The engineering Works will be quite different from anything done before in the country and will involve monoblock sleepers specially made to take three rails (the process is currently in use on some parts of the Spanish system), so as to allow two different kinds of gauge to operate simultaneously on the same line while ensuring speeds of at least 160km/h. It will also be the first line prepared to use ERTMS.

Infrastructure operations

Infrastructure management and the technical timetables enable us to control train movements in real time safely, efficiently and properly.

Transport markets are becoming ever more demanding. Recent technological breakthroughs have led us to produce a Strategic Plan for the Operating Management of the Network. The plan aims to set up truly efficient Operational Command Centres (OCC) that centralise all the data needed to watch over the different systems and take command decisions. There will be one single command in case of any breakdown so as to ensure proper safety levels, better management and quicker responses. It should also help improve the quality of our services.

We have decided to set up three OCCs in Oporto, Lisbon and Setúbal. They will take over the basic centralised traffic command functions, overhead cable control, public announcements, CCTV, telecommunications infrastructure monitoring and will assume command in case of any problem. The Command Centres will also be equipped to deal with High Speed service and its subsystems when it arrives along with the needs of any new interoperability demands.

Maintenance policies

REFER’s other core business is the upkeep of the rail infrastructure and ensuring it is in line with the demanding safety and quality standards required by the trains. REFER has recently introduced integrated maintenance contracting by geographical areas and a new maintenance management indicators model.

Integrated maintenance contracting tries to standardise the way work is carried out nationwide, gain access to new technologies and resources that were previously unavailable and rationalise the use of internal resources. A pilot project was run in Lisbon and the South and, once the outcomes have been properly assessed, a decision will be reached about the possible extension across the rest of the country.

Given the need to give the company an operating management tool that would let it assess its core business, a maintenance management indicator model was set up. There were three main objectives:

  • Measure activity – identifying and relating inputs (e.g.: costs) and outputs (e.g.: breakdowns) for the maintenance area so as to permit corrective or preventative measures to be taken
  • Benchmarking – internally (comparing different geographical areas and departments) and externally (against other infrastructure managers)
  • Goal setting – by establishing performance objectives and linking them to a staff compensation system


REFER has also set up a Quality Management System and the Lisbon and Oporto regions have been certified by the ‘Associação Portuguesa de Certificação’ – Lisbon in July 2003 and then Oporto in August 2005.

To get an idea of how important these Quality Certificates are, you just have to look at passenger numbers. The two metropolitan areas ran over 1,500 trains a day in 2004 and carried 88% of the country’s rail passengers.


Integrating environmental protection into the rail infrastructure management and the associated investments has become more and more important over the years. REFER is well aware of this process and the company is implementing its strategy as regards the impact of rail services, that includes upgrading the tracks and building acoustic screens whenever needed.

In terms of maintenance activities the effort has focussed on reducing, reusing and recycling waste products. There has also been a community involvement since 10% of the return on these actions reverts to worthy causes.

REFER is also investing in widening the habit of environmental evaluations of the different projects, regardless of how big or small they are. The environmental impact is assessed especially when there are archaeological interests to be protected. This care will also be expanded to cover contractors and outside service providers since these activities should be included in the Environmental Management System regarding these kinds of works.


A major factor in managing the rail infrastructure is safety. REFER systematically promotes, safety inspection actions focused on the internal aspects of the railway system and on other interacting domains (for instance, the collaboration with other official entities on the prevention of forestal fires).

REFER has emergency plans for the railway lines and contingency plans for lines, stations and other railway facilities.
The busiest stations and facilities are equipped with human and video vigilance systems, with 24 hours coverage.

Level crossing closures

REFER has a longstanding policy of closing or upgrading level crossings. 1,173 have been closed in the last six years while 449 have been upgraded. Nonetheless, there were still 1,348 level crossings at the end of 2005.

This effort implied investments of approximately €220 million. All the planned upgrades have been completed and 97% of the planed closures actually occurred.

As a direct result of this investment, level crossing accidents fell from 154 with 26 deaths, 21 serious injuries and 22 minor injuries in 1999 to a total of 72 accidents with 13 deaths, 14 serious injuries and 11 minor injuries in 2005, equivalent to a reduction of approximately 50%. If this continues, we should be able to attain our goal of another 50% reduction in level crossing accidents laid down in the Highlights of the 2005-2009 Plan.


REFER has a centenary, extensive and diversified property. As a result of the necessary introduction of rationalisation on the railway operation in the mid-80s of the last century, many railway branch lines with insufficient passenger demand were closed, being the railway transport substituted by the road mode, to passengers advantage.

REFER has made a significant effort in order to recover the public utility of such property for other purposes, in partnership with other entities, such as the municipalities.

Examples of that effort are the transformation of closed lines in eco-paths or the reuse of stations and other buildings to economic and social purposes (country house hotels, rural tourism houses, accommodation for cultural exhibitions, etc).

Related organisations

Related regions

Related people