Trains in Spain
Spain, like many Western European countries, has an extensive high-speed rail network, as well as short, medium, and long-distance conventional trains. If you walk into a Spanish train station or look at the schedule online, it may not be obvious what kind of train you are looking at, or what the differences are between them. Here is an outline of the major types.
AVE, Avant, Alvia, & Euromed - High-speed Trains
All four of these train services are high-speed, and sometimes they may be referred to collectively as the AVE. All of them have maximum speeds of at least 140 mph.
The AVE is the fastest of the three, traveling exclusively at high speed and reaching up to 193 mph on some routes, notably from Madrid to Barcelona. AVE trains have very few stops, and since train stations are usually in the center of town the AVE can be faster than flying, door to door. Beating flying times and avoiding the pain and suffering of low-cost air travel make AVE tickets quite expensive. They frequently sell out for popular routes and times, so it is worth buying them ahead of time. Notable AVE routes include Barcelona - Madrid; Madrid - Córdoba - Sevilla; Madrid - Barcelona; Madrid - Málaga; and Barcelona - Córdoba - Sevilla. Also worth noting is that AVE trains go into France, integrating with the French high-speed SNCF service to connect Barcelona to Marseille, Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse, with other stops en route.
Avant trains use the same trains as the AVE, but are for short routes only and are often used as commuter trains or for day trips. They travel at the same (very high) speeds as AVE trains. Notable Avant routes include Madrid - Segovia - Valladolid; Málaga - Córdoba - Sevilla; Madrid - Toledo; and Barcelona - Girona - Figueres.
Alvia trains are high-speed trains that operate at normal speeds for part of the journey by switching to conventional train tracks. The length of the trip depends on how much high-speed rail there is on the journey, so it is worth looking at the travel time when buying Alvia tickets. For example, the Alvia Madrid - San Sebastián takes 5 h 30 min, an hour longer than driving, because most of the journey is on conventional tracks. Meanwhile, the Alvia Madrid - Cádiz takes slightly over 4 hours, 2 hours less than driving, due to the high-speed rail coverage to Sevilla. Other notable Alvia routes include Madrid - Bilbao; Madrid - Logroño; and Barcelona - Bilbao.
The oddball of the high-speed trains is the Euromed, which operates only one route, Barcelona - Valencia - Alicante. The Euromed is the fastest train from Barcelona to Valencia, with a top speed of 140 mph and a travel time of just over 3 hours.
Conventional Trains - Altaria, Talgo, Media Distancia, Cercanías
Unfortunately, not all routes are served by high-speed trains. For long-distance trains, Altaria trains have the ability to travel on high-speed tracks for part of their journey, but only at a maximum speed of 124 mph. Altaria trains operate Madrid - Algeciras and Madrid - Cartagena, but have long travel times that may make them impractical.
Talgo trains are conventional long-distance trains, with no high-speed components and plenty of stops, and for that reason are generally not recommended if other options exist. Examples of Talgo routes include Madrid - Almería and Madrid - Badajoz.
Media Distancia, or MD, trains, on the other hand, are often a great option. They operate at normal speeds for medium distance routes, and are the only practical option in many cases. Notable examples of MD routes are Sevilla - Jerez de la Frontera - Cádiz; Barcelona - Tarragona; and Málaga - Ronda.
Finally, for short journeys, Cercanías trains offer commuter rail service in many urban areas. The tickets for these trains usually must be bought from ticket machines similar to those used for metro tickets, and cannot be bought online. Notable Cercanías train lines include Madrid - Madrid airport; Madrid - El Escorial; Málaga - Málaga airport; and Barcelona - Sitges.
Best Train Routes
Now that you have an idea of what kinds of trains there are, here are some of the best trains that you can take in Spain.
AVE Barcelona - Madrid (2 h 30 min - 3 h)
AVE Madrid - Sevilla (2 h 30 min)
AVE Madrid - Málaga (2 h 30 min)
AVE or Avant Sevilla - Córdoba (45 min)
AVE or Avant Barcelona - Girona (38 min)
Avant Madrid - Toledo (33 min)