I don’t have much need to use Renfe’s Rodalies - or local train service - due to the fact that I seldom venture far out of Barcelona. For that I am thankful, given the constant problems the system suffers thanks to a “chronic lack of investment” as one Punt Avui article put it just two short months ago. By way of example, “trains on the R3 line take the same time to reach their destination, or longer, as 100 years ago”. Said article goes on to mention “systematic failures to comply with accords by the Ministry of Public Works, such as the 2008-2015 commuter infrastructure plan, which provided for an investment of €4 billion, but was never implemented. An intolerable and inadmissible situation that entails serious mobility problems, precarious stations and accidents”.
Well thankfully my recent experience didn’t involve any of the above, merely frustration at a complete and utter lack of reliable information. It turns out you have to be extremely familiar with the service if you want to get the right train to where you’re going. In my case, I was going to Cerdanyola del Vallés, a journey of some 20 minutes and eight stops from Plaça Catalunya in the heart of Barcelona, and a place I’d strangely never been to in all my years in Catalonia.
My travel companion and I consulted two separate apps to find out which train to take, and they both coincided on it being the R4 to either Terrassa or Manresa. But they didn’t coincide on what time the train might be. “No problem,” I thought, “that information will be easily available at the station”. Ha. Arriving at Plaça Catalunya, the departure boards listed numerous trains every few minutes, but none said R4 to Terrassa or Manresa, and certainly not at the times the two apps had said. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll ask one of the staff”. Ha. I approached a Renfe employee and he confirmed, “next one to Terrassa or Manresa”. “Which is when?” I asked, “as there isn’t one on the board”. “Soon,” came the reply, “You’d better get down to the platform”.
Heeding his warning, we headed for Platform 1, but when we arrived there was still no sign of a train to Terrassa or Manresa. So I thought I’d ask a security guard. “Do you know about the trains?” “A little,” she replied. “We’ve been told to get the R4 to Terrassa or Manresa but there doesn’t appear to be one...” as my words tailed off and we looked at the board, an R4 to Terrassa obligingly popped up at the bottom of the screen. “Yes, there is,” she said helpfully, “right there, in nine minutes”. I nodded before rejoining my travel companion and ultimately taking that train, despite there being no information on the screen to suggest it might stop at Cerdanyola.
So why this seemingly trivial anecdote? Because I have lived here for 25 years and I found it difficult to get the right information about a train that went 8 stops in 20 minutes. I can’t imagine what mess a tourist might get into trying to do the same trip, and I may be doing them a disservice, but from their communication with me I have strong doubts about whether the member of the Renfe staff or security guard would have been able to communicate in English had the need arisen.
My point then? That in addition to all the other complaints aimed at the Rodalies service regarding a lack of investment in infrastructure, there also seems to be a gaping hole in the provision of basic information for passengers. To get the train back we had to consult one of those - what do you call them? - oh yes, train timetables on the wall of the station. Just as I used to do in the 1980s.