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Parallel highways, two burgeoning ports and a springboard to Latin America

¡Viva España!

The country on the Iberian Peninsula is famous for its rich past, its cultural and culinary diversity, and it is a popular vacation destination. Spain also has extremely diverse landscapes. While it is clearly closely aligned with the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the countryside is also impressive away from the coasts with its endless plains and mountains. Its attractions range from cultural and culinary to scenic – thanks to this variety, after France, Spain is the second-most visited country in the world. But tourism isn’t the only thing that makes Spain interesting – the country also offers a few unique characteristics when it comes to transport.

Geographically, the country tends to be associated with sunshine, beaches and heat, but the national territory actually has a special feature: with an average elevation of about 660 meters above sea level, Spain is one of the highest countries in Europe. Six major mountain systems and the accompanying plateaus play a key role in the peninsula’s spatial structure. Most of the coastal areas are relatively narrow and framed by mountain ranges.

In 2021, 81 percent of Spain’s residents lived in cities. Two of the cities with populations in the millions, Madrid and Barcelona, have experienced extreme growth and become booming metropolitan regions. The greater areas of Madrid and Barcelona have a population of over six and four million people, respectively, and more than a million people live in each of the Valencia, Sevilla, and Bilbao metropolitan regions. Traveling through Spain away from the usual routes and urban centers, you quickly feel that you are in an infinitely vast and “serene” country. Thanks to the comparatively sparse population in these areas, a great variety of animal species flourish on Spanish terrain, with animals that have long been extinct or severely threatened in other parts of Europe.

Former world empire

Spain’s most famous epoch dates back to 1492. Sailing on behalf of the Spanish crown, Christopher Columbus set off westward over the open ocean, hoping to find a possible sea route to Asia. After an arduous journey, he did actually come across land, which is how he discovered the two Americas.
The rest is history: Spain conquered the new lands and colonized them. The treasures were brought back home and the conquests became the starting signal for a world empire. At the time, because of its enormous expanse, people referred to it as an empire in which “the sun never set.” There is a good reason why Spanish is still spoken in many parts of Latin and Central America. Even today, Spain is still characterized by its cosmopolitan and international orientation.

Looking to the sea

Spain continues to be a seafaring nation, of course. Although the era of “armadas” seems to be over, Spaniards feel at home on all of the world’s oceans. It’s not surprising that they also play a leading role in sea freight and the capacities of their ports are particularly impressive. Most notably, the port of Valencia not only handles the highest transshipment volume of all ports in Spain, it is also considered the second largest in the Mediterranean region. When it comes to the important task of handling containers, it competes with Piraeus for the number one position in the Mediterranean. It was not until 2019 that Spain had to hand over its top position to the Greek competitor. In 2021, however, the record value of 5.61 million TEU was reached and was once again able to take the lead. Seen across Europe, it was even enough for 4th place. The port serves a 350-kilometer catchment area that is the source of 50% of the Spanish GDP.
The construction of a fourth container terminal, worth 1 billion euro, could ensure that the leading position remains. On a total area of 137 hectares, the planned facility will have a handling capacity of 5 million containers, a railway terminal with six 1,000-meter-long tracks, and several berths over a length of 1,970 meters.

The port of Algeciras is in second place, and with its location on the Strait of Gibraltar, it is considered one of the busiest transshipment sites in the world, also providing an interface between Europe and Africa. In addition to handling ferry traffic, car transport, bulk materials, and truck trailers, the port processed 5.12 million TEU of containers in 2015. Its main competitor, aside from Valencia, is the Tanger-Med port “across the way,” on the coast of Morocco.

Lagging slightly behind, but no less important, is the port of Barcelona. In 2021 in particular, its TEU volume increased tremendously by over 12% to 3.32 million TEU.

Gateway to South America

The main argument for opening a company branch in Spain is its proximity to the Latin American market, as well as the strength it has acquired due to its cultural proximity. Spain continues to be seen as the gateway to Latin America, offering the best platform within the EU to develop business in the country’s former colonial states. Spain has 17 agreements for avoiding double taxation with countries in Central and South America (including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela). There are also 20 agreements for the mutual protection and promotion of reciprocal investments between Spain and Latin American countries. In addition to the historic, cultural and linguistic similarities, Spain also has strong economic relationships with Latin America and offers companies optimal local infrastructure. As a result, many Spanish companies have invested strategically in a wide range of industries in Latin America. The flight connections are a further advantage.

Parallel highways?

Spain is well-positioned not only in respect to sea and air transport. Due to its construction boom in recent years, Spain’s infrastructure is generally considered to be excellent, as reflected by the modern rail and road networks. It boasts a well-developed road and highway network with a total of 663,795 kilometers. One peculiar facet is that there are two terms for “highway” in Spain – “autovía” and “autopista.” The distinction originated in the 1980s, when the Spanish road network was rapidly modernized with EU funding. Autopistas are privately built, private-sector highways with tolls, while autovías were built by the government and can thus be used without charge. This “competition” can have some odd effects. For example, autopistas and autovías sometimes run parallel to each other, separated by only a few kilometers. It is also certainly possible for someone to drive part of a route mostly free of charge, while other parts are subject to tolls.

On the whole, autopistas are better developed: they have larger curve radii, better-designed on-ramps and off-ramps, and their inclines are less steep. You will never come across an intersection on these, while autovías can sometimes end at traffic lights. In general, however, autovías are far more predominant. All in all, Spain – after China and the USA, but still ahead of Germany – has one of the longest highway networks in the world.

Clutter on the rails

The railway network running on Iberian broad-gauge tracks (1,668 mm) provided by the state-owned railroad company Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles (RENFE) is being supplemented by a standard-gauge high-speed network, Alta Velocidad Española (AVE), which has a length of over 3,100 kilometers. Iberian broad-gauge tracks cover nearly 12,000 kilometers. These tracks have the second-widest gauge in the world and are singular to the Iberian Peninsula – apparently this has historic reasons, which date back to the era when railroad construction was in its beginning stages in Europe.

The rail freight subsidiary of RENFE recently recorded a transport capacity of 18 million tons per year. Spain has one of the lowest shares of the “modal split” in the EU. A market share of merely 4% is currently transported on rail, measured by net ton kilometers. The share of freight transport on rails is only lower in the island states and in island-rich Greece. This is a situation that the country intends to change in the coming years, partly with numerous expansion programs. We’re curious to learn when the first of the delicious tomatoes and cucumbers from southern Spain will reach the rest of Europe by rail...

cargo-partner in Spain

cargo-partner continues its expansion course and is adding yet another new country to its global network. Following the needs of its local customers, the company opened a new office in Barcelona that offers a complete portfolio of transport and logistics services, from air and sea freight to national and international trucking, rail transport and warehousing services.

The office complements cargo-partner's network in Western Europe and benefits from synergies with other offices in the region to achieve faster transit times in road transport. In addition, cargo-partner will use Spain as a hub for air and sea freight to speed up shipments from Europe to the Americas. The team in Barcelona currently counts sixteen members and serves customers from a variety of industries, including the automotive, foodstuffs and retail sectors.