Traveling on Renfe's FEVE Narrow-gauge Rail through Galicia
Looking through my posts here on Pickle Deli Square, one of the most-read posts of all turns out to be the one where I wrote about my experience traveling in Preferente (first class) on Spanish rail. I think there’s a lot of interest in traveling by train in Spain, but perhaps not a lot of detailed how-tos and trip reports.
So I thought it would be a good idea to share my experiences traveling on Renfe’s (Spanish rail’s) FEVE service. FEVE is a narrow-gauge rail that connects various cities and towns through the north of Spain, from Bilbao in Basque Country in the east, through Cantabria, Asturias, and all the way to Ferrol in Galicia in the west. They say it’s the most extensive narrow-gauge railway in Europe.
I had always been interested in traveling on the FEVE, because I had heard that this part of Spain was beautiful, and specifically the small towns and scenery were of interest, rather than the larger cities. And since I really don’t have an interest in renting a car and driving (in fact, I’ve never driven outside of the US, ever!), the FEVE seemed like a good way to travel. But there’s really very little information about how to travel on the FEVE, and based on looking at various TripAdvisor message boards, it seems like a lot of other travelers are wanting information.
Where do you buy tickets? Can you make a reservation? Should you make a reservation? Are there reserved seats? How do I buy tickets online?
My answer: Relax.
Traveling by FEVE is really more akin to riding the metro, than it is taking high-speed rail. Just as you wouldn’t make an advanced seat reservation for the New York Subway or Amsterdam tram, you don’t make a reservation for the FEVE train. And relax, if the train isn’t at the station at the time indicated by the timetable, it’ll get there, eventually.
Here are some of my observations after riding the FEVE trains a couple times:
1. The FEVE stations are sometimes in the middle of nowhere.
I had considered taking the FEVE from Ribadeo to the As Catedrais beach, but I found out that the station was about 15 minutes away from the center of town. This kind of surprised me, since usually train stations are usually well-located to population centers. In the case of Ribadeo, the bus station was much closer, and then there was the special bus which ran from the main town square to the beach, which is what I ended up taking.
So my first leg on the FEVE became the journey I took from Esteiro, the station closest to As Catedrais beach, to O Barqueiro. I left the beach about 30 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave. But along the way, I started to get concerned: was I walking in the right direction? I really couldn’t see that I was approaching any sort of town or cluster of buildings.
Eventually, I spotted what kind of looked like a bus shelter next to a cow paddy, and looking at Google Maps on my phone, I realized that that was the station! To get there, I had to cross a bridge of the tracks, and make a big U-Turn, up what kind of looked like the driveway of a private house.
I don’t think I’d ever seen such an isolated train station! Notice how there’s only one track for both directions.
The view from the platform was great, giving a glimpse of rural Galicia.
2. The FEVE can run late, but there’s a way to check its status
Along the north coast of Galicia, the FEVE trains run 4 times a day in each direction. Thus, I was quite nervous about missing the train, since it would be a 3-4 hour wait for the next one.
I arrived at the station with time to spare, but then 11:42am came and went, and there was still no train. I became quite anxious because I thought that perhaps the train skipped some intermediate stops due to lack of passengers getting on/off, and had already passed by Esteiro.
Not to worry. On the information board at the train shelter, there are QR codes which you can scan with your phone, showing real-time status (where it says “Próximos Trenes” below).
I could then see that my train was running 11 minutes late, and so I felt reassured that I hadn’t missed it.
And here it is! I must say that this was one of the cutest trains I’ve ever seen. It’s so boxy, with such a squared-off front end (or back end: both ends are identical). I thought it looked like a house, but my roommate said it looked like a milk carton, which I thought was a good comparison! I can’t think of a train that looks less aerodynamic than this one.
3. You can buy your ticket on board
Another point that worried me was where to buy my ticket. On the information board at the train shelter, it said that one should buy the ticket beforehand to avoid fines. But there was no ticket machine on the platform!
Once on board, I figured out that that sign must have been out of date. Because there was a conductor on board who went up and down the aisles selling tickets to new passengers.
4. The FEVE is super comfy: there’s plenty of space to stretch out, and the views are great
With train stations being kind of outside of population centers, and the FEVE not running any faster than driving by car, I suppose it’s not the most popular way to travel. So there was always quite a lot of space open, and on my first trip I actually changed seats twice to avoid the sun. (Since the route twists and turns north and south, the sun also changes position relative to the train.)
The views out of the big picture windows were wonderful.
Also, since it’s a narrow-gauge rail, the cars are quite narrow, and fit only 1-2 seating. So if you’re a solo traveler, you can also avoid having a seat partner. The seats were well padded.
Another cool feature of having the cars be so narrow, is that I could see out both left and right sides of the window at the same time. So at times, it really felt like we were going through a tunnel of greenery, with un-pruned bushes and trees scraping the sides of the car.
Here we are about to pull into O Barqueiro.
And once again, even though O Barqueiro is a little fishing village, the train station doesn’t get you directly into town. There’s nothing really around here.
No matter, the 5-minute walk along the Ruta del Cantábrico was gorgeous.
My next journey was from Loiba to Ferrol, the terminus of the line.
The Loiba station felt perhaps even more isolated than the Esteiro and O Barqueiro stations.
It’s at the end of this looong driveway.
Just like at Esteiro, I was the only one waiting here…
…with no one around.
Once again, they had the timetable posted, with the QR codes at the bottom of the information board to check the train status.
Late again, but not by much.
Here comes the milk carton again!
5. At larger stations, you buy your ticket from the machine and enter through gates.
On board the Loiba to Ferrol train, I bought my ticket from the conductor on board, just like my previous journey. But this time, along with my ticket, the conductor gave me what looked like a previously-used card. I wasn’t quite sure what it was for.
On arriving at Ferrol station, I found out. The bigger towns have access gates, where you insert your ticket. Since the ticket that they print out for you on board the trains is on that flimsy receipt-like paper stock with no magnetic strip, they also give you a card with which you can exit the station. and beyond the access gates, I saw the ticket machines. So I suppose if you were boarding in Ferrol, you would buy your ticket at the machine, rather than on board.
Time to say goodbye to the FEVE trains. So boxy!
So there you have it. The FEVE train is a fun and easy way to get around the north of Spain. The scenery is beautiful, the seats comfortable, and you can just hop on without a reservation. The only inconvenient part is that the train stations might not be right where you expect them to be, and also that there aren’t that many services each day. But I’d gladly take it again, because it’s more comfortable than the bus, with big seats and freedom to walk around (and none of that bouncy movement on buses that makes me carsick), and sometimes it’s the only way in this region to get from one place to another without a car.