Spain’s state rail operator Renfe is being forced to modify its booking policy after passengers started taking advantage of an oversight in a government plan offering free tickets on medium-range journeys. 

Since September 1, canny travellers have been reserving seats on a range of different services on the same day so that they could then catch the one that suited them best. The result has been trains that were fully booked but were actually half empty by the time they departed.

The Spanish government introduced the free-ticket scheme for regular travellers earlier this month in a bid to help people with the cost of living crisis as well as to encourage the use of public transport. It is applicable to the Cercanías commuter service and Media Distancia (medium-distance) trains, as well as high-speed services. Users have to sign up via the Renfe website and then obtain a pass by paying a deposit. Once a minimum of 16 journeys has been made, that money is returned to the passenger. 

Spain’s rail operator forced to change booking system after passengers game the system and leave trains half empty. Image RENFE

In practice, however, the system has run into problems. The Media Distancia journeys allowed for the reservation of seats, unlike the Cercanías trains. The fact that the trips were free with the passes meant that there was no penalty for booking a seat and then not taking the journey. The abuse of the system by passengers was such that the reserved-and-empty seats were causing serious problems on regional routes in Galicia and Castilla-La Mancha, according to Spanish daily El País. 

As a result Renfe is taking action and will introduce two new restrictions: limiting the number of reservations to four a day (two outgoing and two return), and prohibiting the booking of a return journey until after the outgoing journey has been taken. 

Speaking earlier this month, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that a million people had taken advantage of the free-ticket scheme, which was one element of a package of measures that the Socialist-led coalition government introduced in order to combat the rising price of fuel caused by the war in Ukraine.


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