There are three types of trains travelling underground in Barcelona. First, the Metro service, which is operated by TMB (the same company running the bus network). They operate in a similar way as any other European metro service. It has a ridership of around 1.1 million users every day.
On the opposite side of the scale, the Rodalies trains are regional and commuter trains. They make fewer stops in Barcelona so it’s also a more convenient and faster way to travel if your itinerary happens to coincide with one of their lines. It has a ridership of around 120 million users per year.
Finally, FGC (Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat the Catalunya) is a hybrid service, with two main lines starting from Barcelona and extending to the outskirts. Some of their services will run only within Barcelona, making regular stops, same way as a metro, but some others will extend far away towards neighbouring cities. More than 80 million travellers use it every year.
Mosts tourists will come to Barcelona and simply use Metro —note that this is the way locals refer to it; we don’t say suburbano, metropolitano, or subte, like in other Hispanic countries. If you ask any local about Metro in English, he/she will be much more likely to understand you if you say metro rather than subway, tube or underground.
Metro services are indicated from L1 to L11 (except for L6, L7 and L8, which are operated by FGC, see below). All services make stops at all stations, there are no express services and Metro lines end shortly after leaving the boundaries of the city.
During weekdays, Metro starts running at 5 am. This means that the first trains start at both ends of a given line at 5 am, so it you’re willing to take the first train and you’re in the middle of a line, you will have to wait around 20/30 minutes before it gets to you. Similarly, during weekdays, Metro stops at midnight, meaning that the last trains leave both ends of a given line at midnight. If you’re having wine in a bar in the middle of the city and you need to get back to your hotel, it’s likely that the last train will make its way through your station at 00:15 or 00:20, but better be safe than sorry.
Luckily for both tourists and locals, on Friday night, Metro runs until 2 am. On Saturday, it runs all night, and on Sundays, it closes at midnight. Of course, you can expect less frequent services at night, but the minimum frequency does not drop below one train every 15 minutes.
Metro is now operating with its pre-covid timetables. You can find official timetables here.
Frequencies vary depending on the time and the line. During peak time, some busy lines (like L1 or L3) will have one train every 2-3 minutes. Other lines, such as L9, will have much lower frequencies, particularly during off-peak times, with up to 15 minutes between trains.
However, it is important to mention that TMB (the company that operates the Metro lines) does not produce a public timetable of trains. In other words, Metro trains are not scheduled and you cannot know beforehand at what time it will run through your station. You simply go to the station and wait (95% of the time, you won’t wait more than 3 minutes).
FGC (short for Ferrocarrils the la Generalitat the Catalunya) is a rail operator owned by the Catalan Government. Unlike the Metro network, which spans under the city forming a chaotic mesh, FGC has two important lines that extend way beyond the city of Barcelona, so they are considered regional lines. These lines start somewhere in the middle of Barcelona (one in Plaça Catalunya, as seen below, the other one in Plaça Espanya) and extend through neighbouring cities as they split into less frequent services. There are different types of services running through these lines, so it has been decided to add a letter in front of them, which indicates how far they go (L for local, or metro-like, lines; S for suburban lines, R for regional lines).
Then, if these lines are regional, why would you care about them if you only stay within Barcelona? Well, on their way to the outskirts, these lines do stop many times within the city of Barcelona, so it is somehow considered a Metro-like service. The diagram below shows the structure of the Barcelona-Vallès FGC line. The first 11 stops (from Barcelona-Pl. Catalunya to Les Planes) are actually within Barcelona, with less than 1 km between stops. After Sant Cugat, stops become much less frequent (around 5 km between stops). Also, you can see that the service Barcelona Pl. Catalunya – Sarrià is indicated as L6, because it only runs inside the city of Barcelona and therefore it’s labelled as if it were a Metro service. But it isn’t the same as Metro! Staff is different, stations are different, visual identity is different and the trains are also different to the ones you will see at Metro stations. Even locals who travel within Barcelona, for example, from Sarrià to Pl. Catalunya tend not to say “I’m taking the metro to Pl. Catalunya”, but rather “I’m taking Ferrocarrils (or Ferros) to Pl. Catalunya”, provided that they’re travelling with FGC.
However, a traveller who wants to travel from “Provença” to “Muntaner” should not be worried about taking, for example, the S5 service, instead of the L6. He/she can take any service they want, as they all call at “Provença” and “Muntaner”; in fact, L6 trains per se are rather infrequent. Only when you add all the services running through this line (L6, S1, S7, S5,…) you get a high frequency of trains (1 train every 2 minutes).
We arrive here at a fundamental principle of public transport in Barcelona: as long as you use an integrated ticket, you can take any form of public transport or service you want, you only pay according to the number of zones you go across. And how do you know how many areas you go across? Well, the entire city of Barcelona is contained in one single area, so if you don’t leave Barcelona, you only move within one single zone (which is conveniently called Zone 1).
The second thing you need to know is that different operators have different stations. Even though in the map you see “Plaça Catalunya” as one single station, there are actually three different underground stations (as shown below): one for Metro, one for FGC and one for Rodalies (the third and final train service, we’ll talk about it in a minute). If you transfer from one operator to another, you do need to check out through the gates and check in again. In some cases, you even need to exit the station, walk through the street and enter a “different” station (which is usually close by and has the same name). Most of the time, there is an underground walkway connecting different operator stations. In other words, different operators do not operate in the same platforms and tracks! You will never find a FGC service in the same track as a TMB Metro service, or a Rodalies service in the same platform as a FGC service. This is because operators not only own the rolling stock, but also the tracks and the stations.
Timetables and opening times
FGC trains, unlike Metro, are scheduled. FGC is one of the top ranked public transport companies in Spain, and their punctuality scores up to 99%, so you can most of the time rely on their schedules. Having said so, you do not need to look through their schedules: there are trains running every 2-3 minutes on their lines inside Barcelona.
For their metro-like services (L6, L7 and L8) you can expect the same opening times as Metro. For their suburban services, you might want to check their online planner.
Rodalies de Catalunya
We arrive now to the last rail operator in Barcelona. We’re talking about RENFE (the Spanish national rail operator), which operates the commuter rail in Barcelona under the brand Rodalies de Catalunya.
Some of their rolling stock are still painted in the old red RENFE Cercanías livery, since the brand “Rodalies de Catalunya” was created by the Catalan government in 2010, although RENFE is still operating the service. If you think this is confusing, so do I.
Rodalies is not only used by commuters, but also by locals who want to travel inside Barcelona, if their itinerary coincides with one of their lines. This is because Rodalies services make fewer stops inside the city of Barcelona, thus the higher average speed. Imagine, for example, you want to travel from Sants central station to Arc de Triomf Metro station. You could take the L3 line to Espanya, transfer to the L1 line and go all the way to Arc de Triomf, which would take you around 30 minutes. More conveniently, you can take the R1/R3/R4 service from Sants to Arc de Triomf, which will only take 15 minutes. Within Barcelona, Rodalies lines share most of their track and they almost reach the same frequency as a Metro: 1 train every 3 minutes for every direction. Again, you will only pay according to where you check in and out, regardless of the mean of transport you use.
Unlike FGC, Rodalies scheduling is known for its inaccuracy. Delays of 5-10 minutes are regular, and it has a score of 92% in punctuality. However, travelling inside Barcelona, you do not need to check the schedule, as trains are rather frequent. If you’re travelling to other cities, you can check the timetables here.