Page last updated at 08:06 GMT, Tuesday, 22 September 2009 09:06 UK

Trains in Spain signal the future

By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Madrid


Steve Kingstone tries out the 0830 from Madrid to Barcelona

The 0830 service from Madrid to Barcelona departs promptly and without fuss.

With no lengthy check-in queues, and a slick security control, many passengers had turned up at the Spanish capital's Atocha rail terminal at the last minute, safe in the knowledge that they would still catch their train.

On board, breakfast and the morning newspapers are digested, as the city suburbs whizz by. At this hour, the clientele is mostly business types - people who would previously have made the trip by air, but now prefer the train.

"Door-to-door, I find the train is faster," explains Francisco Lopez, travelling to meet new work colleagues in the Catalan capital.

It's been a huge success, both commercially and in terms of public opinion
Abelardo Carrillo, Renfe

"With the plane you have to take taxis to and from airports outside the city, whereas the train stations are right in the centre."

The trip, of 600km (385 miles) used to take as long as seven hours before any part of the line was high-speed.

But after intermediate improvement work initially cut that to four-and-a-half hours, the journey time was slashed further to a little over two-and-a-half hours in February 2008 with the opening of the Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE) high-speed service.

Since then, custom has shifted at breakneck speed from air to rail, to the point where, in July 2009, more people made the journey between Madrid and Barcelona by AVE than by plane.

This is on a route which had been one of the most lucrative air corridors in the world.

Business confidence

Spain was a relative latecomer to high-speed rail, inaugurating its first line - between Madrid and Seville - in 1992.

But it has caught up fast, and now has 1,835km of track in service.

Next year, the government boasts, Spain will overtake Japan and France to become the world leader, measured in kilometres of high-speed line.

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (file image)
Mr LaHood was impressed by Spain's railway ambitions

From Madrid's central location, routes extend like spokes on a cycle wheel: to Malaga and Seville in the south, Barcelona in the north-east, and Valladolid to the north. New lines, east to Valencia and north-west to Galicia, are under construction.

"We are currently transporting 40,000 passengers a day," beams Abelardo Carrillo, director of AVE Services for Spain's state railway company, Renfe.

"It's been a huge success, both commercially and in terms of public opinion. And there are two keys: competitive journey times, and a level of service at least as good as the airlines."

Tellingly, Renfe has not chosen to compete fiercely on price. Fares are broadly similar to the airlines, in the confident belief that business travellers will still opt for rail, on grounds of comfort and convenience.

"The Spanish model is very different from the populist approach of France - where passengers pay lower fares for a lower standard of service," explains Professor Josep Sayeras of the Esade Business School in Barcelona.

"Here, Renfe set higher fares, thinking business people will have to make the journey, come what may."

For now, that strategy appears to be paying off.

Having approached speeds of 300 km/h, the 0830 from Madrid pulls into Barcelona at 1113 - on schedule, like 99% of AVE services

Mr Carrillo explains that the AVE network is turning in an operating profit, although neither Renfe nor Spain's Transport Ministry will disclose how much.

The project is attracting considerable attention from abroad. In proposing its own £34bn ($55bn: 37bn euros) high-speed line between London and Glasgow, Britain's Network Rail noted how the AVE service had enabled Spain's railways to take market share from airlines and to promote regional economic development.

In the US, the Obama administration has earmarked $8bn for investment in high-speed rail, prompting Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to ride the AVE for himself during a fact finding mission in June.

Judging by his subsequent blog entry, the American politician was impressed.

"Do you know that the Spanish have a goal of establishing high speed rail stations within 30 miles of 90% of all Spaniards by 2020?" Mr LaHood purred. "Now that's ambition."

Budget worries

In backing the bullet trains, politicians can claim they are choosing a mode of transport which is simultaneously traditional and cutting edge, and which reduces both traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

The International Union of Railways (UIC) estimates that the AVE produces one-sixth of the CO2 emissions per plane passenger.

In Spain, the AVE has also brought economic development to provincial towns and cities touched by the high-speed line. They include Zaragoza, the only station stop between Madrid and Barcelona.

The government must assign resources very carefully, and in my opinion, high speed rail should not be a priority
Prof Josep Sayeras, Esade

"Zaragoza is the new business centre of Spain, because the people of Madrid and Barcelona now meet here in the middle," says a proud Manuel Teruel, the president of the local chamber of commerce.

Pointing out the hi-tech hotels which have sprung up around the AVE station, he explains that the number of trade fairs taking place in the city has tripled in the space of five years.

Mr Teruel adds that high-speed rail has made local businesses more productive, by saving on travel time and hotel costs - because overnight stays on trips to Madrid are now rarely necessary.

And citing a 28% increase in tourist numbers since 2005, he argues that the very association with modern transport has made the city more attractive.

"The AVE symbolises technology and the future," he says. "It's all about image."


Renfe is planning for further investment of up to 120bn euros in the coming decade, with around 80% of it from the Spanish state, and a sizeable chunk from EU funds.

But critics wonder whether the proposed five-fold increase in the reach of the network, to 10,000km by 2020, is realistic in the current climate.

"Right now, Spain is in an economic crisis and we have a huge public deficit," explains Mr Sayeras from Esade.

"The government must assign resources very carefully, and in my opinion, high speed rail should not be a priority. We should invest in local and regional trains."

Renfe's Mr Carrillo acknowledges that, in challenging times, the politicians require some nerve to stay on board.

"Given the budgets involved, these are political decisions which carry huge weight," he admits. "But our experience so far is that this investment is worth it."

Having approached speeds of 300 km/h, the 0830 from Madrid pulls into Barcelona at 1113 - on schedule, like 99% of AVE services.

Never have these two great cities felt so connected. And although questions linger about Spain's ability to remain the pacesetter, its achievements may point the way for others.

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