July 03, 2011

AVE, high speed trains?

AVE 'flying' through AragonOver the last month I took the new AVE train between Madrid and Barcelona, or vice versa, five times. 2h38’ for 621km, and never one minute delay – very much unlike my recent flights. It’s the same distance as between London and Edinburgh, which requires 4h22’, delays not included, making it impossible as a day return trip and forcing people on the plane.

Spanish high-speed railways are the best in Europe in all regards: faster, longer, more comfortable, more punctual. Until May they were also cheaper, but crisis is striking hard and the many generous advance economic fares have been tacitly removed – a cheeky way to increase prices without saying it. The AVE has more legroom than in the countries of supposedly taller races, headphones and on-carriage movie, quick unobstructive security checks (the Atocha station bombs are not easily forgotten), and a display tells you all information you need (next station, outside temperature 42C, speed 305km/h...), while the arid Castellan and Aragonese landscapes gives quickly way to the green Catalan one.

2,655kms of high speed rail (only China has more) have not come cheap or without controversies. The first lines, in the early 1990s, to Andalusia were criticised as clientelism by the Andaluz Felipe González. The total bill for the infrastructure so far is 100,000m Euros, i.e. some 2,200€ per head, if the EU hadn't taken up a part of the bill. It is legitimate to ask if the money couldn’t have been spent better differently. The Toledo-Albacete high-speed service connecting all Castilla-La Mancha capitals, has just been closed, after only six months in operation, after realising only 18 passengers used it on average...

Yet in such a large country with such strong centrifugal forces, the under-three hours connections between most main cities do have sense and provide excellent alternatives to internal flights. The Spanish mistake, rather, is to have simultaneously invested similar amounts on motorways and airports – as if any provincial city had the right to be connected to Madrid by all options: plane, high-speed train and motorway. Spain has now 48 airports, of which only 11 are profitable, according to a reportage by El País (Aeropuertos para todos). The main ones, Madrid’s and Barcelona’s, have seen pharaonic new terminals built - indeed, Barcelona’s is the only European one to compete with the big Asian ones in terms of comfort and posh (it even has, quite uniquely, a large courtyard), but it is not particularly crowded. Worse with the small airports built over the last ten years in a ‘Ryanair rush’: every town believed that it only needed an airport to attract crowds of heavy-spending tourists. Take Burgos: it had five airports within 125 km, but it still needed its own. Or Castellón, inaugurated with great pump, but with no plane yet. Or Huesca, with more flights than passengers in 2009. The crisis has hit, and Ryanair is engaging in threats to local authorities: in Catalunya, after withdrawing from Reus airport, it is threatening to leave Girona too if the local council does not contribute with 5 Euros per passengers. Apart that Catalunya is the most indebted region of Spain, and that state aids are banned by the EU, if Girona really wanted to promote tourism it could spend the money much more cleverly than sponsoring one, controversial company. In fact, the fascination with cheap airlines has made no favours to Spain, contributing to the construction bubble and to a cheap-tourism industry that damages the environment and creates no good jobs – in fact, most jobs it creates are so bad that only impoverished immigrants take them up.

So, compared to airports and motorways, high-speed trains look like the least evil in Spain – but they still have a hard time around Europe. The new Portuguese government, given the notorious financial situation, has just suddenly withdrawn from the planned Lisbon-Madrid line – for the anger of the Spaniards who had already started work on their side. In the UK, the plan for a high-speed line from London to Birmingham and Manchester has so far survived the public spending cuts, but reactionary planning laws make the project extremely arduous. But the biggest disruptions are in Italy, where already the Milan-Roma (2h59’ for 517km, but the Apennines in between) was controversial, and now the planned Turin-Lyon line through the Alps is causing civic resistance and violent protests – also today.

Even if enjoying the Madrid-Barcelona train, and dreaming of a fast connection between England and Scotland, I’d say that the Alps are an exception. Such a delicate and unique environment requires slowness and respect, rather than being violated by long tunnels, mountains of excavated soil and noise. Indeed, in the Alps even more than elsewhere trains are better than planes and cars (motorway valleys have record incidences of cancers, as the exhaust pipes stick there). But the existing lines have enough capacity, and they only require an hour or so of calm – rewarded by the views.


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