(Flickr image of Madrid Atocha station by luisffranco)
Earlier this year RENFE, the government-owned Spanish national railway operator, opened the final leg of the Madrid-Barcelona AVE high speed rail route, on the heels of the Málaga extension. And Spain is on track to have several new lines, including a link to Santander and Bilbao, open by 2010 - the "world's largest" high speed rail network, or so the Spanish government boasts.
Already the new lines are having an impact: Spanish airlines are reducing capacity on the routes HSR serves as the AVE system grabs a great share of the market share on those corridors. And major airlines, such as Iberia, are planning to refocus their service away from domestic corridors and toward their long-haul routes, especially to Latin America. Iberia's CEO explains the situation:
Iberia chairman Fernando Conte, who has called the competition posed by bullet trains "tremendous," said the carrier would push ahead with plans to reduce its capacity on domestic flights by 15 percent during the rest of 2008....
Other carriers are also struggling to compete with the fast-speed trains.
Spanair, the second-biggest Spanish airline, has reduced the number of its flights between Madrid and Malaga while loss-making low-cost airline Vueling canceled its summer connection between the two cities.
The situation in Spain is analogous to California. The Madrid-Barcelona route was one of the world's busiest air shuttle routes, as is LA-SF. Spain has a high level of automobile ownership that are frequently used by commuters. Until the AVE was begun in 1992, few expected that Spain, which was reliant on cars and airplanes for travel, would ever take to high speed rail - but it has clearly done so.
Spain's success with high speed rail can be matched here in the US. Already the Acela has 40% of the market share on the Northeast Corridor despite not actually being a true HSR system. And like Spain, America's airlines are beginning to shift their focus away from domestic routes, as United Airlines recently demonstrated. Some point to Southwest as proof that air travel will remain cheap and viable - but the architect of their success, Herb Kelleher, isn't so sure:
Herb Kelleher, the iconic co-founder of Southwest Airlines who stepped down as chairman Wednesday, said flying could become something that only business travelers or the affluent can afford, much as it was in the 1950s and '60s.
"You may see a lot less air service across the United States, and that's really a shame," Kelleher said. "We are heading back in that direction."
Fuel prices aren't coming back down anytime soon, and without cheap oil, air travel will not be a viable method for folks to get around our state.
Whereas HSR not only provides stable, affordable fares - since it's not as dependent on oil - but it's also simply a better way to travel. From Spain again:
The high-speed AVE trains, which are fitted with video and music players and chairs that can swivel in the direction of travel, can make the 660-kilometre trip between Madrid and Barcelona in about two and a half hours.
Passengers say bullet trains have more roomier and comfortable seats than planes, faster check-in times and have the advantage of arriving and departing from downtown cores.
Business travellers also like the availability of mobile services and electrical outlets in their seats that allow them to work along the way.
"There is no question that high-speed rail attracts passengers who would otherwise fly," said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Forrester Research, a San Francisco-based consultancy. "Taking the train is easier."
The fact is that transportation is changing. The markets are changing, the underlying energy and environmental factors are changing, and public preferences are changing. Combine that with the high cost of NOT building HSR and the case for California high speed rail seems clear.
Update: Atrios agrees.