As we've been focusing on the details of HSR funding or its implementation on the Peninsula, it's worth returning to the big picture - HSR's potential to transform transportation in California. Last week's issue of The Economist examined Spain's HSR success, showing how that country's heavy investment in high speed rail is paying significant rewards:
EARLY morning at Barcelona’s railway station and the platform crowd looks smarter than it would have done a year ago. But these are not ordinary weekday commuters. They are besuited businessmen heading for Madrid, almost 500km (310 miles) away. A sleek new high-speed AVE train will whisk them to the capital at speeds of up to 300kmph in plenty of time for their morning meetings.
The new passengers reflect a revolution in Spanish travel. Domestic airlines have lost a fifth of their passengers in the space of a year. And long-distance trains have gained almost a third.
It is not difficult to imagine that scene unfolding at LA Union Station or SF Transbay Terminal in ten years' time. The distances are about the same, and the traveler profile similar - there's plenty of business travel between LA and SF.
This shift is the consequence of an ambitious programme for high-speed rail. The streamlined AVE trains, with their sleek corridors, work tables and spectacular views, are stealing the show. Those used to the tedious taxi rides, security checks and crowded shuttle flights traditionally endured by Spanish businessmen will not be surprised. The opening of the Barcelona-Madrid line a year ago marked the beginning of the end of airlines’ dominance. In its first ten months it carried 2m passengers; in 2008 its share of the total market rose from 28% to 38%. Josep Valls, of the ESADE business school, predicts that trains will carry most long-distance travellers within two years.
This paragraph alone shows the huge advantage HSR has over other forms of transit between two major cities, and why the AVE is experiencing such success on the all-important Madrid to Barcelona route. The trains are fast, convenient, and efficient. Like the AVE lines, California's HSR system will serve the city centers; no need for a taxi to LAX or SFO. The shift in travel habits described here is both dramatic and immediate.
Critics still complain that politics has loomed too large. The first AVE line did not connect Madrid to busy Barcelona but to sleepy Seville, the home town of the then prime minister, Felipe González. Even now, whereas small provincial cities like Valladolid and Segovia are connected to a new line, it will still take several years to link up with France’s network.
In retrospect this actually looks to have been a smart move. Madrid-Sevilla was a much easier engineering job than Madrid-Barcelona. When the first AVE line opened in 1992, its success showed that Spain was ready for more high speed trains. And while towns like Valladolid and Segovia may not have the same utility for a continental traveler as the planned link with the TGV, it makes political sense to show Spain that HSR is a solution for the whole country, and not just a few lucky areas. The result is the building and sustaining of political support for HSR that, in Spain, remains strong in both of the two major parties (PP and PSOE).
And as frequently predicted here on the blog, HSR is having a significant impact on the environmentally-damaging short-haul airline industry:
Prices vary and can be hard to compare. Budget airlines tend still to be the cheapest on the Madrid-Barcelona route. Fernando Conte, chairman of Iberia, Spain’s biggest airline, also insists that “point to point we are quicker.” Yet that assumes aircraft take off on time and there are no traffic jams. Savings on taxi fares plus a 99% punctuality rate are usually enough to push people on to the train. Tellingly enough, Iberia is planning to cut domestic flights by 7% this year.
Given SFO's frequent fog and rain delays, and LAX's overcrowding, 99% punctuality rates on California shuttle airlines is next to impossible to achieve. But the HSR trains can operate in that weather, and maintain their punctual schedules alongside their convenient city center to city center route.
California's plans aren't yet as ambitious as Spain's. But both California and the United States would do well to learn from the Spanish model - especially as we debate economic recovery and the future of our transportation network.