Today's Wall Street Journal offers a fascinating look at how Spain's AVE high speed trains are changing that country in some interesting and generally positive ways. As you know from our previous posts on the topic, not only do I have a personal affinity for the AVE, but their dramatic success in a nation whose pre-AVE travel habits, population densities and natural geography are very similar to those of California is a strong indicator of how HSR will be successful here in California.
To sell his vision of a high-speed train network to the American public, President Barack Obama this week cited Spain, a country most people don't associate with futuristic bullet trains.
Yet the country is on track to bypass France and Japan to have the world's biggest network of ultrafast trains by the end of next year, figures from the International Union of Railways and the Spanish government show.
Although the AVE was initiated by a Socialist government in the early 1990s, both the PSOE and the right-wing Partido Popular are strong backers of the AVE trains, and now Spain will have a large network of fast electric trains connecting its major cities. Already Sevilla, Málaga, and Barcelona are linked to Madrid - Valencia, Bilbao, and some of the northwestern cities are next in line. But they don't plan to stop there:
But the AVE-which means "bird" in Spanish- proved to be a popular and political success. Politicians now fight to secure stations in their districts. Political parties compete to offer ever-more ambitious expansion plans. Under the latest blueprint, nine out of ten Spaniards will live within 31 miles of a high speed rail station by 2020.
That's some amazing penetration of the HSR network that is planned for the next ten years. And it's even more fascinating considering that until the first AVE line opened in 1992, Spain's travel habits closely resembled those of California:
And although those numbers stem from the Madrid-Sevilla AVE line, they've been repeated in particular on the Madrid-Barcelona line, which has taken nearly 40% of the market on what was one of the world's busiest air routes.
The WSJ article suggests that the AVE has not only reshaped travel habits, but social and economic habits as well, maybe even cultural habits:
"We Spaniards didn't used to move around much," says José María Menéndez, who heads the civil engineering department at the University of Castilla-La Mancha. "Now I can't make my students sit still for one second. The AVE has radically changed this generation's attitude to travel."...
The AVE was originally designed to compete with the airplane for commutes between major cities around 300 miles apart. But the biggest, and least expected, effect of the AVE has been on the smaller places in between.
Perhaps the most striking example is Ciudad Real, a scrappy town 120 miles south of Madrid in Castilla-La Mancha which, Mr. Ureña says, "had completely vanished from the map." In medieval times, the town was a key stopover point on the route between the two of most important cities of the time, Córdoba and Toledo. But the railway and the highway south later bypassed the town, and Ciudad Real began to wither.
Now it has an AVE station that puts it just 50 minutes away from Madrid, and Ciudad Real has come alive. The city has attracted a breed of daily commuters that call themselves "Avelinos." The AVE helped attract a host of industries to Ciudad Real, and the train is full in both directions.
Ciudad Real is a town somewhat analogous to Merced, and one can imagine that the California HSR trains will make UC Merced a more attractive option to students in the Bay Area and in Southern California. You can be sure that Central Valley cities are looking to the experience of places like Ciudad Real as a possible model of how their towns can provide more stable and lasting economic growth built around the high speed train.
Of course, the article does mention some criticism of the high speed trains:
Not everyone is pleased. ETA, the militant Basque separatist group, has said it would target anyone involved in the construction of a high-speed train line that will connect the restive northern region with Madrid and France. In December, ETA killed the owner of a company working as a contractor on the project, and in February detonated a bomb at the headquarters of Ferrovial SA, another contractor working on the project.
This issue is not so relevant to California, for obvious reasons, and it's worth noting that ETA's concern is that the AVE will be so successful that it will erode the Basque Country's autonomy by linking it more closely with the rest of Spain. The other main criticism voiced is that Spain's HSR focus is leaving other transportation infrastructure less funded:
Other, nonviolent critics say the country's massive investment in high speed rail has come at the expense of other, less-glamorous forms of transportation. Starved of funds, Spain's antiquated freight-train network has fallen into disuse, forcing businesses to move their goods around by road. That means the Spanish economy is unusually sensitive to changes in the price of crude oil.
And yet that's not really an argument against the successful HSR project - instead it's an argument for the investment in freight rail. It doesn't have to be an either/or proposition.
Critics say the AVE will never stop losing money. Even its backers say high-speed rail can only be economical if the state bears much of the construction costs. But they say the train's benefits-lower greenhouse-gas emissions, less road congestion and, in Spain's case, greater social cohesion and economic mobility-make it an investment worth making.
Of course, Spain's roads were built with state money as well. Here in California our airports and freeways were built with state and federal money. Freeways are not expected to turn a profit. The whole notion that our transportation infrastructure should turn a profit is absurd, even if most HSR systems break even or generate surpluses, more than covering their operating expenses. And that's a sensible approach - the state makes the investment in the infrastructure, and the ongoing operations are self-sustaining.
Spain is like California in another way - it's getting extremely hard hit by the global recession. Like California, Spain experienced a significant property bubble and is now paying the price with high unemployment. I don't know how this will impact the ambitious AVE construction plans. But at least Spain spent the last 20 years investing in sustainable transportation - whereas California frittered away its economic boom on sprawl, roads, and tax cuts. Spain is in a better position to weather the economic storm and recover from it thanks to its investment in the AVE.
It's not too late for California, of course. With Prop 1A and President Obama's support we can start down the trail Spain blazed nearly 20 years ago. HSR will change California in interesting ways, and although we're already a far more mobile population than Spain apparently is, HSR will still provide economic and environmental benefits that so far we can only imagine.