Although most Americans who know anything about high speed rail associate the trains primarily with France and Japan, it is Spain that has had some of the most dramatic success with high speed rail this decade. The AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) trains have attracted significant numbers of riders in a nation whose geography and population densities are quite similar to California, and operating profits from the existing lines have been plowed back into expansions of the system.
But there are bigger picture reasons to embrace HSR, as Spain's Minister of Transportation José Blanco López explains:
Someone could think that we, the political representatives in charge of looking after the public interests by assessing the opportunity costs of each choice, would be tempted to follow the easy path on those crucial crossroads. But this is not the case.
Maybe Spain, with the socialist party at the head of successive governments, is the best example of how a mindful combination of courageous decisions on difficult times, the power of a cabinet lead by egalitarian principles and the supportive effort of the taxpayers, can lead a country to new heights of economical and social progress.
Our high speed rail network reaches now several edges of the Iberian Peninsula, and connects some of the most important cities of Spain with the most sustainable transport mode and in a fast, safe and clean way: Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Seville and Valencia at the end of 2010. Its next objectives will be Galicia, the north coast, Portugal and France.
The effort under way is so big that, by 2012, Spain’s HS network will be the longest one in service in Europe. And only eight years later, by 2020, another historic landmark will be achieved when more than 90% of the country’s total population will have a HS train station at less than 31 miles away.
Sure, López is selling the PSOE as a good steward of a tough economy, but he raises the key points in how we consider high speed rail. HSR opponents have not offered any explanation of how they will grow the economy and provide economic recovery to the people of California. Whereas we who support HSR have history on our side. We built the Golden Gate and SF-Oakland Bay bridges during the Depression. We built Boulder and Shasta Dams. We built the Central Valley Project and countless other key pieces of infrastructure during the worst economic downturn in history. That spending, far from hurting the economy or making the Depression worse, provided job growth in the short-term and provides jobs and savings to this very day.
López explains that in Spain they too have had to battle conservative Hooverites who opposed AVE expansion:
Spanish conservatives even raised doubts and sowed distrust about a high speed system which finally yielded priceless benefits to the whole society.
’Boondoggle‘, ’Loss-making whim‘, ‘Monument to bad territorial planning’… Shielded behind overly simple, short sighted cost-benefit analysis, critics complained with those arguments against high speed projects over years, until the success of each one of the new corridors proved them wrong and showed that in troubled economic times, the best investments for a society are the ones which improve equality. Today, like we did over the last 20 years, we have to express our conviction in a brilliant future for high speed rail in Spain, with the extension of the network to each edge of the country, building a multi-node web in which each city is a centre. A network which draws territories together and grants equal opportunities to each citizen, no matter where he lives. A network which ties us strongly to Europe.
Now more than ever, we have to look towards the future and we shouldn’t slow down our pace, because each new high speed line carried out will be at the same time a retaining wall against the economic crisis and a lever to get the society ready for the incoming recovery.
López's article is produced in conjunction with this week's Labour Party conference in Britain, where the current British governing party is hoping to use high speed rail as part of its strategy to stave off electoral catastrophe in the spring 2010 election. Julian Glover, writing in the Guardian, makes the case:
High-speed rail can be justified as green if we sort out non-fossil fuel electric power, but the case is really as much social and economic. The unspoken aim of British politics is to make all of Britain middle class, and the middle classes travel – and will do so more and more. It's best if they go by train. Faster journeys are a bonus; the gains are as much about reliability and capacity – good links between Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, as well as to London.
Transport routes north from the capital are full, or soon will be. England's great cities cannot enrich themselves in isolation and the harder it is to get between them, the poorer they will be. Rail investment is a progressive cause, if we don't want to see London as a sort of Singapore, a first world island isolated from – and perhaps one day refusing to fund – an impoverished hinterland.
We can say the same for California. High speed rail is essential to providing economic growth and prosperity to California in the 21st century. Driving and flying aren't going to be affordable for much longer, as the great gas price spike of 2008 showed. Since most jobs are going to be created in the urban centers, those who don't have the ability to live there, and other regions of the state, will be locked out of prosperity.
Those who oppose HSR are those who believe that the economic system of the latter half of the 20th century will persist forever, with a transportation system that hasn't evolved past 1985. They offer no arguments for how we will solve the gridlock on the freeways and the airports that would come with population growth, except presumably to spend twice as much money expanding those instead of building HSR. They offer no arguments for how we will wean California off of carbon emissions, to which transportation is a key contributor. They offer no real arguments at all about how California will generate jobs and economic opportunity - they just assume it will materialize out of thin air.
For the rest of us who have to live in the real world, we cannot put blind faith into a magical economic recovery based on a 20th century model whose failure has produced the present crisis. There is no reason for us to sit on our hands and refuse to follow the proven, successful model laid out by nations such as France and Spain, which have used high speed trains to provide sustainable economic growth and to try and battle a global recession.
And of course, Californians have already decided to reject the "lower your horizons and suffer" model being offered by HSR deniers. Californians knew what they were doing when they voted to build a high speed rail system in their state, and knew what they were doing when they voted to put Barack Obama in the White House, a president who understands the value of HSR and plans to fund it.
Still, we need to constantly remind ourselves and our fellow Californians of why we did that in November 2008, especially as the HSR deniers and those who would put small, parochial concerns over the needs of the state as a whole try and block HSR from getting built.