Monday, May 26, 2008

Spain's High Speed Rail Pressures Airlines

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

(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.


Rafael said...

Spain is actually a good basis for comparison with California, in that the two countries feature similar geographic area and population size. Moreover, except for the city of Madrid, Spain's interior is sparsely populated.

There are, of course, also major differences. First, Spain was a military dictatorship until 1977. At the time, it's GDP compared to the rest of Western Europe much like that of the former Communist countries does today. Automobile ownership was very low, telephones were rare etc.

The one thing they did have was an extensive rail network, albeit limited to low speeds and based on broad gauge. Franco relied on it to move troops around. For a while, it did look as if the newly democratic Spain would abandon its trains in favor of cars, much like California did in the 1950s.

However, Spain's government has traditionally been highly centralized. Thanks to the Pyrenees mountain range, Euskadi (Basque country) and Catalunya are home to the only significant land routes for trade between the Iberian peninsula and the rest of Europe. Largely as a result, these regions are also the wealthiest in the country.

This geographic fact lies at the heart of the country's separatist tensions, some dating back to Roman times. Only recently have Spain's regions been granted extensive autonomy. This is reflected in the revival of four Iberian languages separate from Castellano, which the rest of the world refers to as Spanish.

To some extent, the HSR network is supposed to provide a counterweight to these centrifugal forces, in an effort to hold the country together voluntarily rather than by brutal oppression. This also explains why low ticket prices and very high punctuality are so important for the central government, over-and-above considerations like high fuel prices and CO2 emissions.

Sadly, the Basque terrorist organization ETA, via its political arm, has declared war on high speed rail - precisely because closer integration with both Spain and France undermines its utopian vision of an independent communist Basque state. Note that the original high speed rail link between Madrid and Seville - built ostensibly for the 1992 World Expo - is rumored to have been a deal to secure French assistance in arresting ETA leaders who had holed up north of the border. Fortunately, thanks largely to the new autonomy within Spain and the ever-tighter European Union, ETA's support among ordinary Basques is waning fast.

Indeed, the fiercely independent Basque regional government is actively promoting the construction of the Y network (Castellano version) linking the Basque population centers to each other as well as to Madrid, Barcelona, Paris and the rest of Europe. While relatively small, construction of the Y network will require very extensive - and expensive - tunneling through mountainous terrain.

Here is a map of the country's entire high-speed network, detailing the status of the individual alignments. It is a graphic representation of the political importance Spaniards attach to their railroads - in stark contrast to Californians.

Robert Cruickshank said...

That is pretty interesting about ETA's and Batasuna's opposition to the Basque AVE link - but then I would have to believe that will just make it easier for the Spanish government to build it, especially as both the PSOE and PP seem to be of the "if Batasuna and ETA call the sky blue we'll call it orange" mindset.

I'm fascinated by Spain and its politics, so this discussion is right up my alley. Maybe not so much for the usual readership, but even they can get something out of this, which is that EVERY HSR system is a political project. Deals have to be cut, and some groups will oppose HSR not because the idea is bad but because of other concerns.

The AVE is intended to link Spain's regions together, just as our HSR is intended to do - especially for the Central Valley. Our HSR serves political purposes too - providing jobs to construction workers, cheaper travel to Californians, faster commutes for workers, urban infill development opportunities for cities and their chambers of commerce.

I don't see that as a bad thing - it is what it is. Life is inherently political, as is transportation policy. The goal here is to ensure that the politics help us produce a good system, instead of eviscerating it.

And if we have to change the state's political assumptions to get HSR built - overcoming obsolete notions like HSR would have to pay for itself, or that we shouldn't assess its costs in context, or that Californians somehow won't ride trains - then we'll do that too.

Despite Spain's specific politics, their experience with the AVE system shows the basic logic of high speed rail, and shows why it is so successful.

Rafael said...

@ Robert Cruickshank -

in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, of course, railroads were absolutely central to California's economic development. The Bear Republic was even an independent country for a short period. Being a "Californian" meant that you had gone West to seek your fortune in them thar hills.

The southern part of the state has a very different history, of course. Sparsely populated before WW2, it became a major center for the aircraft production and military logistics. The population grew extremely rapidly - new subdivisions with white picket fences sprang up throughout the LA Basin, all connected by roads and later, by interstates. Mulholland secured water for the new metropolis. GM persuaded many southern cities to trade in their electric streetcars for its diesel buses - San Diego is a notable exception. Rail was celebrated for its ability to haul freight - cp. the Big Boy locomotives - but passengers were a different matter.

In many ways, then, the car culture is to Southern California what the Gold Rush is to Northerners - a defining element of their identity. Were it not for the common history of the Spanish missions and - more prosaically - the fact that most of the water happens to be in the north and most of the people in the south, the state might well have split in two decades ago.

To the extent HSR can replace aviation as the cheapest mode of rapid intercity transportation, it will serve as something of a symbol of the state's enduring unity - perhaps especially so in Sacramento and the Central Valley. As the first such network in the US, it will also reaffirm Californians' belief that their state leads the nation in both high tech and environmental protection. Maybe that, then, is what it will mean to be a "Californian" in the 2020s.

As the example of Spain shows, voters tend to open their wallets when such emotions are brought into play.

Rafael said...

Btw, even the United Arab Emirates are now considering new public transportation infrastructure that includes a high speed rail line, a metro, light rail and a fleet of water taxis.

If even the oil sheiks are betting on rail, it's time to read the writing on the wall. I wonder if their stations will look anything like the Great Mosque of Cordoba inside - minus the Catholic fuglification, of course.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Interestingly, SoCal is just as much a product of the rails as any other part of the state. It was only in the 1880s when the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific built connections to LA that the region underwent an economic and population boom.

And LA's vaunted "sprawl" was also the product of rails - specifically the Pacific Electric "Red Cars." Hell, you can even see rails still in the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood (where it's not covered up by the planters).

I think Californians have become so used to driving everywhere that it's hard for them to realize we still have a lot of valuable rail infrastructure and corridors, and that an investment like HSR, which connects city centers originally built to serve rail, is actually going to be integrated quite well with our existing networks.

Anonymous said...

Robert wrote:

And LA's vaunted "sprawl" was also the product of rails - specifically the Pacific Electric "Red Cars." Hell, you can even see rails still in the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood (where it's not covered up by the planters).

So why in the world do you think this project would not generate urban sprawl along with major pollution in the central valley?

I don't understand how you think yo can have it both ways; cleaner air even though major population increases will follow.

luis d. said...

@ anonymous

Why do opponents of HSR not show who they are? Maybe cause your, morris brown or Martin Engel or another notorious opponent of HSR.

I didn't want to resort to personal attacks but why do you guys "lurk" in the shadows awaiting for a moment you can say something stupid against HSR that doesn't make sense? You guys just wait till you gather enough info to repeat the same stuff over and over. That only shows you personally don't like this project even though it's the right thing to do for California!

Their is nothing to hide here, you can comment (this is a blog) but make a point, don't repeat the same things that have already been answered!

Robert Cruickshank said...

Yeah, use a name.

As to LA, the "sprawl" the Red Cars created was of a very different sort than the post-1945 sprawl we identify with LA. It was characterized by streetcar suburbs with low-density houses spread out. Driving wasn't the basis of transportation at that time - it was only after 1945 that the empty spaces were filled in, with cars becoming the dominant mode at that time.

In any case, sprawl is by no means inevitable - the sprawl we all rail against was the product of cheap oil, cheap credit, and favorable land use laws. The first two are gone, so HSR isn't going to generate that kind of sprawl. How would HSR generate Fresno-style sprawl if it's hard for people to afford to live on the edge of town? The only growth it would spur would be dense infill growth near the stations.

But then I'm sure you know that and you're just choosing to ignore it as usual.

Brandon in California said...

Anon May 27, 2008 7:45 PM:

What came first, the chicken, or the egg?

My point, the Central Valley is already projected to grow by millions. That is millions.

It'll grow there b/c that is one of the last few places in the State with ample and cheap land. From Bakersfield up to saramento and other points to the north.

HSR for the Central Valley is expected to be part of the solution to anticpated transportation bottlenecks there, not the sprawl inducing evil you're pandering.

Now, don't let bad logic getin teh way of a good project.

Anonymous said...

sorry to say the picture is not of Madrid Atocha station but Seville station.