Monday, November 2, 2009

More Passengers Choose Trains Over Planes In Spain

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

For several decades, the world's busiest air route was the "Puente Aereo" (air bridge) between Madrid and Barcelona. At a distance of about 400 miles on the ground, it's also a perfect distance for high speed rail. Ever since the AVE line was completed to Barcelona's Sants station early last year, high speed rail has been winning a greater and greater share of the Spanish travel market - despite Spain being hit extremely hard by the global recession, with unemployment of around 20%.

Now the AVE line has surpassed the Puente Aereo in terms of travelers. More people are taking the train rather than the plane between the two largest cities of Spain:

Spain’s bullet train is beating the plane in the race to win passengers. For the first time, more passengers have chosen to travel on the high-speed AVE rail link between Madrid and Barcelona than have opted to fly — a switch that could influence British ambitions for a high-speed rail network and add impetus to the creation of a second high-speed line in the UK.

Between July and September, 651,498 passengers made the 314-mile journey between Spain’s biggest cities (slightly farther than London to Newcastle), a rise of 21 per cent compared with the same period last year.

In comparison, 643,512 travellers made the journey by aircraft during the same period, a fall of 7.5 per cent compared with the third quarter of last year.

Madrid-Barcelona is the fifth busiest air route in the world, with four airlines offering 116 flights a day, according to the Official Airline Guide in July. Since the rail link opened last year, Renfe, the Spanish state rail operator, and the airlines, led by Iberia, the national flag carrier, have fought a fierce battle to win passengers. The high-speed train, which takes 2hr 40min to travel between Madrid and Barcelona, at 236.3 kilometres per hour (146.8mph), has won over commuters with competitive fares, greater comfort and the absence of elaborate airport security. It also offers promotions to attract tourists, as well as business travellers.

Once again, it is worth reminding readers that Spain offers a very good comparison to California in terms of not just high speed rail - but population density and geography. SF Transbay to LA Union Station is 432 miles, and our trains are projected to have a higher operating speed.

Ultimately, the Spanish experience suggests the SNCF report and the Brookings Institution are both correct in suggesting the LA-SF route, the nation's second busiest, will support a high HSR ridership. As our airports already burst at the seams during flush economic times and with rising oil prices, it's clear that we need the HSR option in California. Spain's success story will soon be replicated here.

Sort of fitting given Spain's role in California history...


missiondweller said...

I wish the Chron or LA Times would write a story comparing the two. Seems about the best evidence you could have that HSR in California is not just viable but will be a well used addition to California's infrastructure as well as the backbone to a more elaborate system to connect all of the state eventually.

Rafael said...

Keep in mind that in Spain, HSR is in part a strategy to counter the centrifugal political forces that re-emerged after the end of the centralist Franco regime. In particular, the Basques and the Catalans reverted to their historical aversion to rule from Madrid. In the wake of the failed right-wing coup in 1981, these and all other regions of Spain were granted more-or-less far-reaching autonomy. Today's the country is, for most intents and purposes, a federal state with 16 regions plus the exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the African continent.

In California, the formal administrative layer between the state and individual cities is the county, though for some purposes those have created multi-county entities with narrow charters. BART, CCJPA, PCJPB and SCRRA are all examples of that.

You could argue that one of the objectives for the HSR system is to bind these regions more tightly together not just economically but also psychologically. For example, at just 45 min by train, Fresno will no longer be remote from San Jose and Bakersfield just a short ride from LA.

無名 - wu ming said...

it will certainly transform the distance that socal "feels" to those of us in norcal, especially those of us the valley. the whole idea that LA will be as time-close as SF to sacramento is a mind-blower to me. and who knows what, if any, the impact on the regional loyalties of the central valley this will have.

robert is right to compare this with the aquaduct. it will transform the way the state works, the way it grows, the way californians (not to mention tourists) experience it.

Unknown said...

According to Brookings Institute the number of air passeengers between SoCal - NorCal are approx. 12.8 million passengers a year (this includes Sacramento, SJ, SF to Los Angeles-Santa Ana, SD).

We are looking at ridership that is almost 7-10 times the number of airline passengers, 88 - 117 million passengers a year.

Is this logical?

What about the infrastructure to get the people to the rail stations? We are looking at serious growth within local or commuter transit places.

無名 - wu ming said...

o god, not again.

you're missing passengers traveling from the middle of the route to the two ends, as well as passengers between two points not the endpoints. additionally, you're not even thinking about those trips currently not taken because it's too much of a hassle to bother with, but that would be more attractive with HSR. ever try flying with little kids? HSR is far, far easier to manage (i've done both this past year with a 2-3 YO).

additionally, you're not only drawing passengers from air, you're drawing them from slow rail, bus, and car as well. and then there's tourists, esp. from asia or europe where HSR is well-established; HSR gives them a very quick package deal to see the whole state. finally, the population's going to grow, and the price of oil is going to go up. all of that drives more onto HSR than you'd guess from looking just at a few air routes.

Brandon in California said...

The news from Spain is excellent news. As expected.

Being that the gap between airports and downtown areas are bridged with taxi's, I'd be interested to learn the impacts on that industry in Spain... b/c as we know, the AVE has stations in downtown Madrid and Barcelona.

Also interested in impacts to local transit. I've theorized that there is a lot of synergy between the two; HSR and local transit (particularly trains).

Any news on these?

Anonymous said...

@brandon - in your fair city as I write this- wow is frighteningly pleasant here. so clean, Ive yet to asked for spare change, havent seen any nutcases and Im watching trains pull into santa fe station from my hotel balconey ( scary to be able to identify them by arrival time) nice thing about SAN over SFC folks... trains pullinginto DOWTNOWN... lots of em. btw - there is room down here for a hsr station downtown. this is where it should be. imo gotta run b4 champagne goes flat.

Brandon in California said...

maybe you've had too much already. Sante Fe Depot is indeed the best place for HSR to terminate in San Diego; however, not easily identified is "how."

Since CHSRA selected SFD as the preferred alignment a lot has occured on the 2x4 block grid where the station would be located... namely about 4 or 5 25-40 story towers have gone up... with 2 more planned.

The adopted prerred alignment was also above grade. With those towers there... newly planted NIMBY's will grab the ear of the local politicians... which sadly have a common knee-jerk reaction toward anything functional and good.

It also does not help that local politicians have very little understanding of transportation matters and will likely support the least best option.

That least best option is probably having HSR terminate at Lindbergh Field.

Tho... a below grade alignment into SFD is possible... and comes with other things that local politicans could get onboard with... assuming tehy understood.

That would be to place heavy rail alongside HSR and below grade so-as to eliminate the grade crossings and eliminate freight/Coaster/Amtrak horn blasts.

Of course, freight needs to continue beyond SFD to points south.

Anonymous said...

650,000 quarterly passengers.HSR is expected 2.7 million per quarter between LA and SF.


Anonymous said...

Rafael makes a good point about the role of HSR in binding Spain together. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any unity at the state level in California on the topic of HSR, and thus it's been taken over by local forces, with the result that the three top priority segments are exactly the ones within regions rather than between them: SF-SJ, LA-Anaheim, and Bakersfield-Merced, and the bits actually linking those regions together will come later if at all.

Rafael said...

@ Brandon -

wasn't the plan to run an HSR-only aerial through the Santa Fe depot, with a yard for stabling dozens of trainsets further south (e.g. across from Petco Park)?

This is the first I've heard about putting a station next to the depot, constructing a tunnel or plans to grade separate Amtrak/SD Trolley as well as HSR. Care to elaborate?

無名 - wu ming said...

@anon 12:40 -

those segments aren't separate because they've been "taken over by local forces," they're prioritized because those legs are the easiest to break ground on with stimulus funding. they're saving the toughest parts for last because the complexity inherent in tunneling across fault zones is best not done hastily, but after a very detailed and careful dialectic of design and testing.

building a straightway down the valley or electrifying/grade separating existing urban rail corridors is a piece of cake by comparison.

california does have its own centripedal tendencies, though, as our perennial battles over water (and drought-driven decennial calls to split the state) can testify. as peak oil and growing global demand drive the price of gas into the stratosphere, having HSR in place will help to hold the state and its regional economies together, just as the transcontinental railroads did with 19th century america's far-flung collection of territories and states back when land transportation was energy-dear.

Unknown said...

I would say that the only way to put in a station at Santa Fe would be an aerial station above the current tracks and also expand over the current santa fe Depot. I dont think there is enough space in that corridor otherwise. Since the Sante Fe Depot is a historical building it makes it very difficult to alter the structure.

The overnight hub across from Petco Park is the best place for storing trains. However the one mile stretch of track connecting the Santa Fe to that yard is in the heart of downtown San Diego. I hope this happens because it would mean that CHSRA would help pay to bury the tracks along that route due to the five street crossings. That includes the current freight traffic and the SD Trolley lines. Maybe San Diego could build a few cut and cover trolley stations, eventually..

Im greatly in favor of placing the end station on the site north of the runway at the airport, right next to Pacific Hwy and I-5. This way a San Diego Grand Central Station could be built. By placing a station there serious potential for transit connections can be taken advantage off. If planned well it could serve as a central bus hub serving the trolley, HSR and the airport. In addition, the site has great freeway access and lot of space for parking, in comparison to Santa Fe. If you're going to be realistic about a successful San Diego station, parking has to be a major factor in the planning.

Rafael said...

@ Francis -

it's not really possible to have an aerial station at Santa Fe and then go underground because even at 3.5% gradient, multiple cross streets would have to be closed in the stretch needed to make the elevation transition.

What I was talking about an elevated structure for HSR all the way to Petco Park. Trains would be traveling at low speeds between a yard there and the downtown station, so noise is really not an issue. Visual and construction impacts might be.

Grade separating the legacy tracks for Amtrak, NCTD and BNSF trains as well would be far more difficult because as you point out, there is not enough available width at the Santa Fe Depot to support four tracks plus multiple platforms.

Note that siting the station at Lindbergh Field would not eliminate the need for a large yard at which to stable dozens of trainsets overnight, each around 200m (660') long. You need a lot of room for all that.

For CHSRA and city planners, the yard is really a much, much bigger headache than where the station will end up. Unfortunately, no-one in charge appears to be taking this problem seriously just yet.

Brandon in California said...

The only place the idea of continuing HSR beyond SFD in any form has been 1) here, and 2) from a South Bay business interest group pushing station/connection in Chula Vista area.

CHSRA adopted a preferred alignment to SFD that was above grade; however, as far as I can tell... folks realized teh station area has changed a lot since CHSRA made that decision; that the towers.

Below grade may be a viable option - more studuy needed. On another board, someone in the know has written that their spouse is employed on the project and is designing such. Who's paying them... I don't know. Could be through CHSRA, or the City, or teh local redevelopment agency?

Anyway, San Diego has previously studied putting the freight tracks below grade through downtown. That was 20-ish years ago and I have a pdf of teh study someplace. The purpose was to eliminate the blockage of roadways. Today, there is A LOT of push to eliminate horn blasts.

I see the two possibly comming together.

I did not speak to the Trolley; however, imo, more capacity is needed downtown... and the only way to do that is to put the Trolley undergound. And imo, that would be along Broadway. The at-grade tracks along C Street and Park can be retained to compliment a new subway alignment and/or run streetcars for tourists. Shifting all Trolley's to the Harbor or Bayside is a non-starter, imo... the jobs are along Broadway... not on the Bay side.

Anonymous said...


"Also interested in impacts to local transit. I've theorized that there is a lot of synergy between the two; HSR and local transit (particularly trains)."

Mark Hanson from UC Berkeley and Reinhard Clever write about the importance of the feeder system provided by local and commuter transit in their study, "The Interaction of Air and High Speed Rail in Japan," (presented at the Transportation Research Board in 2008.

Currently, local transit is under the authority of the Federal Transit Administration while planning and funding of high speed rail is being undertaken by the Federal Railroad Administration at the federal level. There needs to be a serious policy discussion about whether this institutional arrangement continues to make sense when the feeder role provided by local transit is essential to the success of intercity high speed rail.

Anonymous said...


Interesting post but the Official Airline Guide (OAG) comparison of city-pair traffic is deeply misleading. It looks at travel between airports and not between regions. Thus, Rio-Sao Paulo and Mumbai – Delhi can rank among the ten busiest city-pairs because each of these urban areas likely only has one or two domestic airports. On the other hand, Southern California core has five airports (Burbank, John Wayne, Long Beach, LAX, Ontario) and the Bay Area has three airports (San Jose, Oakland, SFO). As noted in the recent Brookings paper by Robert Puentes, air travel between LA-SF is likely much higher than many of the ten city-pairs mentioned in the OAG summary.

looking on said...

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway announced plans to buy the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNI) for $44 billion. BNI stock is up over 25% this morning.

This points up, why UPRR doesn't want to have anything to do with CHSRA. They are doing just fine and expect to need all the capacity in the future on their corridors, and they don't care to worry about HSR passenger lines.

Anonymous said...

Looking on— I noticed you didn’t respond to my posts last week (“China HSR Grabs Significant Market Share From Airlines") so here they are again for you to answer.


looking on-- The Southern California region has some of highest residential densities in the entire nation. As a region, Los Angeles County is denser the the NY/NJ/CT metropolitan region ( The recent legislation that requires counties in CA to consider the emissions impact of their comprehensive plans will only encourage greater density in the state.

Second, regarding your suggestion that regional transit doesn't exist on the West Cost, where have you been the past few years? LA County voters passed Measure R last November. This will raise the sales tax 1/2 cents to pay for a huge expansion of local heavy and light rail projects, including the extension of the subway to the Westside, the extension of the Gold Line, and bringing the Green Line to LAX. I encourage you to look at the following map to see the plans MTA has for transit in LA County: . BART is also the third or fourth busiest heavy rail system in the U.S. Furthermore, the Capitol Corridor from Sacto to the Bay Area has seen record ridership in the past few years, as has Metrolink in Los Angeles. Additionally, LA County has the nation's most extensive bus system.


looking on--

"So blow all you want about other places, ignore failures like the Eurostar, which only 20 years later is getting to what was supposed to be first year passenger levels and continue to promote this non-sense."

Looking on, I see that you conveniently failed to mention the $1.1B bailout requested for the San Joquin Hills Toll Road last year or the previous line of credit from the federal government for $240M for this boondoggle. Given this performance, it is difficult to see how these toll roads remain the darlings of hacks such as Robert Poole at the Reason Foundation ( I also don't see any mention of the $8B shift from the general fund to the highway trust fund last year because it ran out of money.

Rafael said...

@ Brandon -

horn noise from Amtrak/NCTD/BNSF trains in downtown San Diego could be eliminated by implementing an FRA quiet zone, as SMART is planning to do.

If bell/horn noise is all that's bugging the locals, no grade separation is required for those tracks as long as the CPUC, local traffic planners and the railroads all agree it's sufficiently safe.

Given the proximity to the water's edge, perhaps the biggest red flags for any trench or tunnel are gravity-drained conduits and the ground water level.

Passenger trains with diesel locomotives don't belong in long tunnels, the fire safety and air quality issues are too severe. Keep in mind that EPA Tier 3/4 rules apply only to new and retrofit locomotive engines.

Legacy tracks in a trench would have to return to grade level north of the existing yards near Petco Park, at a gradient of just 1.0-1.25%. Several grade crossings would have to be permanently closed to make that possible.

Putting HSR underground exacerbates the serious problem of stabling the required number of 200m (660') trainsets. By the 2030-2035 time frame, room for ~45 units will be needed. That room simply isn't available at Lindbergh Field nor at Santa Fe Depot.

This is why I'm suggesting that the legacy tracks remain at grade, possibly with an FRA quiet zone, while the HSR tracks run on an elevated structure.

Rafael said...

@ looking on -

how do you know what prompted Berkshire Hathaway to invest in BSNF rather than one of the other Tier 1 freight railroads, e.g. UPRR?

Peter said...

Berkshire Hathaway already owns a good part of UPRR, as well.

looking on said...


I have no idea why Buffett chose to buy BNI and not some other rail operation, or for that matter, any idea why he is buying any of them, except they are doing very well financially, and Buffett is one very smart guy and his bottom line to to make money for himself and his shareholders.

The point here is, UPRR is on record as not allowing CHSRA to use their corridor from San Jose to Gilroy as an example and have stated they don't want to be involved with HSR passenger trains and that they want the ability to expand their capacity in the future.

Rafael said...

@ Brandon -

apparently, downtown San Diego is already getting the FRA quiet zone upgrade.

Anonymous said...

looking on - soooo, you're saying that Buffett is a very smart man who invests in companies that should make a lot of money long term. He is now investing in BNSF - a company that is working VERY closely with CHSRA to negotiate use of their ROW.

From this, you're somehow telling us that CHSRA is somehow doomed because freight railroads make a lot of money and a DIFFERENT company (not one that Buffett is buying outright or interested in buying outright) is unwilling to work with CHSRA?

I'm not following your logic at all. Is Buffett stupid for buying the company that is working with CHSRA? Or is UPRR stupid for not working with CHSRA? Or were you just trying the FUD route?

Alon Levy said...

Eurostar, which has failed to meet traffic expectations more than any other HSR service, still has more than double the ridership that the London-Paris city pair did for air travel before it opened.

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind a great deal of seabourne traffic crossed the English Channel before the Chunnel opened. The Chunnel gradually ate into that traffic share, and the Chunnel is rail-only. If the Chunnel had a roadway, Eurostar's numbers would be even worse. Given their essential monopoly on crossing the Channel quickly, Eurostar has been a major disappointment.

The Chunnel was another one of these megaproject disasters with delays and cost overruns. It is still a financial failure.

mike said...

I have no idea why Buffett chose to buy BNI and not some other rail operation

Um, Buffett clearly stated why he chose to buy BNSF over UP and others:

"Berkshire's $34 billion investment in BNSF is a huge bet on that company, CEO Matt Rose and his team, and the railroad industry," Buffett said.

He thinks BNSF management is better and smarter than UP management. Which should come as no surprise to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the railroad industry.

Cost Control said...

Berkshire Hathaway owns UP stock as well, so this is part of Buffett's interest in freight railroads as promising investments, especially as freight movements are down due to the economy. BNSF stock is particularly cheap right now, because its profits are down 30%. UP is in better shape.

Berkshire owns stock in two other major railroads — about 1 percent of the outstanding shares of Union Pacific Corp. and less than 1 percent of Norfolk Southern Corp., as of June 30. Buffett started investing in railroads in 2007, but has said he realized a few years late that railroads had become an appealing investment.

He thinks railroads are a key economic indicator because of the amount of retail and manufactured goods they haul across the country. "They do it in a cost-effective way and extraordinarily environmentally friendly way," he told CNBC. "I basically believe this country will prosper and you'll have more people moving more goods 10 and 20 and 30 years from now, and the rails should benefit."

Anonymous said...

UP will sell this SJ-Gilroy "short line" tiny traffic plus they are going to have to install PTC since Amtrak runs on it..they are playing their hand for a good price and have wanted to get rid of this for a while

Brandon in California said...

Yeah... I am familiar with the quiet zone effort. Intimately.

It's a half measure. Not even.

Quiet zones permit/allow the train operator to not blow their horns. That's all.

Although operators do not do so to annoy folks, they will continue if someone encroaches into the ROW or feel a warning is necessary. It doesn't eliminate the blasts.

Unknown said...

Rafael and Brandon --

Yeah the quite zone is definitely a hald baked measure. The quite zone plan is to simply make bulkier rail crossing signals and arms. The horn are really annoying! I work across the street from two of the crossings and you cant have a conversation when a freight train is approaching and using the horn, and the traffic stops for a good ten minutes. Sometimes more when the middle of the train stops on the crossing and then goes forward for a few minutes then reverse again. That sometimes adds up to close to 20 minutes. This is only done late at night but still its rough.

In terms of a station at SFD or Lindbergh, I think its too complicated (expensive) to have the overnight depot by downtown SD or anywhere along the bayfront. San Diego station will probably have 4 platforms at SFD or perhaps up to as many as 8 in the Lindbergh Field site. We should probably do like SF's future station and keep a few parked overnight but have the depot somewhere else; perhaps in in North County San Diego or Riverside County where there is more space. A major advantage of underground is that it would be a popular project, but the aerial one would avoid all the building below sea level problems.

And Rafael -

Wouldnt an aerial connection create as many grading issues as a tunnel would? Unless the HSR depot is built aerially as well... just curious.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 12:58pm -

the Channel Tunnel actually belongs to EuroTunnel, which operates shuttle trains for passenger cars and commercial vehicles between Folkstone and Calais. It would be far too dangerous to allow motor vehicles to drive through a tunnel that long, both in terms of air quality/ventilation and in terms of accidents/fires.

Even with all the safeguards (engine off, fire doors, halon extinguishers) there have been two serious fires in the tunnel since it opened, both involving flammable cargo that somehow ignited. In 1994, it was margerine. In 2008, a chemical transport. Though there were no fatalities in either case, damage to the affected tunnel tube was extensive and took months and tens of millions of dollars to repair.

Eurostar is SNCF's brand for HSR passenger trains. The operator pays hefty trackage fees for using Eurotunnel's infrastructure.

Those high fees are the #1 reason why ridership remained below expectations. Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, refused to involve UK taxpayers in any way on the tunnel project. As a result, interest rates on the loans were much higher than on the French side.

Btw, Eurotunnel has indicated it is interested in buying the HS1 line between Folkstone and St. Pancras International in London in the context of an infrastructure privatization program the UK government is planning. Unlike the tunnel, HS1 was built with public money under the Labor Party government.

Rafael said...

@ Francis -

grade crossings require the co-operation of motorists. If gates and flashing lights are not enough to keep them off the tracks, then yes, horns will sound.

Painting the area between the rails at grade crossings a solid red color would make them more obvious to motorists, but in the end only draconian penalties really work for those that Darwin doesn't pick off. Disrupting railroad operations is an offense, so go ahead and suspend the offending driver's license for a while. Word will spread soon enough, Californians value their cars almost as much as they value their lives.

Wherever the San Diego stabling yard is built, I estimate it will need to accommodate ~45 trainsets of 200m (660') each. Even eight platforms at Lindbergh wouldn't begin to cut it.

And yes, I was suggesting that in spite of the massive cost, HSR train parking near Petco Park remain elevated above that for Amtrak/NCTD and/or BNSF and/or the parking lots. Alternatively, the line could be extended south to Imperial Beach west of I-5 to an at-grade station-cum-yard there.

If someone has a suggestion for a suitable site for a stabling yard no more than a few miles north of the San Diego station, I'm all ears.

Anonymous said...

I estimate it will need to accommodate ~45 trainsets of 200m (660') each. Even eight platforms at Lindbergh wouldn't begin to cut it.

45? It's only going to take an hour and twenty to get there from Los Angeles. Throw in some time to empty the train, do some light housekeeping and fill it up again the train should be headed north again two hours after it left Los Angeles. How many trains an hour are going to be leaving before the crack of dawn? The 5 am departure to San Francisco isn't going to be a 16 car train. How many trains an hour at peak? I have no idea how many trainsets they going to need to store overnight in San Diego. Numbers as high as 45 don't come to mind.

If they start service at 5 AM by 8 AM all the trains that will be in service during the day will be. ( Expect for spares and the ones in the shop for maintenance ) Which means 45 trains in San Diego is 15 departures an hour. Even if every one of them was double set trains that means 7 departures an hour. I don't think so....

Alon Levy said...


Trains require more clearance than cars, because of their larger height, and the need for overhead wires. On the Caltrain-HSR Compatibility Blog, Clem estimates 20 feet of height change needed for a rail overpass, versus 30 for an underpass. If the underpass is heavy freight-compatible, as the Port of SF wants it to be, then it needs to have 3 extra feet of clearance, making 3 extra feet of height change.

Alon Levy said...

Rafael, Anon:

I think the 45 trainset figure comes from the idea that trains in San Diego will be stabled for SF and Sac, not just LA. In that case, the total roundtrip including turnaround time is about 8-9 hours, which means the number of trainsets required is 9 times tph count, not 3 times tph count.

Of course, trains are not all going to be stabled at San Diego, so SD itself will only need to accommodate a fraction of the total 9*tph trainsets. Trains could be stabled at various stations along the route, in order to allow early morning commuter trains on routes like Gilroy-SF and Bakersfield-LA, spreading the load around.

building maintenance california said...

in respect to trains being preffered over planes, it is important to note that there is a lingering aversion to planes especially if one had ridden on economy class at one point in their lives. trains are much better in my opinion. i would rather spend more time in a moving train than waiting for boarding, taxi and off the runway which is very uncomfortable if you are packed like sardines