Spain on track to be Europe’s high-speed rail champion
Published on 20/12/2010
Madrid — Spain is set to overtake France as the European country with the longest high-speed rail network, an achievement that will generate badly needed jobs but which comes at a high price for an economy in crisis.
When a new service between Madrid and the Mediterranean city of Valencia opens on 18 December the country will have more than 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) of rail track that will carry trains at speeds of up to 300 kilometres per hour.
That will put it ahead of France, with 1,900 kilometres of track, and further in front of Germany, which has 1,300 kilometers of track.
It will also rank third in the world, behind China, where 3,500 kilometres of high-speed lines criss-cross the country, and Japan with 2,500.
A Talgo 350 high-speed train (AVE: "Alta Velocidad Espanola" meaning Spanish high-speed) is seen at the train station of Atocha of Madrid on 15 December 2010
The Socialist government, which has made infrastructure development a priority, sees expansion of the network as a "weapon against the crisis" and a way to "shatter cliches" about Spain as a technologically backward country, Transport Minister Jose Blanco said.
Spain’s first ever Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE) line was opened in 1992 between Madrid and Seville, timed to coincide with the Expo ’92 world fair being held in the southwestern city. Services followed between the Spanish capital and the northern-central city of Valladolid and Malaga in 2007 and Barcelona in 2008.
Valladolid is to become the hub for other lines to the north, including one to be completed to the northern coastal city of Santander by 2015.
Spain will eventually be linked to the French and European networks by two corridors: one along the Mediterranean coast that is to open in 2012 and the other along the Atlantic to Bordeaux in France. The new link to Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, will cut the journey time from four hours to 90 minutes.
Spain, Madrid : Spain’s Minister of Public Works and Transport Jose Blanco Lopez salutes prior to the inauguration of the Spanish high-speed train connecting Madrid to Valencia, at the Atocha train station in Madrid
But it will also cost more than EUR 6 billion (USD 8.4 billion) at a time when Spain is just emerging from its worst recession in decades and the government is struggling to slash the massive public deficit.
The government argues that the investment will be offset by the impact on unemployment, which has soared to more than 20 percent.
"An emblem of the modernisation of Spain," the development of the high-speed network "generates jobs and wealth, benefits the environment and reduces the number of road deaths," Blanco said in presenting a recent study on the subject.
The study, conducted by consulting firm Accenture, estimated that 136,000 jobs will be created directly or indirectly as a result of the new service, which will be used by 3.6 million passengers per year.
It will also slash CO2 emissions by 842,000 tonnes by 2016 as fewer people use road or air transport, Accenture said.
Spain, Zaragoza : (L to R) US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood , Spanish Minister of Transport and Development Jose Blanco and Aragon’s region President Marcelino Iglesias are pictured in front of the high-speed train (AVE), linking Zaragoza to Madrid, in Delicias railway station in Zaragoza
A transport policy expert, Germa Bel, however believes that building the AVE network was a "very bad decision" for Spain.
It requires a "very, very heavy investment" and "its profitability depends on the number of people who use it," said the professor of economics at the University of Barcelona.
Bel said the money the AVE would have been better used to "close the gap on Spanish information technology" or to develop the freight rail system. But some 16 million of Spain’s 47 million people are already using the AVE.
The service between Madrid and Barcelona now rivals the air link between Spain’s two largest cities in terms of the number of people using it, said Julio Hermida Gayubas, the head of communications for Spain’s national rail network, Renfe.
Olivier Thibault / AFP / Expatica