Farms, cities have cooperative relationship with Spain's high-speed rail

The Fresno BeeJanuary 21, 2012 

LA ESTACIÓN, SPAIN -- On a crisp fall Saturday morning, Luis Valciente and Mercedes Martin enjoy the quiet of their farm about 20 miles northeast of Seville.

The retired husband and wife bought their patch of land in 1987, several years before Spain's first high-speed trains started running between Madrid and Seville.

"It's very tranquil, which is what we like after all these years," Martin says through an interpreter.

Without warning, a loud "swoosh" briefly interrupts the couple's conversation with a reporter. Within seconds, the noise subsides, and the couple picks up the chat, unruffled, right where they left off.

It's one of Spain's AVE high-speed trains rushing from Madrid to Seville on tracks about 100 feet from the rear of the couple's modest home. The high-speed tracks -- a portion of the nation's first high-speed rail line that opened in 1992 -- are next to older conventional rail tracks just over the back fence.

To passengers aboard the train, the Valciente farm is little more than a blur at the side of the tracks about 10 minutes before they get to Seville, the southern terminus for AVE trains that come and go from the Santa Justa Station. Each train sends a fresh buzz of activity through the station and a small surge of cabs, cars and pedestrians onto the busy streets near the historic city's commercial center. Nearby restaurants, shops and rental-car agencies vie for attention from the new arrivals.

As Spain's system connects major urban centers and smaller provincial capitals, it also runs across fertile agricultural regions, including Castile-La Mancha and Andalusia, known for fine olive oils; Valencia, where citrus is prominent; and Catalonia, where vineyards produce most of the grapes fermented for cava, the region's sparkling wine.

But despite crossing both cityscapes and farmland, Spain's high-speed rail program stirred no major opposition in either urban or rural environs. When work began in the late 1980s, the nation's economy was in good shape, and Spain was readying itself to host both a world exposition and the Olympics.

In the countryside, Barcelona transportation engineer Andreu Ulied said, the Spanish government went to great lengths--and great expense--to minimize effects on farms. They skirted farmland where they could, built frequent overpasses and underpasses, and generously compensated owners who lost property to the project.

In larger Spanish cities such as Madrid, Seville, Valencia, Cordova and Barcelona, stations for high-speed trains are in already-developed central-city commercial districts, often near existing train stations to minimize disruptions. In Barcelona, preservationists' fears about a train tunnel under the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia forced extensive and expensive engineering measures to avoid damaging the iconic church.

Merchants doing business near the stations generally say high-speed rail is good for commerce, even when they are unsure if it has directly helped their own stores and restaurants.

Ulied, economist Germà Bel and others, however, say the prospects for economic gains by high-speed rail cities are murky at best, and at worst might actually bleed commerce from smaller cities along the routes between larger destinations.

Bridges, underpasses help in farmland

Valciente and Martin, both in their 70s, tend to orange trees, fruit trees and corn on their 6 1/2-acre farm. Chickens roam uncaged, pecking at the dirt around the pomegranate trees, pepper plants and cacti in the yard.

The AVE trains speed by the small farmstead several times an hour, "and it hasn't affected us at all," Valciente said.

"We don't even feel them," added Martin. Even though their house is so near the tracks, she said, the high-speed trains create no wind turbulence and are less bothersome than the slower-moving regional commuter trains because noise from the AVE trains passes so quickly.

Because conventional trains were already there when Valciente bought the farm, he doesn't think the AVE trains affected his property value, and if the neighbors have any complaints, he says he hasn't heard them. In fact, high-speed rail raised little, if any, opposition from Spain's agriculture industry, said Ulied, a critic of the nation's rampant expansion of high-speed rail lines. Ulied runs MCRIT, a prominent civil engineering, economic and urban planning firm in Barcelona that does transportation analysis for major clients, including the European Union.

"In Catalonia, one line from Tarragona to Barcelona crosses an area where there are a lot of vineyards that make a Champagne called cava," Ulied said. "It's a rich area, and the landscape has to be well managed because it is linked to this industry. But the infrastructure was well designed, and the integration with the landscape is as best as possible."

The Spanish experience contrasts sharply with the loud and growing objections to California's plans by some farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, where faith in both the state rail authority and the economy are in short supply.

Growers and ranchers say they fear losing farmland and even their homes to the tracks, they worry that tracks across their land will keep them from moving easily across their fields, and they doubt they'll be fairly compensated for their property or troubles.

In Spain, the government worked with farmers from the outset to head off such concerns, said Pedro Pérez del Campo, environmental policy director for ADIF, the government-owned company that runs the track system.

"It's in our interest to make it easier for the farmers," he said, speaking through an interpreter. Pérez del Campo said the first priority is to make sure that farmers whose properties are divided by the tracks can still reach the other side of their land.

"About every 500 meters, there is the ability to pass from one side of the rail to the other," he said. "We are obligated that if the rails were to cross your property, we have to give you the ability to cross."

That access doesn't come cheap. To prevent collisions, bridges and tunnels carry roads over or under the line. There are no at-grade crossings. Likewise, California proposes to build its high-speed line without at-grade crossings but with bridges and underpasses for selected roads and streets. It's not clear yet how many crossings would be provided for farms in the Central Valley.

If building a bridge or tunnel for a farmer is too complicated, Pérez del Campo said, it can be cheaper for ADIF to pay more than the land is worth to simply buy the remnant parcel from the owner. That eliminates the need for the farmer to cross.

Pérez del Campo was adamant that the train system hasn't hurt farming: 'Especially in the wine industry, which is very important to Spain's economy, if there were an issue, we would know by now.

"They have a lot of money and very good lawyers."

To build Spain's first high-speed line, 300 miles of track between Madrid and Seville, the Ministry of Public Works had to acquire 8,154 acres of private land for about $120 million, according to a ministry official.

For the more recent line from Madrid to Barcelona and on to the French border, land costs were much higher--about $1.5 billion for 15,694 acres in the 495-mile corridor and temporary access to another 7,194 acres.

The coastal part of the Barcelona route crosses some of Spain's densest areas, said Juan Ignacio Lema, a technical adviser for the ministry. Also, Spain had experienced a real estate boom that drove prices up, he said.

Trains bring tourists, business travelers

In the cities, high-speed trains are good for business because they drive tourism--the nation's biggest industry--and business travel, the government says.

Spain's Ministry of Public Works reports that Madrid, Ciudad Real, Cordova and Seville, all along the oldest high-speed line, saw greater growth in the number of hotel beds than the nation as a whole after the line connecting them was launched in 1992. Collectively, the four cities grew from about 70,000 hotel beds in 1990 to more than 130,000 in 2007.

In Ciudad Real, a city of 75,000 people about 100 miles south of Madrid, hotel beds and hotel stays more than doubled between 1990 and 2007. The city's population also grew at a much faster rate than the rest of Spain during the same period.

Renfe, the government-owned company that operates the AVE trains, said high-speed trains have made it easier for students and professors to commute to Ciudad Real's University of Castilla-La Mancha and for people in the town to commute daily to Madrid for work.

The public works ministry also boasts of job creation related to high-speed rail: about 115,000 jobs building it and an additional 35,000 running it. And in cities along the lines, the government said, more than a dozen companies involved in high-speed rail engineering, manufacturing, operations and maintenance are investing about $17 billion to develop 1,700 acres for offices, plants and yards near stations.

But academic researchers, including Chris Nash of England's University of Leeds, say it's difficult to measure the effects of high-speed rail on commerce, employment, and the economies of cities and regions. Most of Spain's high-speed lines are too new to have made a significant mark. And experts are still looking for ways to distinguish the influence of high-speed trains from other economic factors--especially when stations are built in already-established city centers.

"The issue of wider economic benefits remains one of the hardest to tackle," Nash wrote in a 2009 International Transport Forum article. "Such benefits could be significant, but vary significantly from case to case, so an in-depth study of each case is required."

City merchants see benefits

Merchants near the train stations mostly spoke favorably when asked about the high-speed network.

Bar Carlos Alberto is a typical Spanish bar/restaurant, perched on the corner of a busy intersection in Seville for more than 20 years. During a weekday lunch hour in November, the bar was bustling with customers nibbling on deep-fried prawns and anchovies or paper-thin slices of Iberian ham. More cured hams hung above the bar, and diners washed down their snacks with bracing-cold beer.

Manager Isabel del Morel gazed across a traffic circle at the large Santa Justa Station, where Spain's high-speed AVE trains come and go 18 times a day. Each arriving train from Madrid represents another load of potential customers looking for something to eat after their trip, before heading off for business or sightseeing.

The bar was already going strong when the train station opened in 1992 to serve the new AVE trains, del Morel said. But the trains, she added, "helped a lot because people come off the train and when they're hungry; they bring in more business."

Candy shop owner Vicente Garcia, in Valencia, has a different perspective, tempered by Europe's economic struggles.

Spain's newest high-speed service, between Madrid and Valencia, started in December 2010. There are 13 round-trips on AVE trains each day, and each train can carry up to 365 passengers.

"I think it brings more tourism to Valencia, but it's come at a time when there is an economic crisis, so that has an effect," said Garcia, who owns Casa de los Caramelos.

Through an interpreter, Garcia said he believes things would be worse without the visitors the trains bring. "I think in the long term, there will be big benefits," he said.

In 2008, high-speed trains from Madrid finally began running to Barcelona, the nation's second-largest city. Many merchants there also said anecdotally the trains have been good for business.

But construction on a tunnel to link AVE service between Barcelona's two rail stations has virtually shut down a street lined with small stores and restaurants for about two years.

On Carrer de Provença, about 250 yards from Barcelona's Sants station, Maria Radu's two businesses--Unirea, a Romanian grocery and deli, and Crama Dracula, a Romanian restaurant--are suffering, she said.

"This happened at the same time as the economic crisis," she said through an interpreter. "There was a 30-meter hole out there that was almost to our door. It had quite an effect."

Still, she said, "I suppose it's a good investment if we ever get out of this economic crisis."

"It will be worth it because someone will be grateful that someone made the sacrifice. They'll say, 'What a beautiful train system,' and how convenient and wonderful it is that we have this.'

Lines may drain smaller cities

Experts say there is potential, but no guarantee, that cities with high-speed rail stops will realize significant, lasting economic benefit.

"I don't think there's a clear relation between the high-speed rail investments and the economic performance of cities," said Ulied, the engineer. "But it largely depends on the strategies in place. If there is a strategic plan and everything is well prepared, there are chances for positive economic effects."

Bel, a professor of political economics at the University of Barcelona, said it's much more likely that smaller cities along the line between Madrid and the larger destinations suffer economically because most of the travel and commerce by residents flows to the big cities.

"High-speed rail encourages the centralization of activities in the large hubs, especially in the services sector," Bel wrote in a new book on infrastructure economics to be published this year. "The primary hubs of the network--more dynamic--can benefit at the expense of intermediary cities, which are usually the big losers of high-speed rail. For this reason, the efforts by many smaller-sized cities to get high-speed rail stations can be unfruitful and even counterproductive."

Bel simplified his ideas in an interview at his university office. "If you are the small guy, you get sucked. Most of the trips go to the big hubs, not to the small cities," he said.

In California's recession-racked San Joaquin Valley, economic development officials have high hopes for more and faster high-speed rail connections from Fresno, Bakersfield and Merced to the Bay Area and the Southland.

"There are examples in the Valley now," said Steve Geil, CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation. "You have the ACE (Altamont Commuter Express) trains that run from Stockton to Santa Clara, a two-hour train ride that people commute on every morning and afternoon. Can you imagine when we can go in an hour to the heart of San Jose from Fresno?"

"What that does is it allows you to connect with jobs that pay much better up in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, and you bring that money back home and spend it here," Geil said.

Valley residents also would gain easier access to entertainment and recreational opportunities and see increased tourism here, too, said Al Smith, president of the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce.

"If you want to go to San Francisco for a theater performance or a concert, you could jump on the train and be back that night," he said. "And more people will start coming here. The Save Mart Center (at CSU Fresno) is one of the most-used concert venues on the West Coast these days. People will be coming to Fresno to do stuff."

But Bel has his doubts. "In California, nobody in San Francisco is going to travel to Fresno to buy things," he said. "From time to time, somebody from Los Angeles will travel to Bakersfield. But they will not be going every weekend to Bakersfield."


This special project is the result of a partnership among California news organizations following the state's high-speed rail program, including The Fresno Bee, The Bakersfield Californian, California Watch, The Sacramento Bee, The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, U-T San Diego, KQED, The Merced Sun-Star, The Tribune of San Luis Obispo and The Modesto Bee.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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