This story was originally published on Sept. 15, 2012.
BARCELONA – Money wasn’t a big obstacle when leaders in Spain decided in 1986 to build a high-speed train system.
The nation was in an era of relative prosperity and preparing for a global limelight. In 1992, when Spain launched its first high-speed rail line, Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympics, and World Expo ’92 in Seville marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas.
While control of Spain’s government has wobbled between conservative and Socialist parties over the past two decades, the continued expansion of high-speed lines has enjoyed support from both parties and the Spanish public – and hefty contributions from the European Union.
California, by contrast, is attempting to launch its high-speed train project as the state slogs through the aftermath of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, and money is all-important.
The Obama administration has committed about $3 billion in federal transportation and stimulus money to California’s project, but a political and budgetary chasm between Republicans and Democrats in Washington casts doubt on prospects for future federal support.
And a growing price tag – estimated in November at $98.5 billion to build the 520-mile stretch between Los Angeles and San Francisco – is eroding support among legislators in Sacramento and fanning public opposition in California.
In Spain, it all happened with no serious economic study to determine whether high-speed trains could attract enough riders to justify the expense, analysts say.
The desire for high-speed rail wasn’t to relieve clogged highways or congested airports, or even to operate a profitable system.
Instead, the goal was to provide a modern transportation system, with Madrid at its hub, to connect the far-flung provincial capitals with the national seat of government.
But as Europe faces a deep financial crisis, the climate is changing.
Through 2010, the nation had invested about $60 billion to build and equip its network of high-speed rail lines, according to data from Spain’s Ministry of Public Works and Transport. The government’s infrastructure plan calls for spending up to $77 billion more to expand and improve the high-speed network by 2020. Now, concern is growing about how much Spain is spending on expansion.
The nation has wasted money building ill-conceived routes to smaller cities that offer too few riders, said Andreu Ulied, whose Barcelona engineering and planning firm MCRIT works with the European Union to assess transportation plans, including high-speed rail.
“So many of the corridors that were developed, the demand was not there,” Ulied said. “So now the number of trains that run on the corridors are very few, and almost empty, which means there is no reason to keep these trains running.”
Officials from Renfe, the government-owned company that runs all of Spain’s passenger train services, say their hallmark AVE (which stands for Alta Velocidad Española) long-distance high-speed trains do sell enough tickets and have enough riders to cover the operating and maintenance costs of the system without a government subsidy.
Critics, however, are doubtful, and service has been cut back on lines with fewer passengers.
Experts say expansion has been driven by politics.
Germá Bel, a professor of political economics at the University of Barcelona – and a former member of Spain’s parliament from the PSOE, or Socialist party, from 2000 to 2004 – said expansion has been a sustained policy of both the Socialist and conservative parties since 2000, but not one with which he agreed as a politician.
In 2000, then-Prime Minister José María Aznar López, leader of the conservative People’s Party, set the goal of bringing every provincial capital to within four hours of Madrid with high-speed rail lines, Bel said.
“There was cheap money, a booming economy,” he said. “No financial restrictions, nice tax revenues because of all the housing being built. ... Great times. Who cares?
“So here comes the prime minister, who says every province capital will have this connection with the capital,” Bel added. “No matter the need, we have the money.”
But that was before the economy turned sour.
“There has been political agreement among the main parties to go on with the high-speed lines,” said Juan Ignacio Campo Jori, director of international projects for ADIF, a government-owned company that owns the high-speed train tracks and manages the rest of the nation’s rails. “But maybe we have to go slow on the level of investments because of the economic situation in the country, in Europe and the world.”
The PSOE party lost in Spain’s November elections, with the People’s Party regaining control of the government.
“Maybe the change of the government will change priorities to say, ‘OK, better than to finish one section, we are going to finish another instead,’ “ Campo Jori said, waving at a map of future extensions. “Rather than finish in 2015, maybe it’s 2017 or 2020 instead.”
A go-slow mood may be taking hold among the Spanish public, too. Several AVE passengers at stations in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia and Seville questioned the cost of rapid expansion.
“At this moment, the economy is very weak,” said Manuel Diaz, a Madrid retiree traveling to the Mediterranean coastal city of Malaga for a vacation. “Probably, it’s time to slow down the construction.”
Arriving in Valencia from Madrid for work, franchise businessman Arturo Holguin said he enjoys riding the AVE trains but worries about the cost.
“We have built a lot of kilometers of railway, but none have been very successful,” Holguin said. “It’s very important to have a very good study before you build the stuff because it’s very, very expensive. If you don’t have a minimum number of passengers, you’re going to lose money.”
Other passengers acknowledged the high cost but said high-speed trains have been a good investment for the nation.
“It is a wonderful feeling of becoming modernized so soon,” Ulied said of the public sentiment. “The experience of using the high-speed train when you used to use the bus or a poor railway, the difference is amazing. So the people are very happy, still very happy.”
Ulied tried to describe the public sentiment: “The general public, they don’t have the feeling that the money spent is coming from us. We don’t have this American point of view that the money the government has spent is ‘our’ money. ... They have this feeling that if these crazy investments are not happening in my region, they will happen in another region.”