This story was originally published on Jan. 15, 2012.
MADRID – It’s 8 a.m. at the Puerto de Atocha train station in central Madrid. Business travelers armed with cellphones and laptops, and pleasure travelers toting cameras and carry-on bags, make their way through security to board the high-speed trains that connect Spain’s capital to cities across the nation.
The sprawling station, which dates to the 1890s, serves not only the AVE, or Alta Velocidad Española high-speed trains, but also the city’s metro subway and commuter trains. It sits amid a bustling district of offices, hotels, restaurants, museums and other businesses.
This is the vision shared by backers of California’s proposed, but controversial, high-speed rail system. And there are lessons – from both successes and mistakes – that California can learn from Spain’s 20-year history with high-speed trains.
Top among them is just how hard it is to be self-sufficient, even when conditions seem ideal, as they have in Spain.
Despite popular and political support from the very beginning, the AVE rail system faces a tougher future in the midst of Europe’s financial crisis.
Already, service between some smaller cities has been cut because too few people ride the trains. Some wonder if it is anything more than a luxury commuter service.
Among the growing fraternity of nations with high-speed trains, Spain is considered the best geographic and cultural analogy to California and its train plans. The long-distance AVE trains and their regional cousins Avant and Alvia, which share the high-speed tracks, connect major urban centers but pass through smaller cities and stretches of rural farmland, just like what is planned for California.
They’ve gotten people out of their cars and off airplanes, sliced travel times and attracted millions of riders a year – just what California rail boosters hope will happen here.
Since the late 1980s, Spain has spent about $60 billion to build and equip its high-speed network.
President Barack Obama touted Spain’s system as a model for American high-speed rail plans when he announced billions of dollars in federal investments in April 2009.
And Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood voiced admiration for the Spanish network when he visited Spain last summer.
“We know that you are the experts. We know that you have developed a state-of-the-art system here,” he said. “It’s not lost on anyone that when President Obama proposed this high-speed rail plan, he specifically called out Spain as an example for America to emulate.”
Spain’s system, however, was launched in conditions much different from what California is experiencing today. Political unity, a thriving economy and the spotlight of international events – a world exposition in Seville and the Olympic Games in Barcelona – all provided an impetus for Spain to embark on its high-speed journey.
About the only major point of contention was where the first line from Madrid should go (Seville won over Barcelona), not whether it should happen at all.
While Spain continues to build and expand its system through both good and bad economic times, cost is a key concern in cash-strapped California. Planners are wrestling with a price tag that has doubled over the past two years and grappling with the thorny issue of where to get the money to build it when both state and federal budgets are under strain.
Unlike in California, Spain’s high-speed rail effort has not been a public or political punching bag. It’s rapidly expanded to become Europe’s most extensive high-speed network – and third only to China and Japan’s worldwide – while facing remarkably little of the NIMBYism, farm opposition or politics fermenting throughout California.
The people who ride the AVE trains love them. Merchants who do business near the stations in rail-connected cities such as Barcelona, Seville and Cordova say they generally believe the trains are good for their cities, good for business and good for the country. The project has been supported by both conservative- and Socialist-led governments.
But with Spain and the rest of Europe mired in a lingering economic crisis, those attitudes may slowly be changing.
Economists and engineers acknowledge that the system is well engineered, well built and state of the art and that the service is top notch, comfortable, safe and punctual.
Despite assurances from the Spanish government that the long-distance AVE trains operate without a public subsidy, academics and analysts don’t believe that even the busiest high-speed route – between Madrid and Barcelona – musters enough riders to cover its operating costs, much less the billions of euros invested to build the infrastructure over the past 20 years.
Speed and comfort
On an overcast November morning, rain clouds hang low in the sky over the olive orchards of Castile-La Mancha, the territory of central Spain. As the 10 a.m. AVE train from Madrid to Seville races gracefully on its steel tracks, trees and structures flash past the window – the only tangible indication to passengers that they are moving at more than 180 mph.
In a car, the roughly 300-mile drive to Seville, in the southwestern region of Andalusia, would take about five to six hours. This eight-car, French-built Alstom Class 100 train can hold up to 332 passengers and cross the distance in less than 2 1/2 hours.
Inside the passenger cars, the ride is smooth and quiet. The seats have plenty of legroom and a power outlet for electronics. Attendants give earbuds to passengers so they can listen to music or watch movies. About the only convenience lacking is Wi-Fi Internet access.
Fewer than half of the seats on this train – one of 21 daily high-speed AVE or Alvia trains to Seville – are occupied, so there is plenty of room to spread out, even in tourist class.
Tourist-class tickets on the Madrid-Seville train run between $56 and $112, depending on the departure time.
At one of four small tables in the car, a young woman from Madrid taps away at her laptop keyboard, occasionally pausing to answer her cellphone to field a call from work.
Esther San Felipe, a pharmaceutical representative, says she enjoys taking the AVE train, riding it to Seville about once a month for business.
“It’s a luxury; it’s so comfortable,” she says.
She breaks off to answer her insistent phone. “And you can work when you’re on the train,” she continues after hanging up.
There are certainly cheaper ways to get around the country. A bus ticket from Madrid to Seville costs about $27, but takes between 6 1/2 and eight hours. Airline flights are faster to cover the distance and can be about the same price or less.
“But you have to get to the airport one or two hours early, find a place to park, go through security and then wait at the airport at the other end,” San Felipe added. “For just a little bit more money, you can have something much better.”
The ridership challenge
San Felipe is hardly alone in her enthusiasm for the high-speed trains.
The Madrid-to-Seville line became Spain’s first high-speed train route when it opened in early 1992, coinciding with Seville hosting Expo 1992.
Renfe, the Spanish government-owned company that operates all passenger trains in the country – including the AVE, Avant and Alvia high-speed trains – under the umbrella of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, reports that by the end of 1993, the first full year of high-speed service, AVE trains accounted for more than half of all passenger travel between Madrid and Seville. Automobile traffic, in the meantime, fell from 60% of the volume to about 34%.
For more than a decade, Madrid-Seville was Spain’s only operating high-speed line, and ridership grew modestly, reaching about 4.8 million by 2002. New lines to Lleida, Zaragoza and Huesca opened in 2003 and to Tarragona, Valladolid and Malaga in 2006 and 2007, but they didn’t drive much growth.
It wasn’t until high-speed tracks opened to Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city, four years ago that ridership experienced a real growth spurt.
Total high-speed ridership on the long-distance and regional trains peaked at nearly 17 million in 2009. Ridership has since tapered off as Spain, like the rest of Europe and much of the world, copes with economic troubles.
Spain now has nearly 1,740 miles of high-speed tracks, lines that serve as spokes with Madrid as the hub. By 2015, the nation plans to nearly double the miles of track.
Over the next decade, the Spanish government plans to spend up to $77 billion more to expand and improve its high-speed lines, said Juan Ignacio Campo Jori, director of international projects for ADIF, another government-owned company that manages and operates Spain’s railway infrastructure.
But with no sign of Europe’s financial crisis letting up, some say the government needs to slow its spending.
In the early years of developing high-speed trains, Spain was “in kind of a booming situation,” said Andreu Ulied, director of a noted engineering and consulting firm in Barcelona. “Now the situation is completely different.”
In recent years, the European Union funneled about $17 billion in grants and billions more in low-interest loans to Spain to improve its high-speed rail.
But Ulied said that will end in a couple of years, leaving Spain to bear the entire cost of its ambitious expansion plans.
Ulied and Germá Bel, a professor of political economics at the University of Barcelona, agree that none of the Spanish high-speed rail routes has enough riders to make the system financially sustainable.
“There is no question whether can cover its costs. It cannot,” Bel said. “It actually has not recovered one single euro from the infrastructure investment. The government claims they are recovering the operating costs, but the numbers are not clear.”
The busiest high-speed lines in the world are capable of making money, Bel said, including between Paris and Lyon, where about 25 million people ride the French TGV trains each year, and the Japanese Shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Osaka, which draw about 130 million riders a year.
“But this is not the case with any single line in Spain,” Bel said. “The most crowded operation is Madrid-Barcelona, and it has not even had 6 million people in a year.”
Ulied said Spain’s efforts have been based not on serious economic analysis, but on political desires to connect the rest of the nation to Madrid. “We had the money, we had the ability to do so, so we did it,” he said. “The engineering was very good. The quality of the service is excellent. And everything is nice, very nice. The problem is that it is luxurious. Maybe it is too good for us.”
“The question is maybe the whole thing was partially a mistake,” Ulied said of lines to smaller cities with fewer riders. “We didn’t need all these lines, actually.”
The newest route
The latest high-speed line to open in Spain is the 243-mile route between Madrid and Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast. The AVE trains have sliced the travel time between the two cities from about 3 1/2 hours by car to just more than 1 1/2 hours by train.
Valencia’s new Joaquin Sorolla train station sits near the old Estació del Nord that serves regional commuter trains and the city’s subway. Just a few blocks away is the Carrer de Cristóbal Colón, the main street of a bustling shopping district of department stores, boutiques and restaurants.
Maria Jose Martin, who manages the nearby C&A clothing store, said the company typically sends people on the train for business trips because it’s cheaper than flying.
“I think it’s good,” she said through an interpreter. “It brings Madrid and Valencia closer together and allows for more flow of people between the two cities.”
And, she added, the trains are good for Valencia’s business community because they bring more tourists on day trips.
But Martin acknowledged that “the ticket price is still pretty high” for families on holiday.
On a rainy morning, Jacinto Calvillo is among the passengers waiting at the station to board the train for a business trip. “I have a car for work, but I like to take the train,” Calvillo said through an interpreter.
Calvillo said he believes high-speed rail has been a good investment for the nation “to bring together or connect the big cities in Spain, but not necessarily covering the smaller distances.”
“The main disadvantage is that they haven’t prioritized which lines are most important, so a lot of money has been spent on lines that aren’t as important,” he said. “But it has created greater movement of business, more connections and more commerce.”
The train station in Valencia, like stations in other cities, plays host to various retail stores and restaurants that serve travelers – including the ubiquitous golden arches of McDonald’s. It looks and smells like any other McDonald’s – kids tugging on their parents’ sleeves asking for a Happy Meal and people munching on burgers and fries.
A few hours later, aboard an afternoon train back to Madrid, a visit to the operator’s cab offers a rare driver’s-eye view of the high-speed ride. It’s quiet in the passenger cars, but on the way to the cockpit, there is a deafening roar in the locomotive that houses the powerful electric motors.
Jose Jimenez, a 30-year train operator for Renfe, sits at the driver’s console of the Spanish-built Talgo AVE Class 112 train, which can carry up to 365 passengers. Jimenez occasionally flips on the windshield wipers to clear the raindrops, giving a clear view of just how fast the train is moving.
The train’s speed increases steadily as Jimenez nudges a small joystick throttle with his left thumb and forefinger: 155 mph, then 160, 165, 175. The power lines flash overhead, and the concrete ties of the railroad tracks fly under the train at a dizzying clip if you stare too long.
Now the speed is 180, 183, 184, 185. Finally, Jimenez looks over his shoulder, smiling broadly, and nods with pride as his electronic display flashes 302 kilometers per hour – 187 mph.
Where to begin?
The Talgo trains – nicknamed Pato (Duck in English) because of their streamlined, elongated noses – are capable of doing 205 mph, but the maximum operating speed is supposed to be 186 mph.
No doubt that technicians for both Renfe and ADIF, sitting in front of computer consoles in Madrid, knew exactly when and where Jimenez bent the speed limit. Sensors embedded along the rail line and GPS sensors aboard the trains feed a constant stream of real-time information back to the control centers.
Large screens on the walls of Renfe’s control center at the Puerto de Atocha station show operators the exact location and speed of each train in the system, duplicating the information on the smaller computer monitors. Video screens also show trains as they enter and leave stations.
The Atocha center monitors more than 90 train trips daily to cities in eastern and southern Spain, said José Espada Rodelgo, manager of Renfe’s operations coordination center. With that many trains coming and going, the real-time data is crucial to managing schedules and making sure the trains are running on time, he said.
Renfe managers prize customer satisfaction and on-time performance for their trains. On the Madrid-Seville route, for instance, the company promises to refund passengers their full fare if the train arrives at its destination more than five minutes late.
But at least one scheduled train could not be saved. Earlier this year, Renfe shut down its direct once-daily AVE train between Cuenca, Albacete and Toledo, bypassing Madrid. That lone train attracted only a handful of passengers a day – not nearly enough to justify keeping the service alive.
“These are small cities, so it is not possible to run a train for only seven or 10 passengers,” said Jose Domingo Carreño López, Renfe’s manager of technical standards.
While they acknowledge that high-speed rail is an expensive undertaking, officials with Renfe, the train operating company, and ADIF, which manages the infrastructure and tracks, say the system has helped Spain boost its technological capacity, improve its manufacturing efficiency and export its expertise to other countries.
“Our Spanish technology has increased because of the high-speed,” said Campo Jori, ADIF’s international projects manager. “We started by learning from the French, the Germans and the Japanese, but now we have our own technology. Our companies are benefiting from 1992 to now because of high-speed.”
Led by Renfe and ADIF, a consortium of more than a dozen Spanish technology and construction companies recently won the contract to build and operate Saudi Arabia’s first high-speed train line from Medina to Mecca. “We have companies that do extensive engineering, telecom, signaling, rolling stock, construction and management,” Campo Jori said.
And Spain is among the high-speed nations that hope to participate in construction of California’s proposed 520-mile line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
California officials, armed with about $3 billion in federal stimulus and transportation funds from the Obama administration and $3 billion in money from Proposition 1A – a 2008 bond measure – want to start construction this year on a 120-mile stretch from north of Fresno to Bakersfield.
Future sections would extend toward San Francisco or Los Angeles if more money becomes available. But no high-speed trains would operate on the line until it extends to the Bay Area or the Los Angeles basin.
Backers in California tout the potential environmental benefits – reduced air pollution and less freeway congestion – of getting people out of gasoline- and diesel-fueled automobiles and onto electric-powered trains.
Even the enthusiastic Spanish officials, however, are curious about the logic of starting in the sparsely populated middle of California. The environmental benefits won’t be realized, they said, if the cities along the first line don’t have enough people to generate ridership.
“You need to have either Los Angeles or San Francisco,” said Pedro Pérez del Campo, environmental policy director for ADIF. “They should build it where it will have an impact so that people will support it.”
Building the system in the first place has significant disruptive effects before any benefits can be realized, Pérez del Campo said.
“It can be a failure or a fiasco if it starts in two cities that aren’t as well populated or if there isn’t as much attraction,” he said. “The lesson is to do it right the first time, or extending it will not be possible because the public won’t be in agreement. The people here have been in agreement.”