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WSJ Discovers Spanish High-Speed

by DoDo Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 08:46:36 AM EST

Jerome a Paris called my attention to an article in the Wall Street Journal titled Spain's Bullet Train Changes Nation -- and Fast.

The occasion?
In the USA, President Obama kickstarted a federal high-speed rail funding project. One that is woefully miniscule when compared either to the whole stimulus package or to China's high-speed rail construction programme, or indeed even compared to that of much smaller Spain. On the other hand, it is a big step forward from zero, and cleverly included funding for state-of-the-art upgrades of conventional lines with a new broad definition of "HSR". (Also see How To Build an American National High Speed Rail system by BruceMcF.)

The tenor of the article?
Surprisingly positive. It doesn't go as far as ET user Montereyan (who runs the California High Speed Rail Blog), who long argued that Spain is the perfect model for (at least) California, but most of it is praise of a successful system. Still, my suspecting eyes found enough for a deconstruction – you'll get a hint at the end of their image caption already (see on the right).

CIUDAD REAL, Spain -- To sell his vision of a high-speed train network to the American public, President Barack Obama this week cited Spain, a country most people don't associate with futuristic bullet trains.

Yet the country is on track to bypass France and Japan to have the world's biggest network of ultrafast trains by the end of next year, figures from the International Union of Railways and the Spanish government show.

"Most people" don't associate Spain with futuristic bullet trains? This may be true in the USA, I don't know; but the WSJ may speak of its own ignorance. I should note that while Spain will leave behind Japan and France (and is already ahead of Germany and Italy and the rest) in network length, China will surpass everyone else already by the end of this year.

Next comes a strange line of argument:

...Many Spaniards are fiercely attached to their home regions and studies show they are unusually reluctant to live or even travel elsewhere.

But those centuries-old habits are starting to change as Spain stitches its disparate regions together with a €100 billion ($130 billion) system of bullet trains designed to traverse the countryside at up to 218 miles an hour.

This seems to be based on an off-hand comment by an interviewed professor (which I didn't quote). It is not quite correct: apart from Sevilla and Córdoba, AVE didn't much affect travel habits until very recently, while long-distance travel in Spain was growing explosively since the nineties – mostly on planes and cars... In fact, until 2007, Madrid–Barcelona was the world's busiest air link by number of flights, and busier than anything outside East Asia by passengers.

Why the emphasis on this new mobility? Could it be some set-up for an argument that the Spanish example is not applicable to the USA, with its ingrained travel habits? ...I was thinking; however, later in the article they do mention that

In the year since the Madrid-Barcelona line opened in February 2008, the AVE, costing passengers roughly the same as what they would pay to fly, has snatched half the route's air-passenger traffic.

(For a more in-depth look at the statistics, see Puente AVE.)

What's more, the article ends with an example of airlines giving up and adapting to the situation [my bolding]:

Airlines have in the past lobbied hard against high-speed rail projects... Southwest Airlines was credited with helping to kill a project to build a Texan bullet train in the 1990s.

But in Ciudad Real, an international airport has just opened its doors. Its key selling point? The AVE. The private owners of the airport have placed it next to the high speed line, hoping to offer a cheap alternative to Madrid's airports.

"If you can't beat them, join them," shrugs José Lopes, director of airlines development at Aeropuerto Central.

The WSJ article also covers the political success, which can be read as a model for American politicians fighting for such projects against heavy air/road lobby propaganda criticism. They describe how then PM Felipe González got flak for having the first line built to his hometown Sevilla, but:

But the AVE-which means "bird" in Spanish- proved to be a popular and political success. Politicians now fight to secure stations in their districts. Political parties compete to offer ever-more ambitious expansion plans. Under the latest blueprint, nine out of ten Spaniards will live within 31 miles of a high speed rail station by 2020.

At this point, I show their map of existing and in-construction lines ["Sources: Spanish government, Wall Street Journal research"] – which needed some corrections...

  • Blue: Present System [the spur to Huesca I 'deleted' is not high-speed, only three-rail; elsewhere they were lazy and drew in the parallel old line]
  • Dark red: Under Construction [all the sections I 'deleted' are only in the detailed planning phase]
  • Dashed red: Under Construction, my additions [of these, Sevilla–Cádiz is built as conventional broad-gauge that is prepared for re-gauging and conversion into full high-speed; but the same is true for sections around Alicante]

Note their confusion of Alicante and Cartagena...

Then come the negatives. Or whatever. First, a load of bollocks on freight transport:

Other, nonviolent critics say the country's massive investment in high speed rail has come at the expense of other, less-glamorous forms of transportation. Starved of funds, Spain's antiquated freight-train network has fallen into disuse, forcing businesses to move their goods around by road. That means the Spanish economy is unusually sensitive to changes in the price of crude oil.
  1. I protest any claim that any investment is at the expense of a (non-rival) one. I would say that it's Spain's unmentioned, also massive investment into new highways that's at the expense of freight transport on rail.

  2. Mental images of rusty old diesels rattling along grass-covered tracks at walking speed notwithstanding, Spain has no "antiquated freight-train network". The conventional lines are mixed-traffic, and many are upgraded. The locomotives aren't too old either, and new ones are bought (also see From Universal to Modular (2/2)).

    But, there is certainly a problem of under-investment, leading to a very low share of rail in freight transport. The conventional Spanish network wasn't too extensive to begin with, direct connections to new industries lacking, intermodal centres few and between – and, last but not least, longer-distance international traffic is made difficult by the gauge change at the border. Still, it's not that nothing happens. There is a programme to build port connections, in particular an entire new line into Bilbao's seaport. And the entire Spanish network is supposed to be re-gauged... sometime.

  3. The ratio of freight transport on rail is very low in Spain, but, sadly, it is low in the rest of Europe, too. Road carries the bulk of it everywhere, so Spain is not special in any oil price dependency.

  4. When speaking of road freight transport's oil price dependency, the WSJ must be intentionally obstuse to forget about fuel taxes. In Spain, like in the rest of the EU, fuel taxes higher than those in the USA reduce the effect of oil price changes of fuel prices – thus, in fact, methinks Spanish transport is less dependent on fuel price changes than that in the USA.

Next comes a theme you'd expect from the WSJ: lambasting public investment! First, let's jump forward again, to the earlier quoted before-before-last paragraph, now with the framing that I deleted re-inserted [my italics]:

Airlines have in the past lobbied hard against high-speed rail projects, seeing them as unfair, government-subsidized competition. Southwest Airlines was credited with helping to kill a project to build a Texan bullet train in the 1990s.

Because tanking tax-free kerosene at airports built with massive public funds is not government subsidy. And banish the thought that, rather than a naive genuine view, maybe the airline's claim was dishonest self-interest propaganda. Or that the Texas Triangle would in all likelihood have been profitable, paying back the government subsidies. Or the thought that the fear of losing passengers to a superior rival mode would move them to kill it, whatever the funding situation. Not to mention the unnamed killer of the project, the then governor, a certain George W. Bush.

Now back to the key claim on economics:

Critics say the AVE will never stop losing money. Even its backers say high-speed rail can only be economical if the state bears much of the construction costs.
  1. Who are these unnamed critics?

  2. Since when is the AVE losing money? The Madrid–Sevilla line became profitable after five years. On the long run, most of the newer lines should turn out that way, too.

  3. Finally, why is this claim: "high-speed rail can only be economical if the state bears much of the construction costs" presented as a criticism? If it is economical, what is the problem? Perhaps the problem is ideological?...

  4. Implicit in all this is also short-termism: if there is one big benefit in public funding of high-speed rail, it is that the state is both willing to consider a long time for return of investment, and is capable of ensuring a stable financing framework on the long term.

To be fair, the paragraph continues with the listing of benefits that balance this supposed negative:

But they say the train's benefits-lower greenhouse-gas emissions, less road congestion and, in Spain's case, greater social cohesion and economic mobility-make it an investment worth making.

Also, the article mentions a further indirect benefit – bringing business to smaller cities with wayside stations:

The AVE was originally designed to compete with the airplane for commutes between major cities around 300 miles apart. But the biggest, and least expected, effect of the AVE has been on the smaller places in between.

Perhaps the most striking example is Ciudad Real, a scrappy town 120 miles south of Madrid in Castilla-La Mancha which, Mr. Ureña says, "had completely vanished from the map." ...

Now it has an AVE station that puts it just 50 minutes away from Madrid, and Ciudad Real has come alive. The city has attracted a breed of daily commuters that call themselves "Avelinos." The AVE helped attract a host of industries to Ciudad Real, and the train is full in both directions.

While all this is good to hear, some footnotes are in place.

  1. I wouldn't call this a "least expected" effect. The stations were there, for long there have been medium-distance trains that terminated in Ciuad Real, so the builders must have quite obviously thought that there'll be demand...

  2. The article doesn't mention that Spanish railways specifically focused on further boosting this traffic, something that was further enhanced in the Zapatero era. There is now a separate brand, "AVE Media Distancia", with purpose-built trains and cheaper fares, for this medium-distance high-speed commuter traffic.

  3. Looking beyond Spain, boosting wayside small cities is actually a common selling point for high-speed rail.

  4. It should be noted, however, that the effect doesn't always materialise. There are some badly sited stations with bad local transport connections – usually built more to get local political consent than out of expectations of any reasonable traffic – that stand empty. And in some cases, the effect is the opposite: for example, in South Korea, for some wayside cities the KTX served to draw businesses away to Seoul than the other way.

As a final point, the article omits to mention one significant point for US readers: the geographical similarity (at least to the place of the most serious US high-speed project at present, California). The challenges for construction, the population situation, and the state of railways within the entire transport system when the programs started, were not too dissimilar. (This is what Montereyan pointed out repeatedly on ET and his own blog, so credit to him.)

In conclusion, I'll repeat from the intro: this article is a surprisingly positive appraisal of a model for high-speed rail construction, coming from the orthodox 'free-market' WSJ.

:: :: :: :: ::

Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

As for the claim that "Spaniards are... unusually reluctant to live or even travel elsewhere", how much truth is to that? (There may be, but I wonder if there is any comparative statistics behind the claim.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Aug 20th, 2009 at 01:42:12 PM EST
Statistics? This is a newspaper, hence it doesn't sell statistics but stories, that is narratives. Truth has nothing to do with it.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Thu Aug 20th, 2009 at 02:24:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... associate Spain with. I will always associate Spain with the early 30's of Belle époque where a young Penélope Cruz is so incredibly hot.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Aug 20th, 2009 at 09:54:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm thinking of posting this at Big Orange, too. So,
  1. what would you change for that readership (beyond taking out of the tooth of the above-the-fold Obama criticism I guess...),
  2. when do I best post it (tomorrow or over the weekend, what time of the day)?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Aug 20th, 2009 at 03:27:30 PM EST
I could post it under my name to attract a few more readers; in any case I'd suggest to add explicit links to eugene's series as well  as to BruceMcF's diaries on the topic.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Aug 20th, 2009 at 03:39:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That'd be cool, especially as I will be off-line fur much of tomorrow!

I now included a plug to BruceMcF.

For the dKos version, I suggest

  1. replacing "One that is woefully miniscule when compared either to..." with the neutral "One that is modest when compared to..."
  2. replacing "ET user Montereyan" with "Kossack eugene" (also near the end!),
  3. I'm not quite sure how the current into part limit ("3 paragraphs") works on dKos, but the image may have to be brought below the fold (with the text referring to it changed accordingly),
  4. remove all dKos-unaccepted table, table cell, span tags and hspace, align, style modifiers from the two images; but put the second image and its aption in a blockquote.

Or I could do this all and send in email tomorrow morning.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Aug 20th, 2009 at 05:45:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Let's discuss tomorrow. It's a bit late for me to post it now.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Aug 20th, 2009 at 06:39:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I meant to discuss it now/post tomorrow, because I won't be around after tomorrow morning.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Aug 20th, 2009 at 06:42:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]

and already on the reclist! Good.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 05:47:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Huh, eugene/Montereyan pointed out what I missed: this WSJ article is not new but from 20 April! How did you found it?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 07:18:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Spain looks geographically perfect place to build high speed trains. The capital is right in the middle of the country. You can get there by train from all over the country in couple of hours.
by kjr63 on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 06:17:37 AM EST
Hm? There are lots of mountains to cross, and the capital is not a 10 million megapolis with corresponding high demand -- France is much more ideal from those aspects.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 08:48:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Speaking of mountains to cross: while Spain already has the world's fourth longest rail tunnel on the Madrid-Valladolid high-speed line (the 28,418.66 m long Guadarrama Tunnel), the boring of the main tubes finished on another giant last month: the 24,667 m Pajares Tunnel, across the coastal mountains on the future León-Oviedo-Gijón line. (This will be the world's 7th longest when it opens in 2012 or 2013.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 12:38:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...in the form of another diary-in-a-comment.

The political effect being that the two main political parties, rather than distinguishing themselves by camping on the pro and contra sides respectively, compete both on the pro side:

Political parties compete to offer ever-more ambitious expansion plans.

Some part of these offers is phony, some not. Analysing them, I see three categories of going more ambitious:

  1. Add entire new lines to the general plan. Such offers are rare, and are usually rather phony, because these lines will be in an uncertain future, they won't exist even on the drawing boards at the end of the next legislative period. But, once a line plan is brought up by one party, the idea won't die: locals who'd stand to benefit will demand it, and the opposition party will blame the governmnt for forgetting about it.

    Example 1: back in the Aznar years, a spur from Sevilla to Huesca was proposed. Then every few years, the reigning government said "now we'll get real serious" about it, but there was no definite date, only slow progress now and then (feasibility study, environmental study, route selection, local consultations, some of these repeatedly). But a few months ago, the Zapatero government finally moved to tender the detailed planning (which is usually the stage of no turning back in Spain).

    Example 2: as the line to fit its election rhetoric that the AVE network should be made less Madrid-centered, the current Zapatero government brought up the plan of a line along Spain's Northern coast. That being mountainous, it won't be cheap, and demand would be relatively low (all the cities the line would connect are under one million inhabitants) - this line makes sense only as part of the network, not in itself. Indeed nothing happened since Zapatero took office -- but the line continues to be in the general plans.

  2. Promise to accelerate construction. This, again, usually tends to be phony: if all the offers of acceleration had been kept, the whole network would have been built already.... But, what these kinds of promises do achieve is maintaining construction at a high level. Rather preferable to promises to maintain the level of construction and then let it wind down in reality, as happened in all the high-speed pioneering countries (Japan, Italy, France, Germany).

  3. Upgrading existing plans. The extent of the general plan didn't change much over the last one and half decades: the aim is to connect every regional capital and large city. However, what is planned for each relation could progress with time.

    Example 1: do you see that gap in the in-construction part of the Northwestern line (to Galicia)? (Between the part drawn in by WSJ and the part I added, above Portugal.) That's a descent from a summit tunnel. The original plan was to do a simple line upgrade there, to a 180 km/h mixed-traffic line. However, that plan wasn't too attractive, whjat's more: construction would have disrupted traffic for longer periods. So, this spring, the Zapatero government decided to build it as a 300-350 km/h line, too. Progres to detailed planning is expected to be swift.

    Example 2: Do you see the gap along the Mediterranean between Tarragona (near Barcelona) and Castejón? There, the entire conventional line from Valencia was upgraded to 200-220 km/h in the nineties, with rails laid on special sleepers allowing easy re-gauging. However, parts of the line are so busy that the Zapatero government started a feasibility study into building a parallel true high-speed line all the way.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 09:33:24 AM EST
a spur from Sevilla to HuescaHuelva was proposed
Huesca is in the Aragonese Pyrenees, north of Zaragoza. Huelva is on the coast, West of Sevilla

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 10:34:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah, thanks for spotting that mess-up. Yes, I meant Huelva -- Huesca is the one served by normal-gauge AVE trains on three-rail tracks mentioned in the map caption.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 12:11:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
the gap along the Mediterranean between Tarragona (near Barcelona) and CastejónCastellón
Castejón does exist but it is not a provincial capital but a town East of Zaragoza.

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 10:37:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Wherever that typo came from...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 12:14:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Must have a line running through Canfranc

Ozymandias, eat your heart out...

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 10:48:45 AM EST
Now that you mention it; thewre was an Aznar-era project to raise the Canfranc line from the dead as part of a normal-gauge freight line, all the way down to Castellón(!). It foundered on French obstruction: there was unwillingness to restore the line on the French side. So trucks continue to roll across the narrow valley, and complaints of locals are ignored, occasional road blocks dissolved. (Nevertheless, Spain is upgrading the Zaragoza-Teruel section in a re-gauge-able way, so only Teruel-Castellón and Canfranc-Huesca will not be realised on the Spanish side.)

In its place, there is a tentative intergovernmental agreement about a much bigger (and in all likelihood much less economical) Trans-Pyrenees project a bit further to the West, one involving a 40 km tunnel. But I wouldn't expect digging to start in ten years, if ever...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 12:23:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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