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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Who are these unnamed critics?
- 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.
- 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?...
- 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.
- 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...
- 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.
- Looking beyond Spain, boosting wayside small cities is actually a common selling point for high-speed rail.
- 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.