A Spanish train may have created the perfect solution to long-distance travel
In less than 20 years, Spain turned its joke of a rail network into the best high-speed system on the planet. And the real revolution happened once people stepped off the rails.
Fri, Apr 29 2011 at 4:14 PM EST
QUICK COMMUTE: A Spanish AVE train awaits long-distance and commuter passengers alike. (Photo: Zuma Press)
In Part 1 of this examination of the prospects for American high-speed rail, I pointed out how the lessons of the nineteenth century – prominently splashed across the op-ed page of last Sunday’s New York Times – might have less to tell us than lessons learned on faster tracks in Europe in this young century.
So to reiterate: What lessons might you learn riding Spain’s new high-speed rails?
Well, the first thing I learned riding Spain’s high-speed AVE train a couple years ago is that it tends to win riders not because it lowers their carbon footprint and reduces their dependency on oil (which it does) but because it’s damn near the perfection of long-distance travel. It’s fast, efficient and comfortable. You can arrive ten minutes before departure, and you don’t need to take off your shoes or submit to a full-body search or throw out your water bottle. (And this, as I noted, is in a country with a long-active terrorist movement that explicitly targets trains.) You can work on-board, make some calls, have a drink or two. You arrive in the center of your destination city.
My first trip on the AVE was Malaga to Madrid, from the distant Costa del Sol in the far south to the center of the country, crossing the arid Andalusian countryside and many miles of empty Castilian plain along the way. (I passed through very sparsely populated spaces, is my point – North American high-speed-rail critics like to say it’s all well and good for densely populated countries like France and Japan, but not for America.)
The trip took two and a half hours. That’s 550 kilometers – about 340 miles – in two and a half hours. That’s just a little less than the 390 miles between Boston and Washington, D.C. So imagine downtown Boston to downtown D.C. in three hours flat. No body searches, no one-hour-before-departure arrivals, fewer delays, no expensive cab ride to an airport an hour out of the city in rush-hour traffic. Consider what that might do to the popularity of rail vs. commuter air travel in the region.
This indeed has been one of the fastest and most profound impacts of high-speed rail in Spain: it has destroyed the business case for short-hop commuter air travel, especially between Spain’s two largest cities. Madrid to Barcelona was, until 2009, one of the busiest air travel corridors on Earth. When the AVE line between the two cities opened, air passenger rates declined by 46 percent within months. And it did so for the simple reason that it was categorically better than air travel.
Sure, there might’ve been a Spaniard or two on-board for the altruistic reason that his carbon footprint was 83 percent smaller on the train than on the plane, but the real reason was simple comfort and convenience. At roughly the same cost, you got where you were going quicker and easier. There are busy transport corridors across America – not just Boston to Washington, which Richard White conceded in his axe-grinding Times piece, but also Chicago to Detroit and Dallas to Houston and, yes, Los Angeles to San Francisco – where high-speed rail would quickly win the same following.
Where the Spanish parallel gets interesting, though, is in the finer details. The Madrid-to-Barcelona run ain’t the half of it. The real excitement’s happening between the terminii.
So try this on as a precedent: Imagine some charismatic but controversial president starts dumping large sums into public works, pushes through some ambitious rail project, and decides to lay the centerpiece not between the two largest cities, but instead from, say, New York to Pittsburgh. Imagine further, just to deepen the parallel, that he’s from Pittsburgh. Imagine the outrage, the many synonyms for “boondoggle” and “pork barrel” being find-and-replaced into op-eds across the USA.
And now imagine further still that the biggest unexpected impact of this line is that it turns Allentown into a thriving commuter suburb and Harrisburg into a conference town.
This, more or less, is what the AVE has done in Spain. The first line ever built in the network, in the early 1990s, ran from Madrid to the Spanish president’s hometown of Seville, an historic have-not regional burgh of no real industrial or corporate import. But an amazing thing happened when they completed that first Madrid-to-Seville line – people started hopping off at the first stop out of Madrid, a tired old town called Ciudad Real. It used to be a couple hours from the capital on bad roads with horrific rush-hour gridlock in and out of Madrid, but with the arrival of the AVE it was suddenly 45 comfortable minutes from the center of town. The result was a total transformation of the city’s whole sense of its place in the world. (In my parallel analogy above, this is the Allentown part of the story.)
The Wall St. Journal covered this in depth a couple years back; when I went there myself, the urban planning profs at the local university – including the head of the department, who commutes out from Madrid every day – called this “the real revolution” in high-speed rail. For the first time in at least a century, people wanted to go to Ciudad Real, and stay there. Now they’ve got new commuter developments out by the AVE station, and what’s more they can attract a higher caliber of doctor and engineer and university professor at their own businesses and institutions, because those people can commute out from Madrid.
Similar transformations are now underway everywhere AVE stations have been established. The postcard-pretty tourist-and-retiree town of Segovia, formerly several hours on a winding mountain highway from Madrid, is now 32 minutes by AVE and attracting small entrepreneurial businesses with cheap rents and an enviable quality of life. Zaragoza, an aging second-tier industrial city midway between Barcelona and Madrid, has become a booming business hub – its conference and trade show traffic has tripled since the AVE arrived. (Combine Segovia and Zaragoza and you arrive in the general vicinity of the Harrisburg reference in my earlier analogy.)
Now, in all likelihood the impact of high-speed trains in America would be somewhere between this false boondoggle-renaissance dichotomy. If we’re looking for useful precedents, though, the smart money’s probably on California’s Central Valley and all those other underserviced places between rail hubs being more like the Castilian plain in 2011 than like their own selves in 1885.