Recommended article by Miquel Puig, originally published in the Catalan daily ARA on February 16, 2013. Translation by Emma Mikiel and Ailish Maher.
"The European Court of Auditors, in 2010, criticized the radial design of the network, calling it a “mistake” and censuring the fact that it had not been “based on a realistic analysis of traffic flows”.
"The extension of the AVE network is the outcome of the incredible frivolity of one government after another, first the PSOE, then the PP, then again the PSOE and, finally, once again the PP. "
"... extending the network was never supported by a single study..."
"Not only are we broke, but we insist on continuing so for as long as we have breath in our bodies. And if it is the state that must save Spain from the irrationality of its autonomous regions, then there’s no hope for us."
The great rail disaster
"To live we have to spend, but we should never mis-spend" [heard in Falset, a town in Tarragona]
In 1987 the Spanish council of ministers approved a Railway Transport Plan (RTP) as a modernization project that "definitively" rejected the European standard gauge (UIC), opted for a mixed passenger and freight infrastructure that could accommodate speeds of up to 200 km/h (250 km/h in some sections) and concentrated investment in a trunk railway network that would include the Madrid-Barcelona-Valencia triangle and lines for Madrid to Seville, Madrid to Valladolid, Valladolid to Lyon and Valladolid to the Basque Country. The planned investment was 2.1 billion pesetas [approximately 12.6 million euros], a figure that the minister Abel Caballero declared to be "the maximum investment the state could afford". The goals were ambitious: to increase long-distance passenger transit by 74% and freight transport by 40% by the year 2000.
The plan was fiercely criticized at the time because of the decision to use the Iberian track gauge, but most particularly because it would only connect 18 provincial capitals at 200-250 km/h plus a further 8 cities (including Girona and Bilbao) at 150 km/h. Nevertheless, at the time it looked like a sensible plan for a modest country — said, it must be admitted, with the benefit of 25 years of hindsight.
Work on the Madrid-Seville line began in 1988, but that same year José Barrionuevo took charge of the ministry and ordered radical changes to the project, which forced RENFE [the Spanish national railway network] to re-do plans for works already underway: the line was no longer to be mixed use but would only provide passenger services; it would now be based on the standard rather than the Iberian gauge; and the top speed would no longer be 200-250 km/h but 300-350 km/h. No feasibility study was conducted to support this about- turn, which was strictly political (i.e., irrational). The impact on costs was enormous: by the year 2000 practically the entire budget would be used up, but on little more than just this one line.
But the story does not end here. In 1994, at the proposal of the minister Josep Borrell, the National Infrastructure Plan 1993-2007 was approved, bringing with it radical changes to the previous RTP: investment would now be concentrated in high-speed lines exclusively for passengers, which (leaving aside the Madrid-Seville line, which came into operation in 1992) were Madrid-Zaragoza-Barcelona, Madrid-Valencia and Albacete, Madrid-Valladolid and the Basque Y network.
Further support for high-speed trains came from the Partido Popular (PP) government, which approved the Transport Infrastructure Plan 2000-2007. This plan extended the 470 km of the previous PSOE (socialist) government to 7,700 km and aimed to connect no fewer than all 47 provincial capitals in Spain; that said, it did exclude the Barcelona-Valencia connection. The original RTP was turned on its head: it was now an extravagant project for a country gone mad.
The AVE high-speed rail network now covers 3,000 km and is still growing. With what results? Long-distance passenger journeys have increased by just 32%, far short of the RTP projections and far less than the increase in journeys on the Rodalies commuter train network (59%), which has received far less attention. Passenger traffic on the most successful line (Madrid-Barcelona) is a mere fifth (!) that of the Paris-Lyon line. The European Court of Auditors, in 2010, criticized the radial design of the network, calling it a “mistake” and censuring the fact that it had not been “based on a realistic analysis of traffic flows”. Meanwhile, the decision to opt for passenger transport has condemned freight to oblivion. Freight transport not only failed to increase by the forecast 40% but instead fell by 32% (!); Spain, one of the larger countries in the European Union, has among the lowest figures for rail transport (at 4%). Some 19,800 large goods vehicles cross the Pyrenees daily, while only 400 freight cars do so by rail. Bearing in mind that the only way out of the current crisis is exports, the impact of this decision on competitiveness has been hugely adverse.
The extension of the AVE network is the outcome of the incredible frivolity of one government after another, first the PSOE, then the PP, then again the PSOE and, finally, once again the PP. The fact that extending the network was never supported by a single study is not, however, the most disheartening aspect. Far worse is the fact that, in exactly the same spirit, the PP and the PSOE (including the Catalan socialist party, the PSC) are now supporting another irrational railway line – a central freight corridor – to satisfy spurious territorial aspirations. Not only are we broke, but we insist on continuing so for as long as we have breath in our bodies. And if it is the state that must save Spain from the irrationality of its autonomous regions, then there’s no hope for us.