Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Sunday, 31 may 2009 | New York Times


A Public Reply to the New York Times


El diari New York Times ha publicat l’article Spain’s High-Speed Rail Offers Guideposts for U.S., on explica què ha funcionat i què no en els trens a alta velocitat a l’estat espanyol.  Des del Col·lectiu Emma volem completar aquesta informació amb lliçons addicionals que es poden extreure de l’experiència a l’estat espanyol.  Uns exemples són els riscos d’excedir els pressupostos inicials o les oportunitats de corrupció que es generen, com va succeir amb l’AVE inicial Madrid-Sevilla.  Altres riscos són la manca de racionalitat econòmica d’algunes rutes que mai seran rentables, o no aprofitar per fer infraestructures llargament reclamades, com el corredor per l’arc mediterrani o invertir en altres infraestructures amb major ús i rendibilitat social, com els trens de rodalies.  En conclusió, basat en l’experiència espanyola, cal tenir present els costos i rendibilitat d’aquests projectes, i assegurar que no es malbaraten recursos públics o que no es deixen de fer altres projectes més prioritaris.





As it is rightly pointed out in your article Spain’s High-Speed Rail Offers Guideposts for U.S. (May 30, 2009), “the Spanish experience could hold lessons in what works and what does not”. Since the officials quoted in the article have already emphasized what does work, we will concentrate on a few pitfalls that the U.S. might want to avoid.

Enormous cost overruns, to begin with. In 1988, the original Madrid-Seville line was budgeted at the hefty equivalent of just under 1.6 billion euros ($2.2 billion at today’s exchange rate). By 1992 the officially stated costs had risen to approximately 2.7 billion euros ($3.77 billion). Of course the final real cost could be well over that.

Projects on such a lavish scale also tend to offer grand opportunities for corruption. In one case that came to court in 1994 regarding irregularities in the construction of that same Madrid-Seville line, the figure of 18 million euros ($25 million) in illegal commissions to suppliers was mentioned. Incidentally, even though the wrongdoings were proven, only one minor political actor was sentenced to a six-month jail term in 2008.

The Spanish high-speed rail network has been planned on a hub-and-spoke model, where the city of Madrid is taken as the center of things. Other cities – seemingly chosen at random – are linked to the capital, but not to each other, as is the case in Germany, for instance. From a wider European perspective the logical choice would have been to begin the rail network close the northern border with a link to the French system. That would mean taking as a starting point the northern industrial centers – Barcelona and Bilbao – rather than the country’s political capital, and then linking those cities to other important economic areas around Zaragoza and Valencia before traveling to Madrid and other points south. A clue to why it wasn´t done this way can be found in every Spanish government´s obsession with national cohesion. It has been publicly stated, most recently by President Rodríguez Zapatero, that an important purpose of the high-speed train was to better integrate the country. Big infrastructure projects are often used by governments as an equalizing tool, and in Spain that doesn´t necessarily mean raising the standards of, say, Andalusia, but rather, and most importantly, trying to lower them for the Basques and the Catalans, whose economic advancement is seen as a threat to national unity. In any case, in the choice of cities that will be linked to the capital, political considerations have always taken precedence over economic ones, and when economic rationality takes a distant second place to political interests one can easily end up building trains to nowhere and then having to find the money to keep them running, at least until the purported beneficial side-effects finally deign to appear.

The article concedes that only two routes in the world manage to break even. Even admitting that profitability should not be the only consideration, a distinction still needs to be made between projects that might pay their way and those that are fated to be hopeless money pits. This tends to create grossly unfair situations. Take for example the fare from Madrid to Seville, which comes to about 12.47 euros ($17.45) for every 100 kilometers; on the Madrid-Barcelona route, where demand is higher and the public can be squeezed accordingly, the ticket runs to around 20 euros ($28) for every 100 kilometers. A neat 60% difference!

Finally, when spending huge sums of public money on infrastructures, it’s always a good idea to think if that money couldn’t be better spent somewhere else. Without abandoning the field of rail transport, or the Spanish example, a couple of alternatives come to mind. Upgrading the crumbling commuter train systems around some major cities, for instance, which are used daily by many more passengers than the present high-speed lines can ever hope to attract. A second one refers to the so-called Mediterranean corridor – all the way from Eastern Andalusia in the South to the French border in the North – along which 40% of Spanish exports find their way to the northern markets, mostly by road. A state-of-the-art freight line linking the country’s busiest seaports and the areas where a big chunk of its business activity are located has been supported as a major European project, but the Spanish government has never found the money or the will to advance it. These two projects make sense both from the point of view of stimulating the economy and of serving the public, but they keep being deferred while funds are poured on very questionable high-speed ventures.

When looking at Spain, then, U.S. planners should be wary of the kind of heavily subsidized enterprises which, for all their glamour, may turn into hugely expensive propositions for taxpayers and also detract from other more sensible projects.


Col·lectiu Emma is a network of Catalan professionals living in different countries who have made it their job to try and set the record straight on news items published in the international press relating to different aspects of the Catalan economy and society


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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Col·lectiu Emma is a network of Catalans and non-Catalans living in different countries who have made it their job to track and review news reports about Catalonia in the international media. Our goal is to ensure that the world's public opinion gets a fair picture of the country's reality today and in history.

We aim to be recognized as a trustworthy source of information and ideas about Catalonia from a Catalan point of view.
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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia