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Where trains beat planes: Spain's high-speed rail

Build it and they will come. This could be the lesson Spain’s high-speed rail service offers America (recently U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood visited Spain on a fact-finding mission, and to ride the ultra-fast rails).

Spain’s slow trains and frequent fliers

While it’s easy to discount the success of Spain’s bullet trains as part of a greater European love of the rail, not all countries are as lucky to have timely, efficient and affordable service like that of Germany and France. For a long time, when Spaniards talked of trains, it had been to complain about delays and interruptions, as well as managerial ineptitude.

Spaniards, like Americans, also have grown accustomed to hopping a plane to bridge the substantial distances between national cities. For several years, the Madrid-Barcelona connection has been the world’s busiest air route.

So when the AVE- an acronym for “Spanish High Speed” that also means “bird” in Spanish- opened its first route in 1992, there were plenty of skeptics, but it wasn’t long before travelers were fleeing planes for the train. The first track linked Seville and Madrid, a 290-mile trip, in two-and-a-half hours. It is consistently on-time and reliable, and today, about 89% of travelers along this route choose the AVE over the plane.

Decimating the world’s busiest air route

The most anticipated route opened 16 years later, linking Barcelona and Madrid, with naysayers once again doubting that a train could compete with the highly successful airlines on this very busy corridor. Within its first year of service, this train that covers the 410-mile trip in 2.5 hours had stolen near half the airlines’ business.

The train takes an hour and a half longer than the hour plane flight between the two cities, but travelers are opting for the train because it travels from city center to city center, is reliable and nearly always on time (99% of the time, according to the Spanish rail service RENFE).

Most of the business travelers we talked to onboard the Madrid-Barcelona AVE argued that when calculating door-to-door travel time, the plane is rarely actually faster. “The train is very punctual,” one intercity commuter told us. “It leaves on time and arrives on time. With the plane, there’s always something, always.” (see our video Train nation for a door-to-door experience on the Barcelona-Madrid route).

All eyes on the “bird”

Now that there is movement in the U.S. to develop high-speed rail- from national stimulus package money to the passage of a 10 billion dollar bond measure in California-, Spain, as a relative latecomer to the high-speed rail game, could serve as an example for how to get the job done fast.

The Iberian nation opened it’s first route more than two decades after France and Germany, but they’ve caught up remarkably quickly and by the end of next year, they are positioned to have the world’s largest network of high velocity trains. By 2020, under Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s plans, the country will have 10,000 km (6,214 miles) of high-speed track and 9 out of 10 residents will live within 30 miles of a station.

The price of faster rail

Of course, a national rail revolution like this doesn’t come cheap. The 8 billion dollars the Obama administration has earmarked for ultrafast trains is tiny fraction of the 108 billion euros (150 billion dollars) the Spanish government has allocated for their 15-year rail spending plan, 70% of which is dedicated to the AVE.

This kind of spending makes it unlikely the service will be profitable anytime soon, if ever- an International Union of Railways spokesman estimates that worldwide, only two routes (Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon) have broken even-, but the Obama and Zapatero administrations are not focusing on high-speed trains for economic payback. When U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood traveled to Spain last month to ride the AVE and meet with Zapatero it was to discuss how this type of spending can stimulate job creation.

For government’s interested in reducing carbon emissions- high on the agenda for both Spain and the U.S.-, this type of radical investment should pay off. According to Alberto Garcia, of the Spanish Rail Network, a passenger on the Madrid-Barcelona line accounts for less than one-sixth the carbon emissions of an airplane passenger. And for high-speed lines in general, an ultrafast train can carry 8 times as many passengers as a plane, using the same amount of energy and emitting a quarter the carbon dioxide per passenger.

When travel becomes “too comfortable”

For passengers, the choice is clear. Despite frequently higher ticket prices for the train, airline passengers are switching to the rails for the convenience of a service where security and check-in can take under a minute (this was the case for us at faircompanies when we tested the Barcelona-Madrid line last winter) and where a ten minute delay could mean your ticket is free (on some lines).

In fact, the biggest complaint we heard while traveling at 300 km/hour (186 mph) between Spain’s two largest cities was from one business traveler who griped that the journey, especially the cafeteria/reading lounge, was a bit too comfortable to get any real work done. This is one complaint that could easily be rectified.