I have just returned from a brief trip to Spain which is soon to become the European country with greatest length of high speed line. That is an amazing achievement given that it was a relatively late starter with the first line, between Madrid and Sevilla, opening only in 1992 and that was followed by a lengthy hiatus.
The scale of ambition in Spain is quite remarkable. The Spanish are building a series of lines linking all the major cities with Madrid and have the aim of ensuring that virtually all the population will be within 50kms of a high speed station by the end of the decade. Moreover, they are very modest about it as it has been developed with none of the hullaballoo of the French TGV network. Yet, it will soon be bigger.
Spain is eminently suited to high speed rail. It is relatively large but has huge empty spaces in the middle that are thinly inhabited and therefore have low land costs. Its classical rail network has traditionally been underinvested which means that enormous time savings can be achieved on the high speed network.
All this is very different from the situation in the UK where the vast majority of the population lives in a rectangle broadly 200 miles by 100 miles bounded by Liverpool, Bristol, London and Leeds. It is not only that we are a much smaller country that is a barrier to the sensible development of high speed lines in Britain. The fact that the industry is privatised in Britain could mean, for example, that existing franchisees would need compensating once the high speed line was opened because they would lose business to it. The Spanish experience shows the advantage of having an integrated system, all owned by the state, which has resulted in cheaper costs and allowed the government to impose a clear pro-rail policy.