Spanish achievement on high speed rail is remarkable

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.

  • R. Goodacre

    As a matter of interest, what proportion of the high-speed projects has been financed by EU aid?

  • Edinburgh rail campaigner

    Since pre-booking is required in Spain, actual travel times involved are now actually longer than in the old days.

    In December 2008 I travelled from Malaga to Bordeaux. It took me 40 minutes to get a train ticket from Sevilla to Madrid. When I arrived in Madrid I tried to book a ticket to Zaragoza – I gave up after an hour. The next day I tried again – there were 400 people in front of me in the queues at the two available ticket offices at Atocha station. In the end the wait for a ticket was some 4 hours – so I had to stay another night in Madrid. If I remember correctly the train journey time was just over an hour!

    I travelled into France via Huesca (for which I also had to have a reservation as it’s covered by high speed trains even though I travelled on a conventional service) and, arriving at Pau, noticed that there was a TGV due in 15 minutes to Bordeaux. However, I needed to book a seat! This took 14 minutes and the train departed just as I got to the platform – and it was barely 10% full from what I could see. I then had a wait of over 2 hours before the next train. My journey time would have been much, much quicker in the pre-TGV days or if it had been possible just to step on the train without a reservation. I already had a pass which covered me for trains in Spain and France – it was the compulsory seat reservations which cost me so much inconvenience and time.

  • Anonymous

    Do wish Mr. Wolmar would desist from characterising, as do most commentators, High Speed Rail (HSR) in the usual populist compartmentalised country by country manner. HSR is a European strategy designed to solve a chronic European problem, creating in the very long term a sustainable alternative to the ubiquitous budget short haul airborne links currently viewed as first choice of consumers – Europe is eminently suited to high speed rail and last time I looked in the UK was in Europe!