Spanish practices are key to success

Some time later this year the Spanish will overtake the French in high speed mileage, an amazing achievement given their first line – Madrid – Sevilla – opened over a decade after the French and was followed by five year hiatus in which further high speed rail projects were not pursued. I have just returned from a trip to Spain, courtesy of Dimetronics the subsidiary of Invensys which provides signaling and control centres on parts of the network, and several things impressed me beyond the speed of development.

First, it was the way that lines have been developed so cheaply, and yet to such a high standard that guarantees of money back on tickets can be made on the Sevilla line if the train is more than five minutes late. Just five trains out of a thousand are late.

Second, it was the modesty of the Spaniards. They see their northern European counterparts as being far more developed and sophisticated than them, but they are underplaying their achievements. Spain’s achievement in creating and developing this high speed network, using much home grown technology, is a world class achievement, and one which deserves far more publicity than it gets.

Third, not only have the lines been developed for far less than they would have cost elsewhere, but they are run remarkably efficiently. Typically one control centre with perhaps a dozen signallers covers the whole of a high speed line and there is one network management centre which deals with incidents across all the high speed network . There are few employees at stations and there are just thirty thousand staff in the whole of  Renfe for a network not much smaller than that in the UK. That includes the 14,500 working for the infrastructure operator, ADIF, which means that it is around a third of the UK total at privatisation for about half the passengers and amost the same mileage. There is, of course, no question of privatisation. The Spanish have escaped our neo-liberal madness. 

There is no question, either, that the Spanish appreciated that rail investment benefits society as a whole, as well as taking planes out of the sky. It sometimes takes a trip abroad to emphasise the ridiculousness of the situation here.

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