21 April 2009

Spain's Bullet Train changes Nation ~ Fast

CIUDAD REAL, Spain -- To sell his vision of a high-speed train network to the American public, President Barack Obama this week cited Spain, a country most people don't associate with futuristic bullet trains.

Spain's system of 218-mile-an-hour bullet trains, the AVE -- meaning 'bird' in Spanish -- has increased mobility for many residents, though critics say it has come at the expense of less-glamorous forms of transportation.

Yet the country is on track to bypass France and Japan to have the world's biggest network of ultrafast trains by the end of next year, figures from the International Union of Railways and the Spanish government show.

The growth of the Alta Velocidad Española, or AVE, high-speed rail network is having a profound effect on life in Spain. Many Spaniards are fiercely attached to their home regions and studies show they are unusually reluctant to live or even travel elsewhere.

But those centuries-old habits are starting to change as Spain stitches its disparate regions together with a €100 billion ($130 billion) system of bullet trains designed to traverse the countryside at up to 218 miles an hour.

"We Spaniards didn't used to move around much," says José María Menéndez, who heads the civil engineering department at the University of Castilla-La Mancha. "Now I can't make my students sit still for one second. The AVE has radically changed this generation's attitude to travel."

Spain opened its first high-speed line, between Madrid and Seville, in 1992. At the time, the decision to run the line to sleepy Seville, host to the World Expo that year, was deeply controversial. Critics said it would be a costly failure for then-Prime Minister Felipe González, and that he built the line just to take him to Seville, his hometown, on the weekends.

But the AVE-which means "bird" in Spanish- proved to be a popular and political success. Politicians now fight to secure stations in their districts. Political parties compete to offer ever-more ambitious expansion plans. Under the latest blueprint, nine out of ten Spaniards will live within 31 miles of a high speed rail station by 2020.

By last year, the sprawling network of lines that stretches out from the capital, Madrid, reached Málaga in the south, Valladolid to the north and Barcelona in the country's northeast. Now, residents of Barcelona can be in Madrid in just over two-and-a-half hours-a journey that takes around six hours by car.

In the year since the Madrid-Barcelona line opened in February 2008, the AVE, costing passengers roughly the same as what they would pay to fly, has snatched half the route's air-passenger traffic.

"We had expected it to be mostly business travelers on this line," says Julio Hermida, a spokesman for Renfe, the state train operator. "But we're finding it's just as busy on the weekends," as Barcelona residents discover Madrid and vice-versa, despite a long-lived rivalry between the two cities. "To some extent, it's changing the way people think about each other."

Not everyone is pleased. ETA, the militant Basque separatist group, has said it would target anyone involved in the construction of a high-speed train line that will connect the restive northern region with Madrid and France. In December, ETA killed the owner of a company working as a contractor on the project, and in February detonated a bomb at the headquarters of Ferrovial SA, another contractor working on the project.

Other, nonviolent critics say the country's massive investment in high speed rail has come at the expense of other, less-glamorous forms of transportation. Starved of funds, Spain's antiquated freight-train network has fallen into disuse, forcing businesses to move their goods around by road. That means the Spanish economy is unusually sensitive to changes in the price of crude oil.

Critics say the AVE will never stop losing money. Even its backers say high-speed rail can only be economical if the state bears much of the construction costs. But they say the train's benefits-lower greenhouse-gas emissions, less road congestion and, in Spain's case, greater social cohesion and economic mobility-make it an investment worth making.

"The country is becoming far more intertwined," says José María Ureña, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Castilla-La Mancha. "In a country that tends to separate out somewhat, that can only be a good thing."

The AVE was originally designed to compete with the airplane for commutes between major cities around 300 miles apart. But the biggest, and least expected, effect of the AVE has been on the smaller places in between.

Perhaps the most striking example is Ciudad Real, a scrappy town 120 miles south of Madrid in Castilla-La Mancha which, Mr. Ureña says, "had completely vanished from the map." In medieval times, the town was a key stopover point on the route between the two of most important cities of the time, Córdoba and Toledo. But the railway and the highway south later bypassed the town, and Ciudad Real began to wither.

Now it has an AVE station that puts it just 50 minutes away from Madrid, and Ciudad Real has come alive. The city has attracted a breed of daily commuters that call themselves "Avelinos." The AVE helped attract a host of industries to Ciudad Real, and the train is full in both directions.

Indra, an information technology company, moved a "software factory" to Ciudad Real a decade ago. "Along with the University, the AVE was one of the key reasons we moved here," says Ángel Villodre, the director of the center.

The University of Castilla-La Mancha's campus here has grown sharply in size and importance. "The school is here because of the AVE," says Mr. Menéndez, the department head. "Without it, it would be impossible to attract the high-level staff we need."

Around a third of Mr. Menéndez's students are from a different region of Spain -- almost unheard of in a country where students mostly stay close to home.

Airlines have in the past lobbied hard against high-speed rail projects, seeing them as unfair, government-subsidized competition. Southwest Airlines was credited with helping to kill a project to build a Texan bullet train in the 1990s.

But in Ciudad Real, an international airport has just opened its doors. Its key selling point? The AVE. The private owners of the airport have placed it next to the high speed line, hoping to offer a cheap alternative to Madrid's airports.

"If you can't beat them, join them," shrugs José Lopes, director of airlines development at Aeropuerto Central.


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