Train in Spain sets out to beat the plane
Madrid-Barcelona link is part of 220mph network taking on the airlines
Paul Hamilos in Madrid
Saturday February 2, 2008
The Ave S103 train at Santa Justa Station, Seville. Photograph: Alamy
Delays and disruption, disgruntled passengers left standing on platforms, accusations of political incompetence and financial mismanagement: the development of the Spanish railway system has a number of things in common with its British counterpart. But when the new high-speed link between Madrid and Barcelona sets off later this month, those complaints will be set aside as the super-slick Ave S103 service carves its way through the Spanish countryside at speeds of nearly 220mph.
The Ave S103 is the kind of train that British commuters can only dream of, and forms the centrepiece of plans to make Spain a model for the rest of Europe, and the world leader in high-speed trains by 2010.
Its 200-metre aluminium chassis carries 404 passengers, whose reclining chairs - which can swivel to face the direction of travel - are fitted with video and music players.
"They are the future of travel in Spain and show that the train is anything but obsolete," said Aberlado Carrillo, the director general of the state rail operator Renfe's high-speed service. "Trains will again be the dominant mode of transport in this country."
In its first term in office, the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has spent €21bn (£15.7bn) as part of a 15-year €108bn project to transform the rail network. Around 70% of this will be spent on the Ave (short for Alta Velocidad Española, or Spanish high speed).
The aim is to have 10,000km (6,200 miles) of high-speed track in Spain by 2020, meaning that 90% of the population will be no more than 30 miles from a station through which the train passes.
The Barcelona line is to be extended to Perpignan in France, making the Catalan capital just four-and-a-half hours from Paris. Work to join Madrid and Lisbon is under way.The success of the Madrid-Seville corridor - the first high-speed link, which opened in 1992 - is partly a result of its pricing policy, with affordable tickets that help to keep demand high and trains full. The 290-mile journey takes two-and-a-half hours, and costs between €28.90 (£21.60) and €72.20 (£53.95) - prices that might make British travellers green with envy.
It will be the Madrid-Barcelona connection, though, that will test the high-speed service. Business people in Spain's two largest cities, with a combined population of 10 million, have been crying out for the Ave for decades. But its development has not been without problems. The inauguration was delayed by landslides that brought chaos to Barcelona's commuter service, as contractors rushed to finish the line at the end of last year.
When it finally gets running, the S103 will cover the 410 miles to Barcelona in two hours and 35 minutes, taking two hours off the journey time. But it will face stiff competition from the highly successful air-shuttle, with a route that is one of the busiest in the world.
The "air bridge" operated by Iberia airlines allows passengers to turn up at the airport, buy a ticket, and board, within 20 minutes. Iberia alone has 60 flights a day, carrying 8,000 people.
Antonio Mayo, who is in charge of the service, is not worried by the train. "We have faced competition from other airlines before, and we welcome the fight with the Ave," he says.
"We can offer one thing they cannot - time. In normal circumstances, a businessman can get from his house in Madrid to a meeting in Barcelona in under two-and-a-half hours. The train cannot do this."
Mayo accepts that Iberia will take a hit in the first few months, but he believes that an executive who needs to be in a meeting at 9am will always choose to fly.
Carrillo argues that the comparison between train and plane is a false one. "Time spent in a train is time won, while in a plane it is wasted," he says. "In a train you can work, read, talk, use the internet, eat, or simply relax and enjoy the journey. With a plane, the only objective is to arrive.
"Personally, I am not bothered if the plane arrives 20 minutes earlier than the train. The question is how that time has been used."
The fact that more than 80% of travellers choose the Ave over the plane on the route between Madrid and Seville supports his argument.
There is also the environmental question: trains produce at least four times less carbon dioxide per mile than planes, and even less when compared with short-haul flights. Spain is preparing itself for a future in which there may be limits on the number of flights a person is allowed to take, particularly within the EU.
In the end, says Carrillo, it will come down to the quality of the service: "What we are offering is unavailable in the rest of Europe in terms of comfort, speed and punctuality."
Look away now if you are a British commuter used to mind-numbing delays: if an Ave train arrives more than five minutes late, passengers are reimbursed the full price of their ticket. And the only problem for those hoping to get their money back is that the trains are nearly 98% reliable.
The train from Madrid to Barcelona currently takes four and a half hours and is far too long for the distance covered. Madrid to Seville is an excellent high speed service, which was built for the 1992 Expo. If I remember correctly, we were even given hot cotton face towels.
More from railway-technology.com, especially about a future high speed link between Madrid and Lisbon.
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