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Monday, February 04, 2008

Train Travel

One of the biggest news items here in Spain is the opening this month of the high speed rail link between Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s two largest cities with 10 million inhabitants between them. The cities will be served by Spain’s AVE (Alta Velocidad Española, Spanish High Speed with the acronym being a play on words as “ave” means bird in Spanish) train system that will cut the travel time on this 391 mile route to just two hours and 38 minutes, slicing two hours off the previous rail time.

I have taken the Madrid-Sevilla AVE line and I have to say that it is an absolute marvel. The train covers about 538 kilometers (334 miles) in two hours and 20 minutes with one stop in Cordoba; that is a 230-kph average speed. The train is so smooth that there are no ripples in your coffee when you let it sit on the bar.

These fast trains are in direct competition with air service between cities. They are not a lot slower than commuter flights. The difference is passenger comfort and the quality of travel. Airline travel is mostly just a necessary annoyance. The incivility between passengers is barely contained on airline flights and the mere mention of a short delay often brings out the very worst in people. Train travel, to me, is the height of sophistication and civility. I love traveling by train and the journey is almost always enjoyable. I would take a train trip just for the ride. You can also work, read, sleep, and socialize on a train. On an airplane I am afraid to death to even talk to the person crammed in next to me for fear they will turn out to be a huge bore and never shut up. If you are stuck next to a dud on a train you can just walk away.

Back when I was 19 years old I traveled around Europe on a Eurail Pass and I have loved train travel ever since. I have only taken a handful of trains in the U.S. but I have enjoyed those trips as well. I have always said that if every American were forced to take a train trip, they would demand that our country improve its rail network. I’m afraid that it is a little late in the game for America to develop the sort of sophisticated rail system that Spain enjoys. We’ve let our infrastructure deteriorate for too long. We have listened to the conservative dogma that our rail system must pay for itself. Of course, no one says the same for our highways or airports which are heavily subsidized by the government.

The fact is that Spain’s AVE network is set to be profitable by 2010—something to consider the next time the U.S. government bails out a private airline or you hear about a new Interstate bridge that is going to cost a billion dollars. Trains also produce four times less carbon dioxide emission per mile than planes if anyone cares about stuff like that.

In an effort to keep up with what the future will bring, most countries in Western Europe are falling all over themselves to build high-speed rail networks. The new Madrid-Barcelona corridor will eventually lead further north to the French border near Perpignan and on to Paris.

The final 45.5km (28 mile) link to the French border is another challenge because an 8.1km (5 mile) tunnel is needed through the Pyrenees and the cost, up to €900m, will be recouped over 50 years through Spain's first-ever private franchise operation. Almost every country in Europe has state-sponsored railways to one degree or another. They view efficient mass transit as an asset and an aid to economic growth instead of a tax payer’s burden like we do in the United States. Every time Amtrak (America’s passenger rail service) needs a boost from the federal government, the conservatives are ready to pull the plug on the whole thing citing inefficiency and high costs. No one says the same for road building projects. Below are just a couple of the astronomically expensive road construction projects that Seattle faces:

The Alaskan Way Viaduct—$3.5-11.6 billion
The #520 bridge between Seattle and Bellevue—$5.9 billion
I-405 widening—$10.9 billion

All of these projects put together only involve about six miles worth or roadway. If you ask me, there doesn’t seem to be much future in the automobile.

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