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Friday, January 16, 2009

The Train in Spain Replaces the Plane


The trains in Spain are doing better than planes as a growing web of high-speed lines carrying sleek bullet trains steal hundreds of thousands of passengers from airlines and cut emissions in the process.

As the government pumps more money into the system, Spaniards are abandoning commercial airlines so quickly that domestic flights carried 20 percent fewer people last year. That's big news in a country that has long depended upon commercial aviation to connect its major population centers.

Spain has been late to the train game in part because it is larger than other European countries and its major cities are typically 300 miles apart. For that reason, Spain has long favored air travel, and it has been a boon for the nation's airlines.

But no more.

Air travel has been so big that the route linking Madrid and Barcelona was the busiest in the world in 2007 with 971 departures per week. That started to change in February when the government joined the two cities, which are 410 miles apart, with a high-speed line that cut travel time to 2 hours and 35 minutes. Other lines have opened or are in the works, each of them carrying AVE trains capable of 220 mph, and they're stealing passengers from airlines.

Airlines carried 72 percent of the 4.8 million long-distance travelers who opted to go by rail or air in 2007. That fell to 60 percent last year, and Joseph Valls, a professor at the ESADE business school in Barcelona told The Guardian "The numbers will be equal in two years."

Trains also have seen a boost from the unusually severe weather Spain has endured recently. Heavy snow forced the closing of Madrid's Barjas Airport last weekend, stranding more than 45,000 people. Adding to the industry's woes, Iberia airline has endured a labor dispute that's canceled more than 500 flights and delayed 5,000 others. No wonder travelers are heading for the trains instead of the planes.

Beyond convenience, there is a strong environmental argument for the high-speed AVE trains, which are a more energy-efficient way to get around. Alberto Garcia of the Spanish Railways Foundation estimates AVE trains use 19 percent less energy than conventional trains and generate one-sixth the carbon emissions of a plane.

The government plans to lay another 10,000 km (6,200 miles) of high-speed track by 2020 and ensure 90 percent of Spaniards live within 30 miles of a station offering high-speed service. Prime Minister Jose Luiz Zapatero promises to build Europe's finest high-speed rail system, no small feat considering the web of tracks covering Western Europe.

Zapatero hopes the giant investment in transportation infrastructure will kick start Spain's cratering economy. The Obama administration would do well to take note of Spain's trains.

Main photo: NASA Videographer/Flickr


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