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Who needs airlines? High-speed rail gains traction in Spain

(The following story by Elisabeth Rosenthal appeared on the New York Times website on March 16, 2010.)

ABOARD THE AVE, SPAIN — Carlos Martínez and his colleagues were enjoying soda and sandwiches in the bar, having chosen not to watch a film — “Appaloosa,” with Ed Harris — that was playing on overhead screens. They barely seemed to notice the arid landscape whizzing by or the digital display reflecting their speed, which hovered around 300 kilometers an hour.

Since a high-speed rail connection — called AVE for Alta Velocidad Española — opened in 2008, the 520-kilometer journey, or 325 miles, between Barcelona and Madrid that takes six hours by car can now be completed in just 2 hours and 38 minutes.

Two years ago, nearly 90 percent of the six million people traveling between Madrid and Barcelona went by air. But early this year the number of train travelers on the route surpassed fliers. The trajectory is ever upward.

The shift has political and economic benefits for Spain, which like other European Union countries has set out to lower its carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent over 10 years. Analysts say that such emissions per passenger on a high-speed train are about one-fourth of those generated by flying or driving.

But AVE’s passengers are not necessarily thinking green. Like high-speed railroads in France and China, Renfe — Spain’s national train operator — also has performed the ultimate green sleight of hand simply by making the low-emissions option more comfortable and convenient.

“Since the day this train opened, I have never, never set foot on the plane again,” said Mr. Martínez, 31, a lawyer who travels between Madrid and Barcelona twice a week. “Why would anyone fly?”

The creators of high-speed train service here, as they had in France and Germany, set out to turn traditional stereotypes about train travel and plane travel on their head.

But unlike the French, who sought to maintain a low-cost image as their trains gained speed, Renfe decided to go upscale, said Josep Valls, a professor of marketing at the Esade Business School in Barcelona.

AVE tickets cost as much as plane tickets — from about €120 to €200 one way, or $160 to $300, though cheaper advance fares can be found.

The train offers assigned reclining seats, computer outlets, movies, headsets, good food, even gloved attendants.

“It is not about the environment, it’s that people are very satisfied by these trains,” Mr. Valls said. “This is really changing the paradigm of travel for Europe.” Other AVE lines connect Madrid with Seville and with Málaga.

Mr. Valls predicted that, eventually, all European routes less than 1,200 kilometers will be dominated by train travel, with a high-speed train traveling, say, from Barcelona to Paris — 830 kilometers as the crow or plane flies — in a little over four hours. (The trip now involves a connecting train and takes at least nine hours.)

Mr. Valls said that Spaniards had so decisively opted for the comfort and convenience of trains that traditional airlines might not be able to compete. The number of flights between Madrid and Málaga has dropped by half in the two years since the AVE route between those cities opened in 2007.

The main factor allowing planes to keep flying between Barcelona and Madrid was the arrival of low-cost, no-frills flights on the route this year, Mr. Valls said. Passengers who book now on Ryanair can fly for about €8 in April, though the price rises steeply for last-minute purchases.

The United Nations has said repeatedly that transportation emissions must be reined in if the world is to successfully combat climate change.

Transportation emissions in European Union countries grew 26 percent from 1990 to 2007, according to the European Environment Agency.

Aviation emissions have grown particularly rapidly, and nowhere faster than in Spain — a premier destination for low-cost airlines — where they more than doubled in that period.

In the United States, President Barack Obama has set aside $8 billion in federal stimulus money for investments in high-speed rail, but the money will go to a limited number of states, including Florida, California and Illinois. By 2020 half of Spain’s $160 billion transportation budget will go to rail travel.

Spain’s high-speed train sector seems well positioned to expand. All AVE lines turn a profit and have easily survived price wars waged by airlines, Mr. Valls said. What is more, trains require fewer employees and far less costly infrastructure than do planes.

Adding to rail’s competitive advantage, European environmental policies will probably force an increase in airline ticket prices over the next few years. Beginning in 2012, the biggest polluters among the airlines will be required to buy extra credits to “pay” for their carbon dioxide emissions, and the cost will have to be passed on to travelers.

For many fans of AVE, there is simply no going back to flying. They particularly do not miss the delays and the long lines at airport security checkpoints. The rail tickets remind passengers to be onboard a mere two minutes before departure, and the only security procedure involves passing large suitcases though a scanner.

“I can get to the station 10 minutes before it leaves,” Rafael Fernández, a logistics manager for Fujitsu, said on the AVE train to Madrid. “This has changed the way I travel.”

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

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