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infrastructure

Why the train in Spain is more popular than the plane

High-speed rail network overtakes flights as preferred mode of travel

Spain’s high-speed trains, such as the AVE (above), carried 1,954,000 passengers in February.
Spain’s high-speed trains, such as the AVE (above), carried 1,954,000 passengers in February. EFE

For the second consecutive month, Spanish travellers making long-distance journeys have opted to use the country’s extensive high-speed rail network instead of flying. Figures for the Easter break are expected to further consolidate the railways’ lead.

Information released by the National Statistics Institute (INE) shows that in February, long-distance trains – including the high-speed AVE – carried 1,954,000 passengers, a 14.3-percent increase on the same month in 2013, and 18 percent up on January.

In contrast, the number of people using air travel to get around Spain has fallen by 4.2 percent since September 2011, and by 5.8 percent in the first two months of the year, compared to the same period in 2013. Some 1,843,350 people travelled on domestic flights, the lowest number since 1999, and lower even than the drop that followed the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

The number of people using air travel to get around Spain has fallen by 4.2 percent sinc0e September 2011

The AVE network now covers routes between Madrid and Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Malaga, Cadiz and Seville, while the high-speed lines connect the capital with the major cities of the north and north west, with journey times that compare favorably with flying when travel to and from airports into city centers is taken into account.

Iberia, which is still going through a fractious restructuring program, has been hit hard by competition from low-cost carriers on its European routes, and from Vueling (now part of the British Airways-led IAG group to which Iberia belongs) on some domestic routes, particularly between Barcelona and Madrid.

Responding to the fast-changing transport scenario it faces, Iberia’s president, Luis Gallego, said in an interview with EL PAÍS that the company is now considering a joint strategy with Renfe, the state rail company, to sell combined tickets. He said part of this strategy includes connecting the T4 terminal at Barajas airport to the AVE route.

Over the last quarter of a century, Spain has become a world leader in high-speed trains

Over the last quarter of a century, Spain has become a world leader in high-speed trains. The country’s 3,100-kilometer AVE network is second only to China’s, but measured in terms of kilometers of high-speed track per inhabitant, no country in the world comes close to Spain.

Spain’s high-speed love affair began in 1992, when the line between Madrid and Seville was opened. Since then, the high-speed train industry has grown, and is now worth around €5 billion a year.

The AVE has become one of the country’s best-known products, and is an ambassador for “Brand Spain.” The recent success of the so-called pilgrim AVE – the route between Medina and Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which represents the biggest contract awarded to a Spanish consortium, at €6.7 billion – has also helped reinforce Spain’s image as a country with major exporting potential.

Spain’s high-speed railways are not just important economically – there are political implications as well. Both of the country’s main parties, the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialists (PSOE), see the AVE as an important electoral weapon, prioritizing it over education and health. Successive governments have highlighted the importance of joining up the country’s towns and cities via fast trains. The government’s PITVI 10-year infrastructure plan, drawn up amid an unprecedented economic crisis, sets aside €25 billion for the AVE, €6 billion more than for roads.