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High-speed trains threaten to topple plane’s traditional summer dominance

Rail services double advantage over air transport for travel within Spain in first half of 2015

Travelers alight an AVE train in Madrid's Atocha station.
Travelers alight an AVE train in Madrid's Atocha station.

The summer vacation period remains the last holdout for air travel’s dominance over the AVE high-speed train and other long-distance rail services when it comes to transporting people around Spain – and even that gap is narrowing fast.

Figures for the first six months of 2015 have confirmed the trend that began last year when the train became the preferred option for Spanish domestic travel for the first time by a margin of 410,000 passengers.

In the first half of 2015, 700,000 more people used rail services than planes to reach their destinations

In the first half of this year, 700,000 more people used long-distance rail services – which include the high-speed AVE and Alvia trains – than planes to reach their destinations.

Meanwhile, the gap between the two at the start of the summer, when air travel has traditionally been most popular, is now narrower than ever. In June 2.81 million people caught domestic flights, just 75,000 more than the number who opted for long-distance rail services. Three years ago the difference stood at over a million.

In the intervening years, 413 new kilometers of AVE lines have been built under the current Popular Party administration, with 1,200 more soon to be finished. At the same time, the opening of the Madrid-Alicante line two years ago and a change in state rail operator Renfe’s pricing policy have also helped boost passenger numbers. The company’s attempts to fill trains have led to the launch of a number of campaigns, including one at the start of this year that saw 750,000 tickets sold off at discounts of up 70 percent. Such reductions have increased sales and allowed Renfe’s AVE division to earn €9 million in 2014.

Nevertheless, Renfe continues to lose money: €209 million last year, as a result of the impact of expenses on the project to construct the AVE line to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and a 22-percent increase in the levy that Spanish rail infrastructure manager Adif charges it for use of its tracks.

Since Renfe began its more aggressive pricing policies, both road transport and airline managers have criticized the “unfair competition” that, in their opinion, the rail operator enjoys.

The airlines feel particularly aggrieved, arguing that while rail infrastructure costs come out of the state budget, those for the airports fall to the airlines and ultimately, passengers. Regional and municipal government subsidies to attract flights have also been much reduced.

Investment in the AVE is set to increase 3.3 percent to 3.679 billion in 2016 compared to the €609 million that the Public Works Ministry has earmarked for the air industry.