Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The AVE is an Expensive Toy

Down in Almería, an area which has never had much of a train service (just the slow daily creak to Madrid via Linares) and with its second provincial line closed down in the eighties (through Albox and Zurgena and on towards Pulpí and Lorca) through lack of public interest, it’s a wonder that the Almerians should be so keen on having a high-speed train: an AVE. Is it for the kudos, the high demand from passengers, or perhaps just another link to be completed in a secondary route across the country? The longest twin tunnel in Andalucía – currently bricked up (to keep the shepherds out) as we debate whether to reduce the eventual service from Almería to Murcia to just one line of track (and when will they build the AVE the other way – Almería to Granada?). Now in the northern part of Almería, the Government is collecting up the tortoise population (a silly distraction, say the PSOE as the ecologists nod their heads wisely, thinking of their next European subsidy) and organising the local expropriations so they can build another bit, and slowly the whole behemoth struggles forward a bit more. By the time it will be finished and ready to use (with yet more tickets subsidised by the taxpayer), for goodness’ sake, we’ll all have personal fliers anyway.
But the AVE is about Modern Spain’s place in the world: its search for international respect. TV journalist Jordi Évole asked Mariano Rajoy about this in a recent interview:
Rajoy: What country in the world has a railway infrastructure like ours? (…)
Évole: Sometimes the trains run a little empty (…).
Rajoy: Yes, yes OK. Empty maybe. But, we’ve got them!
The issues with the AVE are of course, its cost and its worth. The cost is astronomical – We read of 70,000 million euros so far (here) with another 27,000 million planned in the short term. Each kilometre of track costs an average of 11 million to build and 150,000€ per year to maintain. Of course, it’s only money wasted – and the political value is high (see here).
Does it bring extra wealth to the cities it serves? An article here says ‘no’, noting that hotel stays have actually fallen in provincial cities thanks to the service – whereas the Nation’s airport service can be seen to improve local tourist income. Two articles from a year ago – one found at El País – both manage to say the same thing: ‘A study concludes that no Spanish AVE line is profitable – demand will never be enough to cover the investment’. The ABC is not any more cheerful: ‘Spain is the country with the most kilometres of AVE per inhabitant, but also with the least passengers’.
So why do the politicians fight each other to obtain ever more kilometres of track? Because of their promises to the electorate, or their high plans for their provincial capitals, or perhaps just for the opportunities such huge sums of money might suppose?

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