High Speed Rail in California: something to learn from Spain?

Somebody mentioned Spain’s high-speed rail in this thread over at Socketsite, so I’ll chime in with my own personal experience here since it got to be too long a rant for a reply over at the forums there.

Background: I happen to be a dual US/Spain citizen living currently in Barcelona (connected via HSR to Madrid, as you probably know). I am soon going back to the SF Bay where I’ve lived for the last 14+ years prior to this year-long stint away (4 yrs. in SF, the rest in the Peninsula).

Since taking HSR for the first time between the cities I travel most often here (the Toledo-Madrid-Zaragoza-Barcelona corridor) there is NO WAY IN HELL I will take a flight over again. Prices would have to be triple what it costs to fly for my “marginal utility” calculator to kick in and re-consider, such is the improvement in time savings, service and enjoyment of the overall experience.

FYI: the distance between SF and LA/Madrid and Barcelona is nearly identical, and the cities’ status as the drivers of the two economies is also similarly so.

Even at 3x prices (like I’ve sometimes paid this year) I’ve always chosen to take the train in multiple occasions (10 trips altogether). We do have a car, which I’ve only used when the luggage was too much to carry with me. Our roads are not half-bad either, considering they’ve been recently built thanks to FEDER funds! Driving in Italy a few weeks back made me think just how lucky we were to have entered the EU when we did …

All that said, the decision to build such expensive infrastructure should be economically viable, not just “great” for the travelers once built. Economists need to take externalities into account, as well. It truly is hard to appreciate and quantify the set of positive externalities that building a HSR network brings about to an economy. Sure, I’m sure there are negative ones as well, let’s keep them in mind too. Are all those worth the cost of the project? My own personal opinion is that Spain’s (EU-funded) infrastructures have made an amazing difference in the quality of life of people here, if only we can avoid the fiscal crisis coming up now is a different story, but HSR wasn’t a significant factor in what’s ailing European States and their huge debt problems.

As somebody mentioned, public transit at and around the end points is a major success factor as well, but this poses a chicken & egg problem for the US: you will not have denser, lively urban center type cities unless city planners scope them that way. HSR is part of that equation. Car rental/sharing at the destination points is as good a solution as it is for the airline industry, and I’m perplexed as to why that is not seen as workable.

If the model CA or the USA wants is suburban, all the way suburban, then sure … skip HSR! If you want to mix in a few dense city centers, you will do great things for your citizens (and the competition between all three modes of transportation: air space sometimes closes too) slowly developing a good HSR system like the rest of the World (China, Japan, Europe) seems to be doing or have already done by now.

I am as worried as the next Republican or Team Party-er about budget deficits, and do not envy those in power having to make decisions right now (be it Dems now, Reps later). At the same time infrastructure doesn’t grow on trees and future growth rates of the economy are dependent on the right tools being available to the people that need them. The balance is strongly tilted in favor of the airline and car modes of transportation in CA, cut your losses and abandon rail now? Not sure that is best, and believe me when I say that RENFE (the Spanish operator) was as laughable a mode of transportation 18 years ago around the time of the opening of the Sevilla-Ciudad Real-Madrid HSR corridor, as Amtrak feels to us know. I know, I’ve taken Amtrak in the NY/NJ, Washington DC and Sacramento-East Bay corridor areas, it sucks!

Here’s the kicker: Spain’s train system is almost entirely public-funded. Not sure why that spells outrage to people here, we truly need to close the gap in that state-vs-private sector debate before it consumes us with every election cycle or even every piece of legislation up for vote. Ridership alone surely does not keep trains humming in Europe. Just one sample of the deep pockets needed to keep these trains running: the small cities of Ciudad Real and Puertollano are connected to Madrid via HSR, and -take it with a grain of salt- the government estimates that operationally they lost €9M last year (http://bit.ly/d0VhBb), were the “externalities” worth that much? Frankly I’d rather sink the money there than paying for translators to help Senators from the Basque Country speaking Basque to their peers from other regions in a “let’s rebuild Babylon” move, since they could do the unthinkable and speak a common language they all share. But that’s just me! I’m sure everyone has their favorite pork-byproduct …

You can discredit the idea of HSR in the USA or CA saying that it amounts to no more than a feather in someone’s cap, but frankly I think the implications of said infrastructure warrant a little more appreciation.

2 thoughts on “High Speed Rail in California: something to learn from Spain?

  1. Hey, I was the person posting on Socketsite about Spain’s HSR. I guess it was on my mind because I’m off to Spain in 2 weeks, and will be going from Madrid to Zaragoza on AVE, along with a couple of friends from SF. Other friends from SF will be flying in to Barcelona and renting a car, and we are going by car through La Rioja and Basque Country, before heading to Catalunya through France. There will be 7 of us from San Francisco at my birthday dinner in Girona, before we end the trip in Barcelona May 28-June 1. If you are still in Barcelona and want to have a drink with several very interesting San Franciscans, please let me know! I have friends in Madrid and Zaragoza, but no one to give us tips about what’s happening in Barcelona (it has been some time since I’ve been there).

  2. Amen! I think it would be a huge benefit to California to have a HSR line between SF and Los Angeles.

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