AVE, those who doubt salute you

This text belongs to 'Penínsulas', the newsletter that Enric Juliana sends to the readers of 'La Vanguardia' every Tuesday.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
01 April 2024 Monday 10:21
6 Reads
AVE, those who doubt salute you

This text belongs to 'Penínsulas', the newsletter that Enric Juliana sends to the readers of 'La Vanguardia' every Tuesday. If you want to receive it, sign up here.

Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation in the first Obama Administration, traveled to Spain in early 2009 to learn about the high-speed rail network. Excited about the visit, José Blanco, then Minister of Development and Secretary of Organization of the PSOE – two positions that the Socialists tend to combine when they govern – invited him to travel between Madrid and Zaragoza at three hundred kilometers per hour. Mr. LaHodd was impressed when it was explained to him that the Spanish high-speed network was the most extensive in Europe and the second in the world, behind China. Legend has it that Obama's minister dropped the following comment: “Unfortunately, my government cannot pay for this.”

On April 21, 1992, the first high-speed train in Spain began to circulate, between Madrid and Seville. The AVE thus became one of the symbols of the country's modernization, along with the Barcelona Olympic Games and the Sevillian Expo, events that took place in the summer of that mythical year. Integrated into the European Economic Community, Spain was raising its head. Germany was reunified with the explicit support of the Government of Felipe González in the face of the cold reluctance of Paris and London, the Maastricht Treaty laid the foundations of the European Union and the European ideology was strengthened in the face of the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. Violin music. History has subsequently introduced successive deletions and modifications to that heavenly score, but yes, in April 1992, the year of the discovery, the violins sounded.

The Madrid-Seville AVE was to be the first stone of New Spain. That was Felipe González's condition to give maximum support to the Barcelona Olympic project, as Pasqual Maragall revealed a few years later. The Madrid-Barcelona high-speed line should wait a few years so that it does not seem that the State was focusing exclusively on Catalonia. As we can see, there are some invariable constants in Spain. Mayor Maragall accepted and Jordi Pujol, president of the Generalitat, did not fight it, since the rapid connection between Madrid and Barcelona was not among his priorities. Catalan nationalism preferred to talk in those years about the high-speed train between Paris and Barcelona.

The Spaniards were eager to leave behind the image of backwardness and isolation and the AVE was a perfect symbol of that ambition. It was designed and built in record time, creating a new fast and comfortable mode of transportation that avoided many of the problems of flights. It was the beginning of the end of the historic Spanish railway isolation, since the decision was made to build a new line with international gauge, outside the old Iberian gauge network. And a no small detail: the design of the route between Madrid and Seville was incompatible with the circulation of freight trains, something it shares with a good part of the later high-speed network. In 1992, no one in Spain thought about the need to strengthen the freight train. The Truck Party had won the bet in the sixties, with the tenacious contribution of Federico Silva Muñoz, Minister of Public Works between 1965 and 1970, a great promoter of road transport.

The success of the Madrid-Seville AVE was such that the technical and political leaders identified the high-speed network as a major national project. And they did it from the central offices. Objective: a large radial network. Madrid connected to all provincial capitals. Work on the Madrid-Barcelona line was launched, which would not be completed until 2008, when the AVE already reached Malaga, Valladolid, Segovia and Toledo. Soon the successive infrastructure plans approved by the PP and PSOE governments raised the stakes in the number of kilometers of new lines to be built. The Transport Infrastructure Plan, PIT (2000) planned to build 7,700 km, the Strategic Transport Infrastructure Plan (PEIT, 2005) 8,140, ​​and the current Transport and Housing Infrastructure Plan (PITVI) places the objective at 8,740 km. Successive plans began to incorporate temporary commitments to put the works into service. The Aznar Government solemnly promised that the AVE would reach all provincial capitals. And the Zapatero Government endorsed that promise, specifying that it would reach all provincial capitals before 2020. The Spanish economy was going very well and no one saw the financial catastrophe that would cross the Atlantic coming. Nobody? Very few.

Maps, maps, maps. Maps often become a powerful symbol and the AVE maps became informal contracts between the Government, the autonomous communities and large cities. They also had another consequence: territorial grievance appeared. Given the technical and budgetary impossibility of executing the works in the planned time, the territorial administrations began to build a grievance discourse based on the list of works not executed or delayed. The grievance became the driving force behind the construction of infrastructure in Spain, whether it made sense or not. At the dawn of the new century, the provincial capital that did not have the connection with the AVE network well channeled felt very unfortunate, marginalized and offended. If high speed arrived in Toledo in 2005 as if it were a tram, why couldn't it pass through Cuenca before 2010? The AVE is the minimum that any average Spanish city should aspire to; In the rest of Europe this demand would be unthinkable.

The Spanish high-speed railway network currently in service is close to 4,000 km. (3,917), far ahead of any European country and only after China (more than 40,000 km). Germany has 1,631 km in operation. and France, the founder of European high speed, stayed at 2,735 km years ago. Italy has 921 km. That is, the Spanish network multiplies the German network by 2.4 and quadruples the Italian network. If length is weighted with population, Spain has, by far, the densest mesh in the world. Added to this is that we have 772 km under construction. and another 789 km in an advanced project. while France will not tackle any relevant project in the short term. Germany has 87 km under construction. and another 81 are in the short-term project.

Spain has embraced high speed almost like a religion. Nothing new, on the other hand. Over the last two centuries, Spain has embarked on large projects whose inertia lasts for decades. Something similar happened with dams, infrastructures in which Spain was for decades the first or second country in the world in number of dams built. Still in 2008 it occupied the first position in Europe and the fourth in the world, after China, the United States and India, countries whose surface area and hydrographic network is dozens of times greater than that of Spain. Also in reforestation, for years and years we were world leaders in land planted with trees, so that between 1940 and 2018, at least 5.6 million hectares, 11.5% of the territory, have been reforested in Spain. Something similar happened with public initiative irrigation.

The construction of infrastructure has become an almost magical solution, since for decades the infrastructure deficit has been considered the main brake on the country's economic development; The consequence was to launch a spectacular investment effort. The data is evident: Spain has been, by far, the country that has invested the most in transport infrastructure of the five large European economies (Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom) during the period 1985-2017. Between 1995 and 2017, the investment effort was 42% higher than that of France, practically doubled that of Germany, and was 60% higher than Italy. These investments were aimed at equalizing the provision of infrastructure with the large European countries, but for many years now Spain has been far ahead, except in the transport of goods by rail. Less than 4% of goods are transported by rail in Spain. This is today the main delay. The Truck Party continues to win by a landslide.

Does it make sense for the country to continue prioritizing all types of investments in transportation infrastructure? According to the current infrastructure plan, the current AVE network would have to be doubled with new routes and connections. There are many pending promises and expensive projects underway like the Basque Y. Is it possible to modify this dynamic in the current political situation, in which a vote in Congress can tip the balance in one direction or another? Where to stop? The powerful high-speed radial network is already consolidated, without being able to catch Portugal. The Portuguese have been perspicacious and have prioritized the connection between Lisbon and Porto, and a future link from Porto to Vigo, delaying Lisbon-Madrid. We will see what policy the new center-right Portuguese Government follows.

During the last twenty years, the affirmation of the Portuguese Atlantic axis and the tenacious demand for the Mediterranean corridor, from Valencia and from Barcelona – from Valencia mainly – have been the two main critical counterpoints to radial deployment. The AVE has been, and still is, a very powerful symbol that summarizes the aspirational dreams of the Spanish middle classes, under an eternal motto: “We are not going to be less.” There has been little critical thinking in the autonomies regarding the functionality of an obsessively radial network. There have been some critical notes, however. The evaluation of public investment in transport infrastructure (1985-2020) of the Independent Authority for Fiscal Responsibility (AIReF), for example. Reports from the Fedea foundation, an entity especially linked to the Bank of Spain, have been pointing in that same direction for years. In the calculations of economic profitability, only the Madrid-Barcelona line is saved. A recent study by the Public University of the Basque Country estimates that the Basque Y will take forty years to be sustainable from an environmental point of view. Political leaders have known for a long time that they cannot continue winding the clock of '92, but it is not easy to explain it without losing votes.

(This week's Peninsulas newsletter has been prepared with the valuable collaboration of Santiago Fernández Muñoz, professor of Human Geography at the Carlos III University of Madrid, partner of SILO and former project manager of the Public Policy Evaluation division of AIReF ).