White Elephant, Black Hole

Last month a report made by the Foundation for the Study of Applied Economics (FEDEA, in its Spanish acronym) revealed that Spain's high-speed rail system (patriotically called the Alta Velocidad Española: AVE) is by far the largest white elephant west of the Urals. Since 1992, governments of both the right and left have spent 50,000 million euros of public money on line after line, each radiating out of the Spanish capital, so that now Spain (pop. 46.5 million) has more kilometres of high-speed rail than any other country except China (pop. 1,400 million). And this year, despite the economic crisis, Madrid will be adding another thousand kilometres, at a cost of 4,000 million euros. This, despite the fact that Spain's transport needs were already being met by motorways, express trains and around 50 airports, before the AVE network was welded onto the country, apparently without any thought as to whether it was really necessary or not. The FEDEA report demonstrates that there are nowhere near enough travellers to justify the running costs of (let alone the initial investment in) the AVE. Each year, more people (25 million) travel on the French TGV between Lyon and Paris than on the entire Spanish high-speed system put together. Even the most successful line - Madrid-Barcelona - will take over a hundred years to pay for itself, and many other lines require huge annual subsidies just to keep running. (One line, connecting Cuenca, Toledo and Albacete, was shut down when it was calculated that it cost 18.000 euros a day to run, which would have made it cheaper to drive each of its daily average of 9 passengers to their destinations in private limousines). The one line that would be economically viable - conveying both people and goods along the Mediterranean coast from Andalusia through to Catalonia and beyond - doesn't exist; and (if we have to judge from Madrid's insistence on being smack in the centre of all its high-speed tracks) probably never will. As for the AVE network that is already in place, the FEDEA report states simply: “None of it should ever have been built”. But it has been, and it's using and losing lashings of public funds and will go on doing so till kingdom come. Or until one particular kingdom goes.

Matthew Tree, Catalonia Today,  maig de 2015


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