Spain’s High-Speed Boondoggle

John Seiler:

Spain also has wasted money on a high-speed rail boondoggle, one they actually built. The Bee ran an article on it that tried to make the Iberian choo-choo sound better than it is. But the facts still were there.

The Bee: “U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood voiced admiration for the Spanish network when he visited Spain last summer, calling it a ‘state-of-the-art system.’

“President Barack Obama touted it as a model for American high-speed rail plans when he announced billions of dollars in federal investments in April 2009.”

So, Spain’s train clearly is a model for California’s.

Lessons? “Top among them is how hard it is to be self-sufficient, even when conditions seem ideal, as they have in Spain.” That is, it doesn’t make money, but chews up tax money. Just like California’s California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The Bee: “Despite popular and political support from the very start, the AVE rail system faces a tougher future due to Europe’s financial crisis.

“Service between some smaller cities has been cut because too few people ride the trains. Some wonder if it is anything more than a luxury commuter service.”

Basically, tax money is short because of the financial crisis gripping the PIIGS countries: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. Although Spain’s debt crisis isn’t as bad as that in Greece or Italy, it’s still plenty bad, like California’s budget crisis.

Bad Priorities

The Bee: “‘They haven’t prioritized which lines are most important, so a lot of money has been spent on lines that aren’t as important,’ said Jacinto Calvillo, a passenger waiting to board an AVE train in Valencia.”

The CHSRA is trying to jump-start construction with a slow-speed rail running from Fresno to Bakerfield, one of the least populated areas in the proposed network.

The Bee: “Even the enthusiastic Spanish officials are curious about the logic of starting in the sparsely populated middle of California. The environmental benefits won’t be realized, they said, if the cities along the first line don’t have enough people to generate ridership.”

“‘You need to have either Los Angeles or San Francisco,’ said Pedro Pérez del Campo, environmental policy director for ADIF, Spain’s Administrator for Railway Infrastructures. ‘They should build it where it will have an impact so that people will support it’.”

The Bee: “Since the late 1980s, Spain has spent about $60 billion to build and equip its high-speed network.”

The latest estimates for the CHSRA are $99 billion and counting. But let’s look at the demographics. Spain’s population density is 231 people per square mile. California’s is 242 per square mile. So they’re about the same. In both cases, there just aren’t enough people to justify such a project.

The population growth rate in California is about 1 percent per year. In Spain, about 0.57 percent. So that won’t change much over the coming decades.

The Bee: “Spain’s system, however, was launched in different conditions than California is experiencing today. Political unity, a thriving economy and the spotlight of international events — a world exposition in Seville and the Olympic Games in Barcelona — provided impetus for Spain to embark on its high-speed journey….

“It has rapidly expanded to become Europe’s most extensive high-speed network — third only to China and Japan’s systems worldwide — while facing remarkably little of the NIMBYism, farmer opposition or politics fermenting throughout California.

“The project has been supported by both conservative- and Socialist-led governments.”

Spains “conservatives” sound like California’s Republicans during the Schwarzenegger Era.

Money Drain

However: “But with Spain and the rest of Europe mired in a lingering economic crisis, public attitudes may slowly be changing.

“Despite assurances from the Spanish government that the long-distance AVE trains operate without a public subsidy, academics and analysts don’t believe that even the busiest high-speed route — between Madrid and Barcelona — musters enough riders to cover its operating costs, much less the billions of euros spent on infrastructure over the past 20 years….

“Total high-speed ridership on the long-distance and regional trains peaked at nearly 17 million in 2009. Ridership has since tapered off as Spain, like the rest of Europe and much of the world, copes with economic troubles.”

The article also details how the system never has made any money. It’s always been a drain on the Spanish treasury.

The same with California’s High-Speed Rail boondoggle.

What I’d like to know is how much the money borrowed for Spain’s bullet train contributed to the country’s massive debt problem. Somebody should study that.




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