Rail Series: Spain’s Audacious Rail Investment Strategy

Spain committed to heavy rail investments beginning in the late 1980s.  The country now has the largest high-speed rail construction program in Europe, and its network recently surpassed France’s in length.  Its track length rose from just 470 kilometers in 2002 to about 2,000 kilometers at present.  Government plans call for 10,000 kilometers by 2020, which would allow 90 percent of Spaniards to live within 50 kilometers of a station, and make high-speed rail a meaningful alternative to automobile and air travel for much of the country’s population. (See Map.)

High-speed rail ridership is still small compared with France and Germany, but grew tenfold in 1992–2008 and now accounts for 23 percent of total rail travel in Spain.

Spain's Growing High-Speed Rail Network

In 2004, the Spanish government adopted a new strategic plan for transportation through 2020 called the PEIT (Strategic Plan for Infrastructures and Transport). The plan grew out of a recognition of the uneven quality of domestic rail infrastructure and service, low levels of traffic on some routes, difficulties harmonizing operations with other European railways, and conflicts between rail and urban development.

Remarkably, the plan calls for 44 percent of total transportation investment to be directed toward rail, primarily for expansion of the high-speed network. (See Table below, derived from Michael Renner and Gary Gardner, Global Competitiveness in the Rail and Transit Industry, a report available at Worldwatch’s Web site.)

The PEIT is a social, political, environmental, and development plan with transportation at its core. It seeks to integrate rail with other systems of transport; boost rail’s share of trips undertaken; ensure that traditionally underserved areas of Spain are integrated with the rest of the country; provide a high level of quality of service across the entire system; and adopt the latest railroad technology.

In 2010, with Spain deeply mired in the global recession, the government turned to infrastructure investments, especially in rail, as a way to stimulate the economy while accelerating the modernization for the country’s transportation system. Its two-year Extraordinary Infrastructure Plan, rolled out in April 2010, promised to invest some 17 billion Euros (about $24 billion) in transportation.

Unlike the prevailing priorities in the United States (where 80 percent of federal transportation funds go to highways and just 17 percent to public transportation), 70 percent of funds will go to rail and 30 percent to highways. High-speed rail tracks will see $8.3 billion in new investment in 2010 alone. This is about as much as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) makes available.  But on a per capita basis, it is almost seven times as much.

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