Rail Series: Spain and France Compete for Europe’s High-Speed Rail Leadership

Shortly before Christmas last year, Spain passed a milestone. The country’s prime minister and king attended a ceremony for the opening of a roughly 400-kilometer high-speed railway line connecting the capital Madrid with the third-largest city of Valencia. That brought Spain’s high-speed network to a total of about 2,000 kilometers, surpassing France’s 1,960 kilometers.

France became Europe’s pioneer of high-speed rail service in 1981 (following Japan, which initiated its Shinkansen trains in 1964 and now has about 2,400 kilometers of track). Spain only entered the high-speed league in 1992, when a line linking Madrid and Sevilla opened. All three countries demonstrate that passenger rail can be a highly attractive and thoroughly competitive transportation option.

France still reigns supreme in Europe by yardsticks other than track length. In 2008, the latest year for which the European Commission offers data, French travelers racked up 52.6 billion passenger kilometers in high-speed rail travel. Second-place Germany had a mere 23.3 billion pkm, followed at a distance by Italy (8.9 billion pkm) and then Spain (5.5 billion pkm).

These figures reflect the fact that France’s high-speed system has been around for a longer time than those in neighboring countries and is thus well established. But France has been able to build up substantial ridership by ensuring that its fast trains (trains à grande vitesse, or TGV) are “TGV pour tous”—that is, affordable for everyone. Thus, discounts are available for the poor, the young, the old, the sick, and large families.

Including all rail trips, fast and slow, France leads the continent with 85 billion passenger kilometers, just slightly more than its neighbor Germany (82 billion passenger km). The United Kingdom and Italy follow at a distance with 52.7 and 49.8 billion pkm, respectively, and Spain with 24 billion pkm. In France, an astounding 62 percent of all train travel took place on high-speed lines in 2008. On the continent as a whole, the average share was one-quarter.

The Figure to the right adjusts rail travel data for the different population sizes of Europe’s five largest countries. Spain still ranks behind France, Germany, and Italy in high-speed travel, but the country’s enormous efforts to expand its tracks (which another Green Economy post will explore) will surely change the picture in years to come. Already, the popular Madrid-to-Barcelona line has drawn many people who formerly traveled by air, and RENFE, Spain’s rail operating agency, expects to quadruple its market share of the Madrid-Valencia distance to 41 percent, again mostly at the expense of airline travel.

To understand why people switch, there is no better way than to experience Spanish rail yourself.  I still recall the pleasant experience of traveling from Sevilla to Cordoba on the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) train back in 2006. The trains are not just fast, but reliable and comfortable. In today’s world where air travel involves many hours wasted getting to and from airports and waiting at flight gates, and ever-more intrusive security measures, train travel offers an enjoyable alternative.

Spain and its European neighbors remain among the global rail leaders. In 2008, people in the 27 member countries of the European Union traveled 409 billion pkm on all types of intercity and commuter trains. Amazingly, however, that was just slightly more than the rail volume in Japan (405 billion pkm). Given that Japan’s population is just a little over one-quarter that of the EU, that makes the Japanese the world’s rail travel champion. (See Table.)

Passenger Rail Travel and Population Size, 2008

Billion Passenger Kilometers Population (Million) Travel per Capita (Billion pkm)
European Union 409 495 826
United States 37 305 121
Japan 405 128 3,164
China 778 1,325 587
Russia 176 142 1,239

Source: European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy and Transport, EU Energy and Transport in Figures, Statistical Pocketbook 2010 (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2010), p. 106 (for rail statistics); Population Reference Bureau, 2008 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: 2009) (for population data).

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