Monday, January 19, 2009

The Train in Spain Replaces the Plane

As the government pumps more money into the system, Spaniards are abandoning commercial airlines so quickly that domestic flights carried 20 percent fewer people last year. That's big news in a country that has long depended upon commercial aviation to connect its major population centers.

Spain has been late to the train game in part because it is larger than other European countries and its major cities are typically 300 miles apart. For that reason, Spain has long favored air travel, and it has been a boon for the nation's airlines.

But no more.

Air travel has been so big that the route linking Madrid and Barcelona was the busiest in the world in 2007 with 971 departures per week. That started to change in February when the government joined the two cities, which are 410 miles apart, with a high-speed line that cut travel time to 2 hours and 35 minutes. Other lines have opened or are in the works, each of them carrying AVE trains capable of 220 mph, and they're stealing passengers from airlines.

Airlines carried 72 percent of the 4.8 million long-distance travelers who opted to go by rail or air in 2007. That fell to 60 percent last year, and Joseph Valls, a professor at the ESADE business school in Barcelona told The Guardian "The numbers will be equal in two years."

Beyond convenience, there is a strong environmental argument for the high-speed AVE trains, which are a more energy-efficient way to get around. Alberto Garcia of the Spanish Railways Foundation estimates AVE trains use 19 percent less energy than conventional trains and generate one-sixth the carbon emissions of a plane.

The government plans to lay another 10,000 km (6,200 miles) of high-speed track by 2020 and ensure 90 percent of Spaniards live within 30 miles of a station offering high-speed service. Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero promises to build Europe's finest high-speed rail system, no small feat considering the web of tracks covering Western Europe.

I find train travel vastly more pleasurable than airplane travel. It is more relaxing and allows a better view of the scenery as you travel. I hope the US follows the Spanish model and promotes high speed train travel.

Anymore, a plane trip involves an extra 1.5 hours to check in and get through security and another .5 hours to get your luggage on the other end. With the extra 2 hours a plane trip takes, all voyages less than 666 miles actually are quicker end to end on a 200 mph train than a 500 mph plane.

And because trains run on electricity it is much easier to power them with renewable fuels than planes.

via Wired

Update: Rebelfish points to this informative interview with Michael Dukakis on High Speed Trains in the US.


Rebelfish said...

I heartily agree about train travel, and hope VP Joe "Amtrak" Biden manages to multiply the US tracks. The catch in the air/rail calculation is that unless you make connecting flights, airplanes generally travel straight along those 666 miles, whereas trains do not. They follow the tracks, which generally follow the rivers, and stop at many cities along the way. (You can't get on a 600 mile trip even between two huge cities like Baltimore and Chicago without stopping in 2-4 cities in between, even on express trains.)

Fat Knowledge said...

That is a good point. So, the break even distance is lower than that, but I wonder how much? Maybe 500? 450? A LA to San Fran train I think would still be faster than a plane. I wonder about a Portland to San Francisco train ride of approx 535 miles.

Anonymous said...

Also when terrorists bomb a train you might survive but not the plane.

Laurent GUERBY said...

Same thing happened in France with even longer high speed train lines, like Paris-Marseille more than 800 km in 3 hours and air traffic went down big way.

Rebelfish said...

Michael Dukakis says, though without any math, that "In any coherent world, using airplanes to fly 300 miles makes absolutely no sense at all" in an interesting (and promising) interview.

Fat Knowledge said...

That whole interview was very interesting. I updated the post with a link to it. Thanks.

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