New delays plunge Spanish rail link project into crisis

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Spain's troubled Ave high-speed train - which is supposed to link the country's biggest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, in less than three hours and open up connections to France and the rest of Europe - has hit the buffers.

Spain's troubled Ave high-speed train - which is supposed to link the country's biggest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, in less than three hours and open up connections to France and the rest of Europe - has hit the buffers.

The Barcelona link, long beset by blunders and broken promises, now faces years of delay and is not expected to be completed before 2010. Furthermore, the train might not be that high-speed after all.

The Socialist Public Works Minister, Magdalena Alvarez, warned this week that the train was unlikely to exceed 300kph (186mph). Her conservative predecessor, Francisco Alvarez Cascos, had insisted the train would travel at 350kph, cutting travel time between Barcelona and Madrid to a silky smooth two hours, 40 minutes. Now the journey may take more than three hours, making the Ave (the Spanish acronym that means "bird") a far less attractive alternative to flying and largely, therefore, defeating its object.

"Disappointment after disappointment," wailed the editorial of the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia yesterday: "Revelations about the high-speed train supposed one day to link Barcelona and Madrid are a succession of jugs of cold water thrown over the heads of those longing for this basic piece of infrastructure to become reality."

The latest delay follows a proposal by Catalan regional authorities to change the course of the track so that the train stops at Barcelona airport. The Public Works Ministry reckons this will add another two years to the original - itself much delayed - completion date of 2008.

Ms Alvarez told MPs this week that if the route were changed, the Ave would not reach Barcelona within the life of the parliament begun just two months ago. The Catalan President, Pascual Maragall, acknowledged the new plan could delay matters "for several years", since plans for new stations, environmental studies and other reports would have to be drawn up. And that is before construction starts.

But Mr Maragall insisted the Ave had to stop at the airport. "With an international airport like El Prat [Barcelona], that serves an area of 17 million people, we must avoid gaps in the transport connections that would occur if the station were in the suburb of El Prat and not in the airport itself," he said.

News of this latest delay came a day after Ms Alvarez expressed serious doubts that the train would reach 350kph as the previous government promised. Her statement throws into question all the technical forecasts by both the ministry and the state rail authority, Renfe, that enormous numbers of passengers would abandon the air shuttle in favour of the train. Studies, based on a journey lasting 2 hours 30 minutes, suggested that the Ave would in effect replace the plane, as happened when the high-speed rail link opened between Madrid and Seville in 1992. But if the journey takes more than three hours, then these calculations fall apart, and the train loses much of its appeal, and profitability.

Comments