February 20, 2008


The 300km/hr AVE train service from Madrid to Barcelona opened today.
For train buffs, a video is reachable temporarily from here.

On a recent trip to France, Pat and I relied entirely on public transport. So I took the TGV from Lille to Strasbourg: a direct train bypassing Paris, 760 km in 4 hours. I'd bought the ticket online. Behind the frenetic yoofy portal, the reservations website works perfectly. I changed the booking at Lille station, which also printed a replacement Carte Senior for the one I'd stupidly left at home. There was no queue because most people buy or collect tickets from ATM-style machines. Total cost €64.

In Strasbourg we'd borrowed a flat in the banlieue. The city (population about half a million) now has five new tram lines, with trams running at five minute intervals, meshed with buses every ten minutes. It was perfectly easy to get around, and affordable even for the young who can't get jobs, the one major downside of the French social model. The flush-platform tram stations have adverts for upmarket lingerie - and 100mb/sec fibre-optic broadband, confirming Paul Krugman's wakeup call about America's growing Internet lag. I'm jealous too; I pay as much in Spain for a miserable 1mb/sec, since our local loop is still under the thumb of the bloated monopolist Telefonica.

The latest Jason Bourne movie has the hero taking the Eurostar high-speed train to London. He even gets out of an AVE at Madrid, though the plot hasn't taken him previously to anywhere he could have boarded one. Is this mode of travel supposed to underline his democratic and rebellious persona, though anything more statist than these grands projets would be hard to imagine? Or is it that European high-speed trains are just glamorous and exotic high technology to Americans?

The survivor Jason prudently avoids high-speed-train food: it's said to be good on Eurostar first class, but elsewhere expect microwave pizza. You eat much better on the Trans-Siberian. Buy sandwiches at the station instead.

There are no more than 2000km of high-speed tracks in France. However, the TGVs that use them account for three-quarters of long-distance passenger revenue. What high-speed lines do (except in Spain, where the new and old networks have different gauges) is leverage older track, provided it's electrified. This makes steel rail the technology of choice ahead of maglev, which can go even faster but requires dedicated, and unlinkable, tracks.

It's hard for anyone who's not a professional transport economist to work out how much subsidy goes into these. The SNCF formally runs at a small profit, balanced by the losses of RFF, which owns the infrastructure and carries the large debt that paid for it. The new Strasbourg line was held up for years by arguments over regional subsidies to make up for the inadequate pre-subsidy rate of return; in Spain, RENFE just spends money like there is no tomorrow. Basically French and Spanish voters don't care. They are probably right; the very large externalities, and the difficulty of constructing a level playing field for transport investment, make fine bean-counting largely pointless. The British rail network is also a bottomless pit for taxpayers, and without new high-speed lines except for the Chunnel link the service is execrable.

Obama is an Amtrak supporter, but hasn't committed to high-speed rail. It's understandable during a national campaign: passenger rail makes sense in the USA only in urbanised blue-state corridors, not continentally. But it's time for American boys and girls to ditch romantic but costly museum pieces like the Southwest Chief and buy some up-to-date train sets for Christmas.

Update: this post sparked a long thread over at Matthew Yglesias' place. Thanks Matt.

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