Spain's high-speed rail: comfort, convenience trump green

Spain's new 325-mile high-speed rail line from Barcelona to Madrid transforms a six-hour car ride to a 2 hour, 38 minute commute. What's their secret?

If you're a government that wants to encourage its citizens to get on the high-speed rail bandwagon, skip the "green" argument and aim right for comfort and convenience.

At least that's how Spain is doing it.

A new report in the New York Times explains how the Iberian nation is successfully tackling its E.U. promise to lower carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent over the next 10 years by insisting that Spaniards ditch cars and airplanes for sleek, new high-speed rail.

By "insisting," of course, I mean using economic leverage. The Alta Velocidad Española, or AVE, says little about the environment but lots about service, with ticket holders the beneficiaries of assigned reclining seats, computer outlets, movies, headsets, good food and gloved attendants as part of their fare.

Can you get that with your $200 one-way plane ticket?

Underneath all those amenities, though, are real numbers: each passenger who takes the train generates just one-fourth the emissions of those making the same trip by car or plane.

That's a fast track to meeting Spain's national greenhouse gas goals.

Current high-speed lines connect Madrid with Barcelona, Seville and Málaga, with trains topping out around 186 miles per hour. (To compare, the high-speed Amtrak Acela Express line that runs from Washington to Boston tops out at 71 mph.)

One professor quoted in the article believes that all trips less than 800 miles will eventually be dominated by rail travel.

In Europe, that's Barcelona to Paris (520 miles), or Paris to Rome (687 miles).

In the U.S, that's New York to Chicago (711 miles) or San Francisco to Las Vegas (570 miles).

Meanwhile, trains require fewer personnel and less costly infrastructure to operate.

Will the U.S. high-speed rail effort grab this kind of attention? It's unlikely. Approximately $8 billion in federal stimulus funds was set aside for high-speed rail investments, largely in Florida, California and Illinois.

In contrast, Spain has set aside half of its $160 billion transport budget by 2020 for the cause.

Images: Baldiri/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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