Spain's High Speed Trains Faster Than Planes

President Obama's economic stimulus package includes $8 billion for speeding up train travel. America is far behind other industrial countries in high speed rail. A few years ago, Spain was also behind the curve. But the Spanish network is expanding fast, and the trains are beating planes.

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The economic stimulus package includes $8 billion for speeding up U.S. train travel. America is far behind other industrialized countries in high-speed rail. A few years ago, Spain was also behind the curve, but the Spanish network is expanding fast. And as Jerome Socolovsky reports, now the trains in Spain are beating the planes.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Spain built its first high-speed rail link in 1992 from Madrid to Seville. But in recent years, that link has grown into an extensive national network. The most popular service began just a year ago between Madrid and Barcelona. What was once one of Europe's busiest air shuttle routes has lost around half its passengers to high-speed rail.

(Soundbite of train stopping)

SOCOLOVSKY: One of the long, sleek trains glides out of the main station in the heart of Barcelona, at the start of a two-and-a-half hour journey.

It's late at night, and I'm riding on a high-speed train from Barcelona to Madrid. The train has eight cars, and all of them are full. Many people are asleep. Others are hunched over their laptops. In the restaurant car, businessmen with loosened ties and open shirt collars are talking animatedly. Juan Garcia(ph) is a consultant who commutes on weekly basis to Barcelona. He says the train easily beats the plain.

Mr. JUAN GARCIA (Consultant): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: The flight is one hour, but if you factor in getting to the airport, going through security and the wait for your luggage when you arrive, the train is much faster.

Not long ago, Spanish trains were slow, clunky and notoriously unreliable. The improvement is not lost on TV screenwriter Carles Torras. He's another frequent rider of Spain's high-speed trains, known by their acronym AVE.

Mr. CARLES TORRAS (TV Screenwriter): For us, the AVE is quite a strange way to travel by train because you know at what time you leave and what time you will get to your destination. So I think it's one of the best things the Spanish government has done here in Spain, really.

SOCOLOVSKY: In the next decade, the government plans to spend more than $100 billion on railways. The aim is to reach 6,000 miles of track, put nearly everyone in Spain within 30 miles of a station, and build Europe's biggest high-speed rail network. The huge investment by the socialist government and the tens of thousands of jobs created by the project has wide support. Even Spain's political opposition is on board the high-speed rail plan. Andres Ayala is a member of parliament for the conservative Partido Popular.

Mr. ANDRES AYALA (Spanish Parliament, Partido Popular): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: It's profitable. It's modern. It's environmentally sound. And I think it should be encouraged with incentives, he says.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: This is one of the newest stations in Segovia. The fast trains have been a boon for small cities like this one, which suddenly find themselves within easy commuting distance of the capital.

(Soundbite of train engine)

SOCOLOVSKY: A train from the Basque country has just pulled into the station. One of the passengers on board is the governor of Wisconsin, Jim Doyle.

Governor JIM DOYLE (Democrat, Wisconsin): I think they are great. They are modern, clean, fast, smooth. I really hope that people in the United States begin to understand what modern train travel is and what its advantages are.

SOCOLOVSKY: So are there things in particular you've seen here that you think we can learn from in the States?

Gov. DOYLE: Well, one thing I've seen is there are good jobs that are involved here, whether it's in manufacturing of passenger rail or in the maintenance, the very high technical maintenance. So I think that there are real jobs to be had in a time when the country is really having a very difficult time.

SOCOLOVSKY: Distances in the U.S. are much bigger than in Spain, but the Wisconsin governor says the Spanish system is a good blueprint for regional networks in the States. He's proposing one that would connect Milwaukee and Madison with Chicago, and he says Spanish companies are already showing interest in investing in American high-speed rail.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: From NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky, on the AVE rail network in Spain.

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