Europe slams Spain over “inefficiency” in high-speed railway construction

The EU’s spending on Spain’s AVE rail network exceeded the combined amount funnelled to France, Germany, Italy and Poland

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Comboi de l'AVE aturat entre Breda i Hostalric. / DAVID BORRAT

BarcelonaSpain was the recipient of nearly half the European funds earmarked for building high-speed railway lines in the EU, according to a damning report published on Tuesday by the European Court of Auditors. The report concludes that the construction of such lines in Spain and other countries was “inefficient”.

The auditors point out that between 2000 and 2017 Brussels spent over €11bn on high-speed railway lines in Spain —known locally as AVE—, which accounted for 47.3 per cent of the EU’s total budget. In other words, the UE spent more cash on Spain’s high-speed trains than on France, Germany, Italy and Poland’s combined. Furthermore, Spain is one of the countries where the cost of high-speed lines has been most onerous for taxpayers: €1,159 per capita. That is twice as much as France’s €603, one of the countries where high-speed trains are most popular with 19.2 million passengers per kilometre. In Spain that ratio is four times lower: 5 million passengers per kilometre.

Even though the survey explains that it is the member states who foot the bulk of the bill (on average the EU covered 11 per cent of the construction costs), Spain’s high-speed railway network tops the list of European funding per capita for that sort of infrastructure: €305 per person, compared to €12 in Italy, €21 in France and €33 in Germany. The report also criticises the “inefficiency” of the construction of Europe’s fast train network and the fact that a cost-benefit analysis was not taken into consideration, which means that presently many trains either travel at a lower speed (only half of them do so at top speed) or do not carry enough passengers.

Many lines are “unprofitable”

In addition to the high cost of Spain’s AVE lines, the report highlights the lack of “profitability” of its high-speed network. The line that stretches between Venta de Baños (Palencia) and León is a case in point. Furthermore, trains only travel at 39 per cent of the speed they were designed for between Madrid and León, and at 36 per cent from Figueres to Perpignan. In cases such as these the report suggests that merely upgrading the standard railway line “would have been enough” to meet the objectives “at a much lower” price.

Another aspect that has drawn criticism in the case of Spain is the lack of connections between high-speed train services and other transport hubs, such as airports. The European Commission’s plan to link the main airports with high-speed train lines by 2050 is running well behind schedule. Spain’s main airports in Madrid and Barcelona (Barajas and El Prat) do not even have an AVE train station yet.