ADIF at Luarca station

Saving Ferroviarias

This essay reviews the broad policy context of Spain’s passenger railways, highlighting the residual tension between pre-democratic and Modern eras, the financial impetus to make the high speed network more viable, and the evolving policy paradigm of rationalisation. “Saving Ferroviarias” is the first essay in the sequence “Café Para Todos“, an exploration of the contemporary relationship between the railways and the people of Spain. “Disassembling Trenes“, the second essay in the sequence, deconstructs Spain’s current passenger railways to expose the deceptions of AVE and nation therein. “Deconstructing Estaciones” provides a demographic analysis of Spain’s railway stations, that explores the unserved areas and probes the differences between regions. The fourth, “Understanding Obligación“, builds a model of the human connectivity offered by Spain’s railways, revealing the patterns between Spaniards and the democractic tension therein, with income analysis that explores the import of “Obligación de Servicio Público”. “Reanimating Regional” outlines the regional biases of Spanish railway connectivity, reassesses the role of Castilla in the national railway, and ponders the balance between actuality and perception inherent in Adolfo Suárez’s doctrine of “café para todos”.

The Human Semaphore

Five roads, two sidings. Three passenger platforms, one freight warehouse. Station building, two floors. Toilets, two sexes, immaculate. Ticket office, staffed and open. Next passenger train, five or maybe six hours hence. For now the daily freight approaches, light but double-headed. The station master dons cap and stands to attention upon platform one. Arm outstretched, flag clenched vertical. The human semaphore signal, the only sign of life. But all is not well in toytown. For taped to the unnecessarily large timetable case is a demand: “Por un tren digno para todas, más inversión pública y menos concesiones” – for a train worthy of all, more public investment and fewer private concessions.

This diorama, reminiscent of European railways of the early 20th century, is not primarily remarkable because it persists on the north coast of Spain a century later. Rather that the railway line on which it persists, that from Ferrol to Gijón, was not even opened until 1972 – its construction having spanned an entire era of “cohesión territorial” from Primo de Rivera in 1923 until the death of Franco in 1975. For Rafael Benjumea y Burín, the Count of Guadalhorce who served under both, “cohesión territorial” tended to emphasise land, a residual feudalism that characterised much policy of the period: Many of the routes Guadalhorce proposed connected Spanish provinces that had not been directly connected by the private railway concessionaires of the later 19th century, typically because those routes connected few people, hence would have generated little traffic and thus insufficient commercial return on investment. In retrospect, Guadalhorce’s railway-building plans were, almost by definition, economically irrational. But judged within Guadalhorce’s era, the policy failed not because of an entirely predictable dearth of traffic, but because of the inability of the fragile and isolationist Spanish state to fund such an expensive mode of transport in the absence of private capital: That the purely public state was not strong enough to deliver the “cohesión territorial” the state needed in order to maintain state is a basic and still largely unacknowledged arithmetic flaw in Spanish rail-based state-building, which in the current era has led the nation state to depend (financially) on a global world that by definition undermines it, a vicious circle expanded by the essay On the Wings of Hope.

Few of Guadalhorce’s proposed railways were completed, and even fewer were retained in the subsequent era of “democracy”. Modern Spain shifted the emphasis of “cohesión territorial” toward people. However that demos was structured too hierarchically, as if the external projection of Spain as a singular sovereign nation meant that Spain could be managed internally as an absolute power: A model which simply cannot reflect the interactions of the people of Spain, which are between people, especially between small but intensively known groups of people. This tension, first explored in the essay Absolute Devolution, routinely renders gaps in transactional responsibility, leaving the state held responsible for providing that which the populous cannot themselves fully comprehend. National in conception but often rather local in delivery, it is consequently widely understood that state-owned Spanish railway operator Renfe only offers services in certain places, yet there is scant understanding of why. While “democracy” may have shifted public expectations toward serving people – railways that offer passenger utility – the formal structure of that democracy still tends toward the projection of authority from what used to be called God – an idea of physical “presence” introduced in The Expectations of Competition. The combination is a state railway that should, by Modern Spanish democratic expectation, relate people together, but is too often moribund by a political structure that can only affect relations through physical infrastructure, and especially struggles to relate past infrastructure to contemporary use. A struggle that has now festered for a century, almost oblivious to fundamental demographic and economic change in the meantime, mocking any sense of societal equality appended to the modern rhetoric of “cohesión territorial”.

As explored in the next section, the long-run financial unsustainability of modern Spain’s high speed railway network now poses a threat to the whole national railway, a threat that logically perpetuates the evolution of Alta Velocidad (AV) into a more regional service, in search of more revenue-earning traffic – a gradual slide that started the moment Ciudad Real was accidentally added to the first Línea de Alta Velocidad (LAV), as described in Is Alta Velocidad Fast? But at least LAV was conceived to link large centres of population in an era when people mattered – even if the residual manifestation of authority, and more specifically the structural needs of Castilla (explored in the next essay, “Disassembling Trenes“), still appear to focus those links upon Spain’s largest city and capital, Madrid. In contrast Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha (FEVE), the traditional state operator of the metre-gauge railway network introduced at the start of this essay, remains resolutely stuck in the previous era: If the only aim is to link Galicia to the Asturias, it matters not that the population of Luarca are offered no same-day return railway journey to Oviedo, their regional capital. Or that the people of A Mariña (Lugo’s coastal belt) cannot use the train to travel to work or to hospital. Indigno indeed.

FEVE‘s suburban core is scarcely better, its combination of speed and frequency woefully inadequate to compete with modern autopistas (motorways) – or, in Asturias, even to compete with the traditional rival, Renfe. Oh, Renfe (Viajeros SME SA) may have taken ownership of FEVE’s passenger operations at the start of 2013, but the two organisations continue to maintain not only separate trains, but separate labour agreements, separate passenger information systems, and even separate ticket offices in certain shared stations. Such integration surely serves only to dilute FEVE’s abysmal financial performance: For example, across the whole of the Asturias, FEVE only carries about five thousand people each day across roughly 270 daily train journeys, averaging under 20 passengers per train. Just 14% of FEVE’s Asturian operating costs are covered from passenger revenue. That performance is on a par with Iberian-gauge Renfe routes slated for closure – such as the original line to Segovia which has been largely surpassed by an AV alternative – but is a travesty of market development given FEVE’s core Asturian operating territory around Oviedo: A fragmented, but still relatively high density of population, where the focus of much local travel is a city whose transport policies are intent on dissuading car use. Yet even Íñigo de la Serna – a native of the north coast, who must have been well aware of FEVE’s malaise – could only propose an 8-year survival package of track and trains: A strategy of maintaining a status quo that was defined in a very different era.

Although the town’s bus station is now in denial – their timetables not even afforded a proper display, in sharp contrast to local municipal bus services – Luarca is the L in ALSA, “Automóviles Luarca Sociedad Anónima”: A commercial business that has grown to become Spain’s largest bus operator, and is now part of a global public transport group. Much of ALSA‘s pre-1960s success can be attributed to the Galicia-Asturias corridor, an axis which then had no railway, and thus no incumbent rail operator with the legal right to deny ALSA their long-distance bus concessions. ALSA’s dominance was undiminished by the eventual arrival of the railway – ALSA’s current service through Luarca is faster, vastly better scheduled, and generally stops closer to the people it serves. And one look at Oviedo’s massive ALSA-dominated bus station suggests this pattern is not unique to Luarca: ALSA’s territorial victory marked by the building of a bus station on a site originally occupied by FEVE, a veritable stake driven through the heart of the vanquished. Yet there is scant evidence that FEVE ever tried to offer a competitive local transport counter-balance. The implication, that the railway was never intended to convey local people: Its plethora of local stations offering localities the mere “presence” of the state. A presence that, for Luarca, completely dominates the skyline with a behemoth of a concrete viaduct that looms over the town – an attempt to dominate nature in a town where nature dominates.

In the north-west of Spain nature is unstable: A pattern most obvious in its changeable Atlantic-driven climate, which is quite unlike the meteorological stability experienced by the rest of Spain. The far west of Britain understands a similar environment through the predictive analytic, but that is not a philosophical model integral to Spain. Instead the people of north-west Spain would seem to de-emphasise time as a continuum, since logically such time offers no stable basis for comparison and therefore no reliable platform for understanding. Perhaps taken to its extreme conclusion, the only time is now, which can only be understood in its moment. The pattern perplexes Castilians, but helps explain why the north-west produces such good managers of chaos. However the north-west is still strongly influenced by the Spanish “family” model of knowing – the intensely known group, not a knowledge that deconstructs the wider whole. But shorn of the implicit stability of environment assumed elsewhere in Spain, the people of the north-west are perhaps more inclined to focus on their immediate environment, narrowing the geographic scope of locality: The Asturias must feel like the biggest small place in the world. Consequently the instability of nature does not just make the theological Spanish state work extra hard to impose itself: It changes how locality is perceived – the geographic proximity at which the familiar becomes unfamiliar – which contributes to the substantial differences between the regions of Spain. Differences which national transport entities are somehow expected to manage fairly. For the national infrastructure provider, the “presence” offered by railway networks can surely never be enough to match the intensity with which locality may be felt. For the national public transport operator, the reduced distance from “home” at which the collective group dynamic fades and the individual survival instinct takes over, makes competition with the private car challenging. Yet here, as often, persistence in the face of the unachievable propagates the counter-balancing tension that sustains Spain.

Beyond Alta Velocidad

AVE“, the colloquial term for Spain’s high speed railways, has antagonised the commercially-orientated Spanish press for years. Been openly rejected by the collectivist environmental left. Become a staple grievance of regional separatists. But when El Pais (the core of the political left, that most closely aligned to the current Spanish government) is writing openly hostile editorials, and even (tabloid right) La Razón is emphasising the negatives (for its audience, speed rather than cost), the vultures are surely circling. The latest trigger, the European Court of Auditors’ report on high-speed rail, should not have come as news to anyone, and actually showed Spain to be a relatively efficient builder of high speed railway infrastructure. But aside from curt replies in ministerial interviews, that defense was left to the likes of Roger Senserrich.

The newly formed government of Pedro Sánchez trundled onward as if nothing had happened. The politically astute head of Fomento (public works), José Luis Ábalos, publicly re-committed to every infrastructure commitment that had gone before. Demanded the European Union Commission expand its Connectivity and Trans European Networks to include more routes within Spain, the very domestic emphasis that the European Court of Auditors had been so critical of. And beatified “El Corredor Mediterráneo“, the Línea de Alta Velocidad (LAV) route along east coast, such that all in authority must pay homage – even those privately well-aware the Mediterranean Corridor represents another step on the (rail) road to fiscal oblivion. All as if to confirm the “AVE hypothesis” outlined in On the Wings of Hope – that Spain’s high speed railway building programme has as an internal momentum, infested by external finance, that does not simply cease when all the protagonists lack (short term) motivation to pursue further new construction.

For Spain, any shift in European Union policy away from “Trans-European” (albeit mostly to Madrid) high speed railway building could be problematic, since almost all such construction in Spain has been half-funded by the European Investment Bank, loans justified in the context of EU policy. With France increasingly unenthusiastic about the high speed trains it pioneered in Europe, the most European governments already pursuing more domestically relevant transport policies, a change in high speed railway policy would seem to be a matter of when, not if. Curtailment of further EIB finance may ultimately be a blessing in disguise for Spain’s state-owned railway infrastructure management company, Administrador de Infraestructuras Ferroviarias (ADIF), who, as discussed in The Expectations of Competition, are currently saddled with over 9 billion euros of EIB debt, in addition to around 3 billion of debt traded on the Irish bond markets: Far more debt than ADIF can reasonably expect to repay from current earnings, even when doubled – primarily income from charges (cánones) paid by national operator Renfe, and thus a debt which is effectively guaranteed as national, not purely commercial. Eurostat, as arbiter of European Union member state accountancy, considers cánones are not “market income” but government subsidy. The precarious state of Spain’s national debt gives little leeway for ADIF to issue more bonds as Spain, while ADIF’s modest revenues and weak leverage limit its options to raise money on a fully-commercial basis. Yet as the name of the essay On the Wings of Hope suggested, financial optimism may yet continue to feed ADIF – at least until some future loss of optimism, a recurrent historic pattern of many European railway manias and related financial crashes.

In this context the fundamental problem is not the money invested, which is soon forgotten, but the long-term viability of what that money has been invested in. Ultimately ADIF‘s weakness, especially on its highly-specified, expensively maintained, high speed LAV network, is a lack of traffic, which directly reflects the paucity of population in many parts of Spain – an impairment likely to worsen with newer LAV lines, which tend to connect even more remote, more sparsely populated, areas of Spain. As a national entity, in a nation where the mere presence of infrastructure serves a political and cultural role, under-utilisation of assets may be unimportant. But once that entity is part-owned externally – for example by debt traded as bonds on foreign markets – achieving a financial return from those assets may become paramount. As seen in several British municipal bus companies, it only takes a relatively small proportion of non-state ownership (for example, just 18% French investment in Nottingham City Transport) before the entity is forced to behave as a commercial profit-seeking business. Adapting a company from state objectives to commercial objectives can cause considerable organisational distress, which in Spain could transfer into societal and thus political distress. And it is hard to imagine political acceptance of, for example, the Pajares tunnels being converted into a toll road, because that transpires to be the only commercially viable method of making a return on its phenomenal capital cost. Indeed, Spanish society is quite unprepared for such a possibility, its politics entirely focused on the opposite – more and more infrastructure – without much understanding of the consequence of how those ilusiones are funded. The combination of such bipolar objectives with a debt that exceeds that of most sovereign nations, renders ADIF a challenging organisation to manage.

During the 2010s, the routine (mid-journey) use of gauge-changers shifted additional long-distance trains onto LAV for at least a part of their journey: For example, towns away from the non-LAV network, such as Huelva or Logroño, are now served by trains that use the older Iberian gauge lines for just their final journey segment. With the full implementation of LAV between Barcelona and Murcia (the most heavily trafficked part of El Corredor Mediterráneo), the number of genuinely long-distance trains that operate solely on Iberian gauge lines should be reduced to almost nil: Aside from services (such as the overnight Trenhotel) likely to be undermined directly by AV, perhaps only Almería-Madrid, Badajoz-Madrid and Galicia-Euskadi (Basque Country) will remain off LAV. All those are marginal operations, to a degree already integrated into publicly supported (Obligación de Servicio Público, OSP) regional service patterns. As with all AV policy, the gauge-changing strategy has been inconsistent in practice, as if an operational focus promoted the use of gauge changers, while an investment focus installed a third rail (dual gauging historic track alignments) for much the same passenger utility. In addition to providing greater operational reliability, dual-gauging theoretically adds “presence” (the manifestation of authority through infrastructure) that the gauge-changer alone does not give, although judging from initial reactions in Castellón, dual-gauging does not herald the arrival of “AVE”.

Less successful so far has been ADIF‘s strategy to increase the number of trains using its LAV network through the creation of new high speed commuter routes – “AV Cercanías”, currently “Avant” – the focus of the essay, Is Alta Velocidad Fast? The higher costs of AV inhibit both state – Avant support is visibly inequitable – and passenger – Avant’s higher fare and product quality serves a slightly different market to other regional services. Organisationally, the more local a service, the more locally influenced the decision-making behind it – a structure that may not naturally suit ADIF-AV‘s prior (Aznar-era) focus on the grand inter-regional LAV networks. But the most immediate problem for ADIF’s strategy has been Renfe’s post-2013 policy of conveying Avant seats on existing “commercial” (mostly AVE) trains – an approach capable of creating the aforementioned high speed commuter routes without necessarily adding any extra trains to LAV. Since ADIF primarily charges by train, such an approach does not necessarily add to ADIF’s income. The essay Is Alta Velocidad Fast? identified two trends evolving the prior categorisations of the OSP train services operating outside of those urban areas primarily served by Cercanías:

  1. The conflation public and private, by government effectively purchasing seats on selected commercially operated services (albeit with costings and operations that can seem to be subsidising trains), and by Renfe selectively (on Intercity services) applying yield management to a regional fare structure normally set by distance, not by capacity.
  2. The blurring of AV and non, by shifting Avant fares into the prior regional fare structure of “Media Distancia” on the relatively slow “Alta Velocidad” line between A Coruña and Vigo – from a high speed, high fare regional fare, to that otherwise associated with the fastest non-AV regional services. LAV‘s association logically shifts from the prestige status of “AVE”, to merely a modern, high-capacity railway.

The ultimate conclusion of these trends is surely a modern network of fast (but not necessarily high) speed regional/near-regional trains, maybe shared maybe dedicated, operated on LAV where possible so serving only principle towns. Publicly supported where necessary, but deploying a degree of commercial yield or capacity management logic to operations or fares: As justified by both the “unfamiliar” (non-locality) transport geography served, and the reliance of such provision on external global finance (in LAV construction) which is naturally associated with global business models. Meanwhile existing Cercanías services (predominantly urban routes) would remain focused on urban localities where patronage better matches the high capacity of rail. The trend thus most threatens smaller rural localities, those currently served on a marginal basis by trains between principle towns. Precisely the places where rail tends to be an inefficient mode by which to ensure actual local mobility – inefficient in terms of operating cost, geographic access to places served, and overall flexibility of service delivery. These local provisions have so far remained buried within public service commitments to entire railway routes, which while formerly justified in support of local mobility, are not analysed as such: The unwritten implication is that the obligation in “Obligación de Servicio Público” is as much to “the railway” as to its passengers, but operationally these need not be incompatible obligations.

Revisiting the Paradigm

Threats of radical change to the national railway network are not entirely new: As recently as 2013 rationalisation proposed several route closures of poorly patronised and/or inefficiently operated services, such as the slow local trains on the pre-LAV Madrid-Cuenca-Valencia line – proposals which were rebuffed without attempting the sort of integration with LAV outlined above. The key difference now is that the financial impetus has shifted: Instead of government trying to save 10 million euros on an all-but-forgotten regional railway network, the Spanish state will be trying to keep its prized national infrastructure company solvent by ensuring it has enough business. At over 10 billion, ADIF‘s debts are of a far greater magnitude than any regional train service rationalisation. In a state devoid of absolute power ADIF’s needs do not guarantee ADIF will prevail, but this does shift the balance of the overall equation away from what has gone before. Similarly, while in previous decades local public transport provision could be considered immutable, the local public transport market structure is also now under intense stress:

  • Since Primo de Rivera in the 1920s, Spain’s local bus services have been formally regulated by a system of concessions, granted one per route. While theoretically contestable at renewal, in practice concessions became fixed property, and thereafter traded as a part of the structure of competitive balances between bus operating companies. As discussed in Interurban Buses in Public Competition, European policy presumes a more open structure of competition and will no longer tolerate such (officially) uncontested renewals. After two periods of largely automatic renewal in the modern era – 1987’s Ley de Ordenación de los Transportes Terrestres (LOTT) granting 20 years, and then further Autonomous Community legislation in the 2000s granting most concessionaires another 10 to 25 years – the ability of the state to protect the status quo is increasingly now exhausted. As already seen in Galicia, the transition promises to be traumatic: From a “competitive” structure internalised between operators, one where unprofitable routes were historically maintained as a quid pro quo for operating commercial routes, to a new competitive structure managed by the state (typically Autonomous Community governments) and ultimately more open to new (globalised) market entrants. A globalisation trend that fosters further agglomeration of Spanish bus operators, in a market which until recently has been characterised by many small local businesses.
  • Local bus service delivery is under attack on multiple fronts: Declining patronage in many rural areas has been accompanied by increased operating costs, most obviously fuel – a pattern which became particularly acute following the Crisis of 2008, but long term is increasing the need for public funding. Marginal areas for public scheduled bus operation, such as school transport, are already exposed, with traditional delivery models evolving under budgetary pressure. Meanwhile the well-defined Transport Systems Theory structure of the Ley de Ordenación de los Transportes Terrestres (LOTT, the prime source of Spanish transport legislation) is increasingly inadequate to manage the practice of rural public transport operation. For example, demand responsive services using vehicles with less than 8 seats – a pragmatic, if expensive style of operation for lightly trafficked areas, because each vehicle still needs a driver – legally conflict with taxis, especially the contentious VTC licensing described in Why Barcelona has no Uber: A specific dispute which now raises the fundamental question as to whether municipalities retain the power to regulate such local transport in opposition to national (here European) or even regional policy. Likewise, the spectre of autonomous vehicle technology could radically change approaches to local mobility in more rural areas – away from scheduled buses, toward autonomous taxis – a future business that may already been handed to a small and forever-fixed oligopoly of VTC licence holders, depending on how legislation ultimately shapes autonomous transport: As ever in Spain, the structure of the eventual transport provision is an acknowledgement of a societal balance, not merely a reflection on the demand for travel.

In 1947/49 Franco reaffirmed railway operators’ traditional (pre-nationalisation) right to refuse any public transport concession that coincided with a railway route. That parallel bus concessions were non-the-less granted, especially post-Isolationism, can be attributed to the realpolitik of RENFE managing challengers to its public domain, and on busier corridors a form of a competitive balance emerged between road and rail. That history gives some insight into the complicated relationship between trains and buses, and the inconsistently of that relationship across different localities. The achievement of Spain’s “national” railway is its management of this plethora of relatively local counter-balances and decision-making processes, which in normal circumstances would preclude any centrally planned approach, such as that which sought to replace a network of local railway stations with bus services. Yet, as the essays The Art of Public Compeition and Is Alta Velocidad Fast? explored, external (global) finance is both replacing prior societal counter-balances, and narrowing the geography of the familiar – that which is truly local. The extent of that replacement and narrowing has not yet been tested. The traditional funders of public transport (operators and higher tiers of government) are increasingly wedded to external financial models, while those that remain internal and local (municipalities, social/worker collectives) lack the finances to support expensive modes like rail. ADIF’s debt may trigger an unexpected, but non-the-less intense test of the balance between global and local finance, between nation and locality. Not on “AVE“, where it might be expected, but on “backwater” regional railway routes. This is the reanimation of regional that threads through this sequence of essays – but what is “reanimation” to mean: The remote puppeteer controlling regional railways for ulterior motives? The restoration of the human spirit, the true sense of locality to regional railways? Or some combination of both?

Nationalisation-era RENFE, and its more recent state-owned successors Renfe and ADIF, have traditionally been moderated by route rationalisations based on simple metrics, such as operating cost – an implicit acknowledgement that none in the centre can understand local operations, and thus can only judge them by crude universal comparators such as money. The same might explain the lack of long-term vision in such rationalisations – rationalisations aimed at building a better or more sustainable business thereafter, not just saving money in the short term. That is now a challenge to a railway that has grown reliant on external global finance, and is thus beholden to external business models: What American corporate language would term “restructuring”. ADIF‘s “Dama de Hierro“, Isabel Pardo de Vera, is already notable for her continuity (appointed by governments of both colours) and technical expertise in a state structure often dominated by patronage – albeit not entirely an outsider: Her sister edits the Podemite (“new left”) Publico, a publication notable by its disinterest in railways, as perhaps befits Podemos’ policy bias to localism. Comparison with her namesake, Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” who ruled Britannia through the 1980s, presumably owes much to Isabel Pardo de Vera’s character, augmented by the iron in ferroviarias, but there are also parallels in policy:

Although Britain had not spent the 1970s building railways on borrowed money, the United Kingdom’s national finances were certainly precarious. And like contemporary Renfe, nationalised British Rail had been expected to operate long distance trains without financial support, while more local services were supported by the state. Thatcher commissioned Sir David Serpell to examine railway finances, his 1982 report becoming infamous for its skeleton network diagrams that revealed just how little of the British railway network was genuinely commercial. As occasionally happens in British public policy analysis, reports intended to justify one policy can evoke such an intense political backlash that the entire policy agenda inverts (Scotland’s Forth Bridge replacement provides a more recent example, which started as a justification for raising tolls and ended up removing tolls entirely). It was surely here, in 1982, that Britain embarked on a renewed love affair with trains. Like Spain, albeit for different reasons, the result has been a significant proportion of all government transport investment dedicated to a mode that is only used for about 5% (by distance) of all passenger journeys. And with more than an echo of Nuevo Acceso Ferroviario a Andalucía (which morphed into the first Spanish LAV line), Britain is currently busy trying to solve a basic capacity constraint on its historic railway network by building an excessively grandiose high speed railway line, as originally described in Railways for Prosperity (an essay written 8 years ago, but only recently reflected by the mainstream of British critical journalism).

The Serpell Report galvanised what became modern “environmental” transport campaigning, most notably via Transport 2000. And for Thatcher, who was not otherwise afraid to promote liberalisation, the railways became one of the few policy areas to be carefully managed, not overtly challenged – British Rail’s eventual privatisation (albeit primarily by franchising, not full deregulation) left to her short-lived successor, John Major. But perhaps most importantly, Serpell was criticised for not properly considering how to improve the railways, only how to save money by rationalising them. Subsequent decades saw the rise of new business and social planning techniques in public transport: Analysis not just of costs, but of market potential. Consideration not just of passengers, but of the socially necessary facilities people need to be able to access. Techniques that remain notable by their absence in state-owned Spanish public transport. For example, in establishing a fixed network of frequent “horizontal and vertical” bus routes – a network which ostensibly amplifies the “presence” of a bus service that had become increasingly marginalised by more visible metro and tram routes – Barcelona’s TMB has apparently demonstrated scant regard for where its passengers are actually travelling to and from, expecting individuals’ “utility” to be attained by changing bus route mid-journey: A behaviour rejected by users on grounds of both mobility (door-to-door services are particularly attractive to older users with limited personal locomotion) and reliability (changing routes greatly increases the variability of the overall journey time). Likewise, by operating buses in a relatively balanced grid pattern, across a city with a not-always-balanced distribution of population, some sections of some routes are inevitably better patronised that others, making it difficult to balance operational resources to demand.

The underlying societal model dictates that none in Spain reasonably expects to maintain an overview of everything – so much so that few try, and when they do it is still necessary to express the result in a transferable token, such as money or a more nebulous notion of fairness. Analysing regional train services is particularly dangerous because the provision is both costly and obviously inequitable – as detailed in the third essay, “Deconstructing Estaciones“, almost 90% of Spain’s local municipalities, representing over 40% of the Spanish population, contain no station with a daily Renfe service, yet the whole of Spain contributes to the cost of maintaining Renfe’s most local services. As Is Alta Velocidad Fast? explored, RENFE historically managed the inequalities within their own network behaviourally, through fares. The best evidence of balancing across the whole public transport system lay in the art of public competition, a model that is evidently unable to manage the blatant inequalities introduced by external finance, such as those of Alta Velocidad. Yet as that sequence of essays concluded, external virtual models are societally compatible with traditional internal models such as public competition, raising the possibility of a common societal model capable of managing the combination of external and internal, national and local. Such a model is not however analytical, rather premised on a system of social knowledge, one where any objects are tokens, whose nature is not fixed in absolute.

For the analytically minded such a proportion is heresy. But in practice just far too computationally chaotic for most analysts to countenance – implying a model where every variable remains variable, where a fluid understanding emerges based on prevailing behavioural patterns. Transport Economics first opened this Pandora’s box while examining vehicle licence plates in the early 1980s – a study that challenged the (then) prevailing logic that traffic flows along a road may be treated as generic, when in practice there was considerable variation of individual drivers and vehicles in “the same” flow from day to day. Microsimulation and behavioural economics have gradually dug deeper and deeper into this topic, but their logics remain rooted in an analytical tradition that constructs patterns from absolute components. For a Spanish society rooted outside analytic philosophy, the adoption of such techniques is a largely inappropriate bequest of an Anglo-Dutch intellectual hegemony. Yet the non-absolute principles of Spain are also the virtual principles familiar to the modern external financiers of Spain, and thus (in non-absolute terms) there need be no contemporary conflict between Spain’s internal and its external, and no need to perpetuate the principles of analytical philosophy in the assessment of public policy.

Formal economic analysis commonly serves to officiate processes which actually work quite differently. Public policy analysis can serve both roles, but this sequence of essays focus on the second, since the aim is to understand Spain’s railways in their policy context, not to commend or rebuke them. The methodology behind these essays cannot entirely match the lofty goals of the “fluid analysis” fostered by the previous paragraph, but it can add an additional dimension to prevailing approaches: Policy in Spain is a dynamic balance of both perception and actuality, and must be understood as such. The basic question intimated above – should a national railway network serve smaller localities – is explored over the following essays by first deconstructing popular perceptions about Spain’s railways, then constructing a model of the actual connectivity (between populations) that underlies the railway network, ultimately enabling an assessment of the network as a fluid combination of both its perception and its actuality.

The next essay in this sequence is called “Disassembling Trenes“. It deconstructs Spain’s current passenger railways to expose the deceptions of AVE and nation therein. Continue reading…