Delicious Deception

Reanimating Regional

This essay 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“. “Reanimating Regional” is the fifth essay in the sequence “Café Para Todos“, an exploration of the contemporary relationship between the railways and the people of Spain. The first essay, “Saving Ferroviarias“, reviews the broad policy context of Spain’s passenger railways, highlighting the residual tension between pre and post-democratic eras, the financial impetus to make the high speed network more viable, and the evolving policy paradigm of rationalisation. “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”.


The previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, modelled connectivity nationally, as expected by the national deception explained in the second essay, “Disassembling Trenes“. Yet throughout this sequence of essays evidence has emerged that points to an actuality that is altogether more local, especially on the periphery. The connectivity model is limited by its use of municipal geography, which logically precludes analysis within municipalities, but can give some indication of the importance of locality by additionally restricting connections to those wholly within specific geographic regions – Autonomous Communities or Provinces. The regional indices reflect how well people within a particular geographic area are connected to each other, not how well they are connected to major populations elsewhere in Spain, and consequently can produce very different results to the national model. The construction of the regional index’s population weighting differs slightly, with each region weighted by its proportion of the total analysed (Spanish) population. The result is interpreted the same as before, with 100 representing an average Spaniard in an “average” region (Autonomous Community or Province). That there physically is no such average place can make the regional index values slightly misleading if read in isolation. In particular, Autonomous Communities which contain only one province attain different indices for the same internal network because the overall average changes – the comparison is to communities and provinces respectively. However, since all indices notionally average to 100, direct comparison is possible. The table below shows the passenger rail connectivity of each province to the whole nation, their own community, and their own province. Initial analysis is for all operators, since non-Renfe services can become important within regions. The strength of each area’s “localism” or “nationalism” is expressed as “regionalism”: The bias toward either province (positive percentages) or nation (negative percentages), calculated as, (community + province) – (national + community), divided by the average of all three indices. The variance is that of all three indices, low variance indicative of consistency between each index.

Regionalism in Peninsula Railway Connectivity
Province and Community Connectivity Index (100 is “average”) Regionalism
National Community Province Bias Variance
Almería 50 124 45 -8% 19
Cádiz 109 308 183 +37% 101
Córdoba 191 421 84 -46% 297
Granada 26 163 116 +88% 48
Huelva 64 118 90 +29% 7
Jaén 81 176 134 +41% 23
Málaga 137 296 121 -9% 94
Sevilla 182 551 166 -5% 475
All Andalucía 120 319 129 +5% 127
Huesca 56 48 99 +63% 8
Teruel 39 35 83 +83% 7
Zaragoza 375 98 78 -162% 276
All Aragón 287 83 82 -136% 139
Asturias 158 238 298 +60% 49
Cantabria 85 199 250 +93% 71
Ávila 107 274 91 -10% 103
Burgos 226 377 87 -61% 211
León 182 289 173 -4% 42
Palencia 235 376 102 -56% 188
Salamanca 91 223 79 -9% 64
Segovia 124 220 81 -31% 51
Soria 74 17 77 +6% 11
Valladolid 239 461 76 -63% 373
Zamora 68 78 71 +4% 0
All Castilla y León 171 305 99 -37% 109
Albacete 200 390 126 -31% 185
Ciudad Real 160 250 219 +28% 21
Cuenca 100 140 90 -8% 7
Guadalajara 131 91 121 -9% 4
Toledo 66 52 66 +1% 1
All Castilla-La Mancha 126 179 125 -1% 10
Barcelona 284 413 346 +18% 41
Girona 75 134 189 +86% 32
Lleida 176 173 150 -16% 2
Tarragona 159 216 384 +89% 138
All Catalunya 244 350 323 +26% 31
Araba 265 210 67 -110% 105
Bizkaia 111 325 305 +78% 140
Gipuzkoa 149 269 314 +68% 73
All Euskadi 147 290 272 +53% 61
Badajoz 67 262 214 +81% 103
Cáceres 73 194 133 +45% 37
All Extremadura 69 237 184 +70% 73
Coruña, A 98 322 205 +51% 125
Lugo 97 182 118 +16% 20
Ourense 139 301 111 -15% 105
Pontevedra 134 341 154 +9% 131
All Galicia 115 309 165 +26% 101
Madrid 476 135 169 -118% 353
Murcia 190 152 190 +0% 5
Navarra 141 95 119 -19% 5
La Rioja 142 80 100 -39% 10
Alacant 131 248 244 +55% 45
Castelló 173 299 219 +20% 41
València 216 434 285 +22% 124
All Valenciana 179 349 262 +31% 72

Community connectivity indices tend to be higher than national connectivity indices: As introduced in the previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, passenger rail is simply a better match to geography on the scale of most Autonomous Communities. In comparison national journeys tend to be too distant to generate sufficient passenger volumes for rail, while journeys within provinces tend to be too local in their character for rail to serve effectively. It is no accident that Renfe’s operations tend to be more regional than national. The exceptions to this pattern are of particular interest. Madrid, the most obvious exception, is discussed in the next section. The Ebro Valley (Huesca, Teruel, Navarra, La Rioja and Zaragoza) again emerges as an exception, its patterns owing much to the awkward set of Modern political boundaries, discussed both in the previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, and again in the conclusion of this essay. Zaragoza emerges as the most nationally biased province in Spain – little Madrid, as Zaragoza was previously attributed, even outdoing the national bias of its namesake.

The term “regionalism” has been used nebulously, to apply to both Autonomous Communities and provinces, because some regions are specifically skewed to community connectivity, and some to provincial connectivity. Andalucía, both overall and by province, clearly emphasises the connectivity within its Autonomous Community, which is consistently much higher than both national and provincial connectivities. The province of Sevilla is not just the best connected of any province to its respective community, but the individual municipalities of Sevilla and neighbouring Dos Hermanas compute the highest Community Connectivity Indices of any municipality in Spain – indices which are more than three times higher than their respective connectivities to their own provinces. For Andalucía, “cohesión territorial” evidently applies to the territory of the Autonomous Community, yet this pattern runs counter to recent policy – both national attempts to link Andalucían cities to Madrid at high speed, and local metro-building, which is primarily municipal. Such policy might be explained as a contemporary attempt to readjustment the role of railways, away from that within the community, but it seems more likely that current policy merely reflects the current gap in funding discussed in the earlier essay, “Disassembling Trenes“: Adequate funding is only available for national LAV or local tram schemes – the Junta de Andalucía’s attempt to fund its own Sevilla-Antequera (for Granada and Málaga) LAV route having comprehensively failed. That the community even tried to build its own internal high speed railway, a feat no other Autonomous Community has seriously attempted on its own, can be attributed to Andalucía’s particular emphasis on community connectivity. Although, by attempting to build the line to the already best-connected capital city and province, Sevilla, the Junta might reasonably be accused of regional centralism – which, given the provincial tensions of Andalucían politics, is also a logical cause of failure.

Galicia follows a broadly similar, but less pronounced, pattern to Andalucía, with rail primarily serving community cohesion, not the nation or the more local, with recent Galician politics also emphasising internal AV connectivity. The other “historic communities”, Catalunya and Euskadi (the Basque Country), show stronger biases towards provincial connectivity, as perhaps befits their contemporary political separatisms, especially once their outliers (Lleida and Araba) are isolated from the analysis. Tarragona has the highest connectivity with its own province of any province in Spain, with Barcelona close behind. Tarragona’s rail-served coastal strip is relatively urban in character, and the strength of the current campaign to retain stations at Salou and Cambrils (scheduled for closure when the parallel LAV line opens) provides some evidence of the importance of rail connectivity within the province – and specifically the tension between the regional promoters of the Mediterranean Corridor and more local public transport interests. As noted in prior analysis, the city of Lleida obtains high national connectivity, primarily through AVE, but the province itself is relatively rural and difficult to serve by rail: That the Generalitat de Catalunya none-the-less persist in trying, most notably in their recent redevelopment of the Pobla de Segur line, can perhaps be attributed to Lleida’s current lack of skew toward provincial connectivity, as found elsewhere in Catalunya. Although Catalunya has a substantial non-Renfe network, especially in and around Barcelona, the additional connectivity it offers is very marginal: The Renfe-only connectivity index for the province of Barcelona is 334, against 346 for all operators. Analysis of only non-Renfe operators scores 332. As argued in The Art of Public Competition, Barcelona gains indirectly, by promoting a form of competition between operators which ultimately raises the connectivity delivered by all.

In the province of València the Autonomous operator FGV delivers more connectivity than Renfe – the Renfe-only index is 205, compared to FGV’s 294 and an all-operator index of 285. While FGV operates a few routes that somewhat parallel Renfe’s, it offers little direct competition of the type seen in the province of Barcelona. Euskadi (the Basque Country) contains even greater difference between Renfe and non, with non-Renfe operators (Euskotren, plus metro in Bilbao) providing up to half the connectivity in the coastal provinces of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa – both connectivity within province and within community. Even where route competition exists (Donostia-Irun and Bilbao-Santurtzi) non-Renfe services tend to be more frequent, and overall any counter-balance appears more strategic than local. Yet the most curious facet of Euskadi is the province of Araba – in railway terms Gasteiz (Vitoria) – whose national connectivity is the strongest (quite unlike Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa), whose non-Renfe service is a municipal tram (with no impact on connectivity beyond), and whose current railway service pattern is almost incidental (to the provision of longer distance services). How many intending passengers have been confused to learn that Renfe cannot offer a journey, let alone a direct train, between Bilbao and Gasteiz? Gasteiz is a geographic oasis built on a plateau surrounded by mountains, which plays the role of isolated federal capital for the two rival Basque coastal provinces – and if that wasn’t enough, the southern half of Araba wholly contains the enclave of Treviño, which is administratively still part of Castilla y León: There is no shortage of explanation for the vast differences between Araba’s regional connectivity and that of the remainder of Euskadi.

Beyond those Autonomous Communities and provinces discussed above, there is a broad correlation between peripherality and localism: The Asturias, Cantabria and Extremadura are strongly biased toward internal connectivity, Valenciana less so, Murcia balanced, and the Castillas and Ebro tending toward national connectivity – although each contains provincial exceptions. As documented in the previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, Extremadura’s national connectivity is undeniably poor, with relatively consistent income biases indicating no particular importance attached to any one conectivity scope (of national, community or province). However Extremadura’s internal regional connectivity is much more respectable than its national connectivity, with regional indices in the order of 200. A third of Extremadura’s population is concentrated into its four largest towns (Badajoz, Cáceres, Mérida, Plasencia), which can all be linked together by a single railway service – so what looks like a rudimentary service pattern actually achieves a reasonable level of connectivity for a reasonable proportion of the population. This focus on internal connectivity might help explain why many of Extremadura’s complaints focus on the quality of service delivery, complaints which the political system can only manage through physical assets, especially infrastructure. It follows from Extremadura’s strong internal connectivity that the region’s poor national connectivity is primarily rooted in a limited range of national destinations, something that could perhaps have been improved with some more imaginative service planning. Based on current service patterns, which are entirely OSP state supported, Extremadura’s LAV can expect to be served by a few daily AVE services, primarily carrying (and thus funded through) OSP Avant seats, offering a minimal service pattern which is unlikely to link beyond Madrid, and thus providing much the same national connectivity as now (just faster and more reliable). The Autonomous Community demands LAV as a link to Madrid because those are the terms on which LAV is funded nationally, but if LAV’s prime function is actually regional connectivity – something a Badajoz-Mérida-Cáceres-Plasencia LAV axis would improve still further – then almost any such improvement in Extremadura will create greater inequalities elsewhere, since Extremadura already has as good a regional connectivity as it can fairly expect. Regardless, the question of what policy objective Extremadura’s railways are serving – regional or national, actual or perceived – should raise policy concerns, because the region’s demographics are likely to dictate sustained state support of any future AV operation, support which might prove hard to justify in the midst of any future public funding crisis.

A Return to Castilla

Madrid’s extremely high national connectivity contrasts sharply with rather poor internal connectivity. Guadalajara and Toledo, provinces whose railway services especially tend toward Madrid, mirror Madrid’s relatively low community connectivity. Perhaps even more than Castilla, those provinces need to be considered as part of the Madrid nucleus. However, unlike parts of the Ebro Valley, Madrid’s contrasting connectivity is not explained by its boundaries, because those weaknesses also exists within the Community of Madrid: The City of Madrid is central to the area’s railway network, sometimes the only railway destination offered to its outer suburbs, and consequently the relatively poor satellite suburbs of south and east Madrid top of the list of highly populated municipalities with underwhelming regional connectivity – Alcalá de Henares, Alcorcón, Fuenlabrada, Getafe, Leganés, Móstoles, Parla, and Torrejón de Ardoz. However even the most central point of the network, the City of Madrid, transpires to have worse connectivity to its surrounding province (and community) than the cities of Barcelona or València to their respective provinces and communities. As analysed in the essay, “Disassembling Trenes“, the Community of Madrid hosts more daily trains per head of population than any other Autonomous Community, so poor regional connectivity cannot be attributed to a dearth of resources, but might be explained by biases in their deployment: When connectivity is limited to non-Renfe operators, the Community of Madrid’s provincial connectivity falls – meaning other large non-Renfe operations, especially in Barcelona and València, better serve their surrounding provinces – they are not so focused on their largest city. The implication is that the City of Madrid is disproportionately dominant over its community, leaving the residual population more reliant on Renfe, and with less active counter-balance between Renfe and non (as seen around Barcelona), there is perhaps less natural impetus to improve Renfe services to the wider Autonomous Community. Meanwhile Renfe itself has such a strongly perceived national role in the heart of Castilla that Madrid’s high national connectivity might be perceived a more acceptable quid pro quo for under-provision within the community.

All this helps explain why much of Madrid’s sprawl remains poorly served by rail. That does not bode well for Renfe, since spatial demography alone should render Madrid as Renfe’s strongest local market, while strategically Renfe’s national delivery of local services in Madrid lay at the heart of Renfe’s raison d’être. Income analysis in the previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, quantified Renfe’s unexpectedly low “importance” among the population of the Community of Madrid, in spite of Madrid being at the heart of Renfe’s network (both physically and culturally). That affirms this hypothesis of poor provision in the long-term behaviour of the population, suggesting a consistent strategic weakness on the part of Renfe. The accountancy of Córdoba’s “Media Distancia” Cercanías, discussed in the essay “Deconstructing Estaciones“, provides some insight into the paradox of Renfe’s Madrid Cercanías: The Madrid network cannot be operated at a profit, because to do so would soon legally open it up to non-Renfe competition and fundamentally undermine the nacional, for here RENFE is nation (is Castilla). European Union railway liberalisation policy is effectively assaulting the nation called Spain, but what should evoke a panic clause in the Treaty of Rome cannot because any rationale that RENFE-is-nation-is-Castilla cannot be acknowledged by those within. In so far as liberalisation implies one bourgeois family, let alone one multi-national, holding one of the fundamental territorial counter-balances of Castilla, such liberalisation is quite inconceivable: Rome will surely burn.

In contrast, Barcelona continues the public management of what could be one of the strongest commercial public transport markets in Europe, by extensive cross-subsidisation in the guise of ticketing integration: Any city route that might equate to a licence to print money automatically countered by another carrying fresh air from the periphery – the whole structure of the network premised on half-funding by government, such that no enhanced performance can ever shift the apparent requirement for state support. That principle comes straight from the left bank of the Seine, predating European membership by several decades, but now serves to protect the city from the excesses of EU transport policy. Although Renfe’s financial balance has belatedly become confused by its “commercial” operations, its overall state OSP support roughly accords to the same principle of half-funding found in Catalunya, with the same broad approach to cross-subsidisation across a wide territory, here Spain. The “profitability problem” only emerges once the costs and revenues of specific service provisions are disaggregated, and where the aggregated financial performance of a public service is good – as in Madrid’s Cercanías, which covers 77% of its costs from revenue – further disaggregation risks revealing unwanted profitability. Renfe’s national conception makes it hard to acknowledge any internal differences, and hence obvious strategies to avoid long-term profitability in Madrid, such as reducing fare rates only in Madrid or paying generous Madrid-only staff bonuses, are unavailable. Meanwhile the role of Renfe in the balance of Castilla would seem to have made the establishment of a Barcelona-style fully integrated ticketing system far more difficult in Madrid. So perhaps the only profit-avoidance strategy open to Madrid’s Cercanías is indeed to operate badly – to deploy all the assets, and thus accumulate all the costs, but to deploy those assets where they are least, not most, likely to earn money.

Quite obviously such a strategy benefits nobody: It dissuades passengers, and thereby reduces the societal worth of the staff, and ultimately that of the entity itself as a railway operator. But the strategy serves no lesser goal than nation, so is quite impossible to counteract from within. Madrid, both because of its near-profitability and its location at the heart of Castilla, transpires to be an extreme case of what the next section characterises as the inverted business development logic that stems from the loss-making emphasis of the state toward railways, which itself reflects the longstanding flaw in rail-based state-building – that the purely public state is not strong enough to deliver the “cohesión territorial” the state needs in order to maintain state.

Castilla has hitherto been generalised, not least to nation, but the earlier Regionalism table reveals that even Castilla is not so uniform. Detailed analysis offers an insight into the balance between the “old” north (Castilla y León) and the “new” south (Castilla-La Mancha) – a balance which the earlier essay, “Disassembling Trenes“, placed at the core of “Spain”, and thus an important pattern to understand:

  • Castilla y León is consistent: The community is generally skewed toward national connectivity, as befits its position in the core. The capital, Valladolid, is the best connected to its community, as befits its central role. Castilla y León’s balance of nation and community appears carefully structured. That pattern perpetuates into the design of its LAV network, which retains much of the historic network emphasis upon Valladolid, balancing the needs of connecting to the nation with the needs of connecting its own community. The development of Castilla y León’s LAV network has however been ponderous, and is now subject to post-Crisis financial compromises, such as single-track sections toward León and Burgos: The community’s maturity perhaps inhibits its ability to take full advantage of brief periods of plenty. Given its large geographic size, Castilla y León’s quirks are few. Along with Soria, only Zamora fails to fit prevailing community patterns: Zamora is under-served in all regards, perhaps because Zamora’s geographic position on the line to Galicia means its service patterns are conflated with Galicia’s minimal national requirements. Soria poses a particular exception to the tendency of community connectivity to be higher than national, because Soria’s railways provide no link to the rest of Castilla y León – doubly unfortunately for Soria because the rest of Castilla y León is relatively well connected within itself. Soria perhaps suffers from a geographic need to be connected to a range of neighbouring provinces, most of which are in different communities – but without sufficient population to justify all those rail links, it has attained nada. León retains a subtle echo of its historic separation from the contemporary administration centred on Valladolid – the highest provincial connectivity in the community – but otherwise Castilla y León’s administrative geography is one of the most stable in Spain, its current boundaries rooted in the 19th century, with its administrative core dating back to the early medieval period.
  • Castilla-La Mancha is serendipitous: Overall the community has the best balance of all three connectivities of any Spanish Autonomous Community, maintaining near-equal national and provincial connectivities, but less aggregated analysis reveals vast differences within: Toldeo has the worst connectivity of any community capital to its respective community – indeed, the city of Toledo’s only direct rail link is to Madrid. Guadalajara’s overall connectivity is better than Toledo, but suffers the same biases, notably being better connected to nation and province than to its own community. In contrast Albacete scores one of the better community connectivities in Spain. Albacete also has the best national connectivity of any province in La Mancha, perhaps indicative of the importance of historic links to the Mediterranean coast. Meanwhile Ciudad Real emerges as the only province in Castilla with a tangible skew towards provincial connectivity, away from the very nation that defines Castilla – perhaps indicating an untamed tendency to peripherality. The Reconquista accounts for some underlying differences, but much can be attributed to the establishment of Castilla-La Mancha as an Autonomous Community in only 1982. The historic railway network entirely predates the contemporary Autonomous Community, and is more obviously incidental to current community connectivity. The LAV network was however designed and built after 1982, so could have been strongly influenced by community politics. La Mancha did succeed in connecting every provincial capital to LAV, and did so in an initial era without compromise, in spite of containing no sufficiently large cities to justify such prioritisation. However Castilla-La Mancha’s resulting connections to LAV are to the nation, and currently offer only one strategic connection within the community itself (Albacete-Cuenca) – every other link affected by a change of trains in Madrid. The excessive operating loses of the short-lived Toldeo-Cuenca-Albacete AVE help explain why: Castilla-La Mancha simply lacks the spatial density of population to support a meaningful railway service on the current network without the integration of its much larger neighbour, Madrid.

That description of Castilla-La Mancha explains why almost all its train services cross into Madrid, a pattern documented in the essay, “Disassembling Trenes“. It follows that Castilian “belief” in the Renfe’s national deception is not necessarily just an act of national faith, but could also be reasonably interpreted as an act of pragmatism. Unfortunately the embodiment of a nation in its railways transpires to be a difficult model to apply to sparsely populated regions, and La Mancha’s comparative immaturity and tendency to accept opportunities as they occur, has failed to acknowledge that difficulty. The result has been a disparate sprawl of new railway infrastructure that has done almost nothing to improve the connectivity of Castilla-La Mancha to itself. In contrast Castilla y León, which contains broadly similar demographic territory, has managed new rail provision within its community much better, although its comparative caution helps explain why it attained little during boom years of LAV construction.

Counter-intuitively, Teruel exists because of its poor provision of railways, a lack which not only tends to unify Teruel politically, but biases Teruel toward its own provincial connectivity. Meanwhile neighbouring Castilla-La Mancha has been flooded with new railway infrastructure, but does not so obviously exist – that infrastructure primarily serving an idea of nation. This policy paradox – that the better connected externally, the more diluted the understanding of internal place – is not new. However Castilla adds an additional complexity, since La Mancha may reasonably be perceived as Spain, rendering any regional distinction meaningless: The spatial geography of Castilla naturally makes it far easier to categorise everywhere over the horizon as a nebulous whole, a logic quite impossible to transfer to coastal regions.

Renfe’s role in all this grows curiouser and curiouser: RENFE was premised on managing the balance of Castilla, but RENFE’s only tool was a mode of transport poorly suited to the sparse populations of north and south (Castilla), which thus could only function in combination with Madrid. It transpires that RENFE was no mere ancillary to the balance of Castilla, rather it was the manifestation of that balance, and consequently there could be no distinction between RENFE and “Spain”. As explored in the first essay, “Saving Ferroviarias“, contemporary Renfe and ADIF are still struggling to make the same transition to “democracy” that Spain commenced in the late 1970s. Although the Autonomous Community structure is an imperfect reflection on differing degrees of localism, the regionalist tendency of the periphery can at least be directly associated to the administrative structure of the Autonomous Community. While such communities require that the national railway alter its approach, the basis of that new approach is conceptually easy to understand. Communities in the core, not least Castilla-La Mancha, transpire to be much harder for the contemporary railway to serve, because while officially wrapped in the flag of autonomy, they continue to lean on a prior notion of nation – exactly the notion that Renfe’s national deception was built on.

The combination renders the contemporary railway as a dynamic compromise between national and regionalist requirements. Such a dynamic compromise is an entirely pragmatic means of managing the tensions inherent in Modern Spain, even if it inevitably satisfies nobody completely. Unfortunately the shift from land to people (as expected under democracy) can easily become conflated with the shift from nation to region (which was also triggered by democracy), potentially framing human connectivity against the idea of nation. This conflation is most obvious in policy that maintains historic infrastructure that offers minimal passenger utility. A second vulnerability lay in the periphery’s apparent political tendency to ever more regionalism, while policy fails to exert any greater sense of community in Castilla: The growing difference stretches the dynamic compromise, potentially to the point where a single entity such as Renfe is unable to cope with two conflicting accounts of what, operationally, remain much the same trains. The appearance of Autonomous Community railway operators during the transition of the late 1970s was perhaps indicative of RENFE‘s struggle to manage the dynamic compromise in the early years of democracy, and while the contemporary railway manages better, the challenges keep coming – from the 2006 demands of the Catalan Statute for full control over Catalunya’s “national” railways, to a European liberalisation agenda that may make it increasingly difficult to maintain Renfe’s traditional roles.

As the actuality of the stretching of the dynamic compromise becomes harder to manage, the tendency of Spanish society would seem to be to emphasise perception. Yet understanding how to better manage all this tension is surely paramount, because railways are traditionally a physical manifestation of state, which cannot entirely exist in perception. Continued emphasis on perception – be “AVE” or Spain or whatever the national railway is supposed to be – will eventually fracture and expose an unvarnished version of Spain’s railways that might suddenly look rather ugly. Were this problem solely the domain of railways, it might be safely ignored by a state for whom rail is actually nowhere near as important a mode of transport (societally and economically) as it is perceived. Unfortunately the tautology that its railways are Spain is very much alive, and the tension attributed to railways is also a tension within the modern political state: The further the implicit nationalisms of the core and sometimes explicit regionalisms of the periphery are stretched apart, the less “democracy” is free to focus on people.

Café Para Todos

The Second Republic, that between Primo de Rivera and the Civil War, proposed an asymmetric model of regional governance where the peripheral regions had greater self-governance than the regions in the core. The underlying tension that the Second Republic needed to manage has never gone away, as recently attested by Catalunya and the subsequent wider debate on Autonomous Community funding. And if “Spain” is but a perpetual attempt to balance the different needs of the periphery and the core, it is inevitable that Spain’s railways – as the physical manifestation of the state – must exist in the midst of this unresolvable tension: The reanimation of regional in this essay’s title is not just a question of trains. It is perhaps no accident that Gregorio Morán introduces Adolfo Suárez’s doctrine of “café para todos” (coffee for all) at the opening of a railway station. Suárez’s doctrine deemed that each of the regional Autonomous Communities empowered in the late-1970s transition to “democracy” would be treated the same by the Spanish state – an attempt to dilute the inflated demands of the “historic communities” (Catalunya, Euskadi and Galicia), nullify Andalucían claims for such special status, and soothe those parts of the core that didn’t particularly want autonomy, especially Castilla. Of course reality remained, and still remains, far more complicated. Had RENFE started serving café para todos on all its trains, Castilla would have been exposed and the Nacional, the physical manifestation of the nation, might have crumbled. The quid pro quo is a national deception, a societal realm of differing perceptions, and a political theatre which might reasonably regard self-analysis in public as a failure.

The term “actuality” has been used throughout this sequence of essays to allude to that which is analytically or numerically revealed, invariably contrasting to “perception”, that which is societally known. Both constitute “reality”. The balance and tension between actuality and perception provides insight into that which can only be understood from within. Managing this balance becomes essential at higher complexities of state – especially nationally, and especially in a nation as diverse as Spain – because each political actor has their own way of understanding. This is implicitly accepted in the use of nebulous language such as “cohesión territorial” – the only possible misunderstanding of which is the presumption of a single definition. Spanish society is of course adept at managing itself through a complex web of societal relations that none need understand entirely, and while the analysis presented here may help outsiders comprehend what they cannot understand from within, it serves no purpose internally. The caveat, that which has been explored in earlier essays such as On the Wings of Hope, is when “Spain” ceases to be itself: When it has become infested by the external world, especially in a way that infests those societal relations it relies on to manage itself, the societal passion for extremities tends to disaster in the absence of the expected internal safety net – the “bouncy castle” of state. Having embraced this world financially, there is a certain rationale to also embracing its politically. That does not imply the blind application of the predictive analytic to policymaking, as might be supposed by econometric approaches: As outlined above, asserting that all truth is numerical does not make perceptions disappear. And even in Britain, where the role of government is to permit only that which it can manage the outcome of, predictive (analytic) policymaking has been struggling for decades (the current exit from the European Union, Brexit, may yet mark its death – which, incidentally, has serious implications for the stability of state thereafter).

The implicit presumption of these essays has been that railways reflect society, and while that precedence is uncertain, from a policy perspective the long-term dominance of society over its railways seems entirely reasonable: Ultimately the railways serve society – as transport or otherwise – and if it isn’t transport, it’s otherwise. As the previous section concluded, Spanish society should not be conflated with its people, and therein lay much of the tension of the Modern “democratic” era – a tension apparent since the first Luarcan missive of the first paragraph of the first essay, “Saving Ferroviarias“, the meaning of the word digno still just as hazy. The question raised, should a national railway network serve smaller localities, is not just a question for the railway, and not just a question of stations and trains. The societal patterns reflected in Spain’s national railway provide a means of monitoring the geographic distribution of the tensions within a nation whose varied characteristics often defy such internal comparisons. For the more progressive elements of Spanish political society the idea that the national railway reflects the nation is unpalatable, because that nation too readily emerges somewhat less “modern” than advertised. AVE better serves their political discourse because AVE carries the pretence of serving people – easily pilloried where it fails to do so – the other objectives of AVE more easily ignored.

In contrast FEVE more blatantly echoes the Carlist regionalism of Juan Vázquez de Mella – the national theocratic of traditional Spain, rendered locally – currently maintaining a functional nonsense of an actuality that no train passenger or railway worker can be content to inhabit. Yet FEVE can prove quite untouchable: The previous closure of its León-Bilbao line to passengers (due to a lack of them) resulted in a successful campaign to restore the service, while the current campaign (to stave off the sort of rationalisation that tends to afflict railway services averaging 6 passengers per train) appears to be eliciting more supporters than there are customers: Perception dominates actuality, affording the railway a societal importance which has little relation to its transport function. FEVE, and perhaps other less-trafficked parts of the national network, are surely heading for the pages of a dystopian novel, in which stations are lovingly maintained for trains that nobody has actually used in years, trains whose advertised schedules transpire to have been quietly replaced by a demand-responsive taxi. But to simply dismiss this as an irrational artefact of a pre-Modern Spain is also to not comprehend the policy tension it manages, and thereafter to be unpleasantly surprised when that tension boils over.

The prime role of the national railway is undoubtedly to help keep the lid on the societal melting pot called Spain. The essay “Disassembling Trenes” showed that, per head of population, the genuinely national (inter-community) emphasis of Renfe was upon Spain’s most difficult Modern administrative geographies – Castilla and the Ebro Valley – and not on shuttling AVE trains between Madrid and Barcelona or Sevilla, the strongest natural national passenger markets for rail. RENFE, and its contemporary successors Renfe and ADIF, have grown adept at managing state, and this sequence of essays reinforces the conclusion of Is Alta Velocidad Fast?, that the national railway is a better manager of state than state: The shear diversity of approaches to network density and service pattern is remarkable, as is the attempt to synergise with local societal expectations, as is doing all that while maintaining a sense of national coherence, not to mention managing the relentless expectation of better. The national railway cannot solve the underlying structural tensions of Modern Spain, but then by definition (of Spain as a perpetual internal tension) none can, so managing them is the solution.

That said, the national railway’s management of Castilla is far from perfect – Toledo and Soria raise particular concerns, as does provision in Madrid – but the pre-eminence of LAV in Castilla, and the subsequent need to make better use of that network, should broadly favour the management of Castilla. Soria might reasonably be added to the woes of the Ebro Valley it borders: The Ebro Valley contains much of the range of geopolitical diversity of Spain, but within a relatively small area and with much smaller absolute populations. La Rioja, until 1980 a core province of Castilla, faces Navarra across the river, arguably the most autonomous region of Spain: Navarra’s somewhat-independent kingdom outlasted all the provincial monarchies around it, while its transition-era re-evocation of fuero (a medieval structure of autonomy) granted the community almost total control over the administration of tax. Downstream lies Aragón, dominated by its capital city, Zaragoza, which is uncomfortably framed by two remote and apparently forgotten provinces – Huesca and Teruel. Here the tension between actuality and perception is palpable, something the title piece of this essay attempts to capture:

The high-speed streets of Zaragoza Delicias are paved with gold, yet graffiti-strewn hand-me-down regional trains run through them like sewage. That’s a -162% Regionalism Bias, empirically.

Were the citizens of Zaragoza all happily lost in their own collective delusion, this might not matter. However their city and province, among the best connected in Spain, fall into the same Autonomous Community as one of the worst connected provincial capitals and provinces, Teruel – a shared administration that de facto should be capable of relating these two facts politically. The question is surely not whether Teruel exists, but whether Aragón does? Between Zaragoza’s extreme bias to national connectivity, and Teruel’s tendency to appeal directly to a national railway that hasn’t shown much interest in Teruel since the era of Guadalhorce, the railway-centric answer to that question is no. It is surely no coincidence that the Junta de Aragón is one of the few Autonomous Community governments that contracts additional services directly from Renfe – an action which, as first mooted in the essay Arriva Celta and reiterated by the case of Córdoba, most threatens the “national” role of Renfe. Aragón augments several existing service patterns to offer work-time journeys from the major provincial towns into Zaragoza – apparently the result of proposed rationalisation in 2013 (with almost all the services involved performing poorly, typically carrying less than 20 passengers per train) – betraying less of a well-considered transport strategy, and more of an awkwardly-managed political backlash.

The broad conclusion is that Renfe’s national role in the Ebro Valley is inter-provincial, but the interaction of Renfe with the Ebro Valley’s Modern “democratic” structures is suboptimal. That Renfe’s national deception successfully manages a similar matrix of provinces in Castilla, but performs less well in the Ebro Valley, points to the intrinsic importance of nation within Castilla – that the nation is Castilla – while the understanding of “nation” in the Ebro Valley is considerably more varied. Core and periphery can be managed quite differently in regions that are consistently defined as one or the other, but in the Ebro Valley the whole panoply of approaches is required on much the same regional network, and consequently the task of management is much more challenging. Tension-induced fractures in the nation might reasonably be expected to first appear at the extremes. But geographically such fractures are hardest to manage, and thus logically more likely to fracture, where those tensions are in close geographical proximity.

In an actuality prone to be skewed by perception, where “democracy” cannot merely suppose all people equal, money has perhaps become the only common interchangeable token, and hence the only basis for the assessment of railway improvement or rationalisation. Yet that money is now infested by global finance, and affecting internal societal balance with money has become considerably more risky than in the past. Spain has been built on a philosophically structure intended to catch its own extremities: The “bouncy castle” of state allows its polis to throw caution to the wind, safe in the knowledge that they will, eventually, bounce back. However that structure is premised on the internality of state – its philosophical separation from the external world – as explored in the Patria and Patrimonio sequence of essays. Money breeches that separation, and thus undermines the security of the “bouncy castle”, albeit in such a functionally internalised way that the polis continues to consider the structure to be safe. Its actual lack of safety is key to understanding the Catalan Procés surrounding The Act of Referèndum, and here represents a particular policy vulnerability because of the high dependence of Spain’s national railways on externally-sourced capital.

The Spanish state is still struggling with the most basic arithmetic flaw in its railway-based state-building, as first noted in the first essay, “Saving Ferroviarias“: That in the context of railways, the purely public state is not strong enough to deliver the “cohesión territorial” the state needs in order to maintain state. This is less true of road-based modes of transport, and perhaps easier to acknowledge of an aviation sector which is altogether less physically melded to the territory of Spain. The state’s railway role is consequently premised on losing money, a premise not altered by Renfe’s “commercial” operations, which turn a modest profit on the back of thirty-or-so billion euros of public investment – profits insufficient to provide a true commercial rate of return. Such emphasis on losing, not making, money inverts the conventional rationale of business development. In the few market territories which perhaps could be commercially viable, and others that at least could be a lot more market-centric, the national railway has no cultural motivation to develop, as earlier intimated by the case of Madrid’s Cercanías. But this is not specifically a failing of the administrative state, rather the “state of mind”, that of knowing – and Spanish society’s comprehension of the railway betrays the same inverted rationale: Such rationale does not acknowledge that one municipality of 140 thousand people has no railway station or national service, while another municipality of 61 people does, and maybe the former deserves their fair share of “Obligación de Servicio Público”. Rather only that there used to be station here in the past, and therefore the railway can be b(r)ought back.

As highlighted in the essay “Understanding Obligación“, the construction of LAV has demonstrated that nationally almost anywhere in Spain can have a railway, yet this miracle of contemporary civil engineering requires local (physical, historical) evidence to be understood locally. The implication of this paradox is that perception dominates nationally, while the actuality is more local – especially in places those actual link to the national railway is accessed via their provincial capital, very remote from the day-to-day actuality of local people’s lives. Renfe’s national deception may be interpreted not merely a facet of the railway, but of the nation itself – a restatement of “RENFE as nation”. However, since rail is fundamentally not a local mode of transport, especially not in rural areas, the national railway has little or no actual role in a substantial part of the nation. It comes as no surprise that Spain is awash with perception-driven political campaigns in support of railways that have little actual use.

While Spain has her own nuances, the basic issue is recurrent across Europe: Britain, for example, has a class of passenger railway service called a Parliamentary Train – a “ghost” or PSUL – a train service typically operated as infrequently as legally possible to serve stations or track that the operator or government would have closed, had the closure process been politically and administratively more straightforward than operating a train for nobody. This does not directly reflect localism: Parallel local bus services, the vast majority of which are commercial in Britain, may legally come-and-go with 28 days notice – and while in practice many bus routes go unchanged for decades, they persist to serve an actual market, not a market of perception. A railway station offers a greater sense of physical presence than a typical bus stop, but little prevents other such local structures being abandoned or demolished when they fall into disuse, suggesting a deeper societal explanation than mere sentimental attachment. The phenomena is presumably rooted in the same inverted business development logic explored above – a logic that nation states pursuing rail-based transport tend to adopt by dint of their railways losing, not making, money: An inversion which influences not just government, but wider society, perpetuating ever-more taxing demands on the state’s treasury to support roles that railway technology was never designed for. Spain merely emphasises the extremities of this pattern, since much of its territory is fundamentally unsuitable for passenger railway operations, its societal structure struggles to manage topics that are remote from the knowable “family” group, and large amounts of public money have already been committed to its railways.

This sequence of essays opened and now closes with FEVE, not because FEVE itself is likely to bankrupt the nation, but because FEVE is a harbinger of what is to come: FEVE reveals how the Spanish state deals, or rather does not deal, with the artefacts of past railway policy. The contemporary enthusiasm for “AVE” will eventually become exhausted, perhaps because the money runs out, but more likely because the paradigm of “progress” moves on to something new and better. The Spanish reception of Elon Musk’s “hype” – the sale of hope to a market of perception that is Hyperloop – is a case in point, although here “new and better” is rather subjective: “Vallance’s Suffocation Scheme“, as initially experienced in the 1820s, evolved into a technology that placed the carriage outside the tube, a technology whose limitations were gradually surpassed by the concept of placing a mobile engine infront of the carriage, an advanced technology subsequently sold to Spain’s Isabel II as railways – and while propulsion by magnetic induction makes modern evacuated capsule pipeline technology much more viably mechanically, the civil engineering of Hyperloop across Spain would surely pose a greater challenge than crossing the Pajares with LAV. When enthusiasm for “AVE” is usurped by something else, whatever that is, “AVE” will freeze in whatever ludicrous actuality it has been rendered, and the state will thereafter carry the financial burden of AV perception, unable to reconcile the actual requirements of the people of Extremadura (and, frankly, most of Spain) to travel with the perceived importance placed in a piece of railway infrastructure that was arguably only ever optimal for transport in densely populated Japan. In the meantime the railway has a finite opportunity to hammer LAV into something slightly more sustainable operationally. Unfortunately that implies closing the very intermediate stations on older lines that are already prone to elicit such perceptions.