Reanimating Regional

Delicious Deception

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”.

Regionalism

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 cohension, 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.

Continue reading “Reanimating Regional”

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Understanding Obligación

FEVE Crossroads

This essay 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”. “Understanding Obligación” is the fourth 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. “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”.

Modelling Connectivity

Transport models have acquired a reputation for becoming impenetrably complicated, their results rendered as factual knowledge however internally flawed their logics actually are. Spanish policymaking has its own form of complexity, that in the relationships between people, and thus complex modelling risks being distilled down into simple statements in support of a pre-determined policy position. Instead this analysis tries to place greater emphasis on understanding, using only commonly agreed tokens (people, trains, distance), and making only practical assumptions that hopefully reflect “common sense”. To that end, a model of connectivity across Spain’s passenger railway network has been built in simple stages:

  1. Basic Connectivity – who is connected by train to who: A matrix of routes between municipalities with stations on which at least one train per day links the pair directly. Each pairing is multiplied by the municipal population of the destination, the result for all pairs from the origin then summed and attributed to the origin. The population of the origin municipality is added to the result, which is assumed to have perfect connectivity to itself – an assumption that only tangibly affects the overall connectivity score of the largest, and avoids cities attaining worse connectivity scores than the suburbs that connect to them (because those suburbs would gain the connectivity of the city’s population, while the city would not).
  2. Service Connectivity – who is connected to who by what frequency of train service: As basic connectivity above, except each route pairing is additionally multiplied by a factor representing service frequency, ( 1 – ( 1 / daily trains ) ), where daily trains is the total of both directions. This formula gives no value to the first train (which logically supposes no possibility of return), but thereafter values of each additional pair marginally, as half the value of the previous pair. Such weighting places emphasis on attaining the most basic level of service, as befits the non-urban regional networks that are the focus of this sequence of essays, while weighting high frequency metro services very marginally indeed.
  3. Hinterland Connectivity – who is connected to who by what frequency of train service, but where people use the station with the best ratio of connectivity to proximity, not necessarily the nearest station: For every municipality (both with and without stations), calculate the straight line distance from the centroid of the origin municipality to all municipalities with stations within 150 kilometres, and then find the municipality with the highest ( Service Connectivity of municipality * ( 1 / distance to municipality in kilometres ) ), assigning that calculated value to the initial origin municipality. This gravity model reflects the tendency of municipalities with many more trains to attract passengers from more distant markets. The assumed distance tapper is approximate, but generally succeeds in both re-assigning relatively poorly served municipalities that are close to a much better served neighbour (for example, a municipality 10 kilometres away would need to offer at least 10 times better Service Connectivity than a local station), and assigning people in municipalities without a station to the most attractive station in their proximity (the best served relative to distance). Every place in Peninsula Spain is within 100 kilometres of at least one station, and the 150 km buffer ensures a range of stations are considered, including provincial capitals.
  4. Connectivity Index – how does this connectivity compare to that of the average Spaniard: Hinterland Connectivity is expressed as a percentage of the average for all the municipalities scored (in the base case, those within 150 kilometres of at least one station, almost the entire population of Spain), with that average weighted by population: For example, if Madrid represented 7% of the total population of scored municipalities, Madrid’s score would count towards 7% of the overall average. This population weighting serves only to distribute the resulting indices around a meaningful average, where a connectivity index of 100 is what the average Spaniard (with a station within 150 kilometres) would obtain. The indices are thus entirely relative to other members of the population, reflecting policy themes of balance and equality.

The underlying dataset used is that described in the earlier essay, “Disassembling Trenes” – essentially a frequency-based matrix of all non-tourist rail passenger services within Spain on Friday 20 July 2018, alongside the municipal Padrón from the start of 2017. In the interest of transparency and the benefit of any other interested researchers, the raw network analysed is available in Geojson format – as is, neither supported nor maintained, and obviously without the associated computation described above. Frequency-based connectivity models are far faster to compute than those that process detailed schedules, and also far easier to edit – allowing the impact of a change in service pattern to be tested conceptually, without providing the kind of detailed schedule operational planners only produce after deciding to implement a network change. That flexibility to use connectivity models for network design was unfortunately lost during the development of these techniques in Britain in the early 2000s, ultimately because central government’s desire to understand connectivity surpassed their desire to assist those who might improve it, a rationale subsequently perpetuated in academia. Yet basic connectivity models remain powerful tools for both grand strategy and network tinkering, and in an environment with little or no interchangeable electronic schedule data (such as Spain) their deployment can add insight where otherwise there is none: Spanish railway interests produce plenty of good technical information, but remarkably little relates services to people, and much of what does is pre-occupied with appeasing the god of high speed.

The aim of this analysis is to understand the broad patterns by focusing on the key relationships, not to attempt to model every conceivable detail: Journey distance is ignored, but in practice the pattern of direct routes will tend to constrain destinations, while the tendency to lower frequencies on longer distance journeys renders remote destinations with poorer Service Connectivity. The availability of realistic return journeys is also ignored, but the probability of such return journeys is inherent in the overall service frequency. Interchange between trains is ignored, since as discussed in the essay “Disassembling Trenes“, interchange is not a dominant behaviour in most of Spain’s non-urban regional networks. Local interchange, especially between suburbs and better-served city centres, is factored into Hinterland Connectivity – the reduced connectivity with distance may be assumed a crude proxy for the reduced attractiveness of interchange. Hinterland Connectivity similarly manages the few branchlines (such as FEVE‘s Collanzo line in the Asturias) whose services require interchange to reach any major destination. Hinterland Connectivity takes no specific account of the availability of alternative modes of transport to reach the railway network, although its tendency is to link groups of people in relatively close proximity, groups who tend to establish transport links between one another. The factors used in Service and Hinterland Connectivity calculations may seem rather arbitrary – and would be for detailed microsimulation – but their use here is in the production of strategic aggregated comparators, where broad consistency of approach is more important than precise local calibration.

The connectivity of the islands and north-African autonomous cities – Balears, Canarias, Ceuta and Melilla – cannot be adequately reflected in a railway model of Spain, since even islands with railways can provide no direct connections beyond their own island. Overall Connectivity Indices include island and autonomous city municipalities within 150 kilometres of a municipality with a station, so can affect the overall average score and thus the index, but in practical terms the results for these municipalities are spurious and cannot be compared to Peninsula Spain. Analysis of the connectivity of (only) non-Renfe operators has a similar weakness because the networks of these operators do not generally connect to one another – for example, however well FGV serves Valenciana, it cannot be fairly compared to a national network that links Valenciana to other parts of Spain. Non-Renfe operators can be important to specific local municipalities, and are thus important within the most local analysis, but add only marginally to the overall connectivity of regions: Even in the provinces best served by non-Renfe operators, Madrid and Barcelona, such operators only add about 10% to the overall Connectivity Index. Lleida’s extremely high connectivity poses a particular challenge to the Pobla de Segur route, which offers a relatively infrequent service whose only major destination is Lleida, and thus provides far less direct connectivity than Lleida herself. While the route is modelled, the connectivity it offers is usurped by Hinterland Connectivity at many place close to Lleida, and even at Pobla de Segur the railway offers only a marginal connectivity advantage, hence is almost invisible in the Connectivity Indices for local municipalities. Analysis of Renfe’s “commercial” non-OSP products ignores local OSP journeys delivered as shared seats on commercial services, leaving those commercial services only to stop for the benefit of longer-distance passengers. This is an accurate reflection on current operations, but produces local quirks such as removing one of the links between Badajoz and Cáceres while retaining that between Badajoz and Madrid – with the net result of reducing slightly the overall (commercial) Connectivity Index of Badajoz. Such reduced connectivity is, however, a reasonable reflection on the marginal nature of the commercial service provided.

Continue reading “Understanding Obligación”

Deconstructing Estaciones

María Zambrano Dawns

This essay provides a demographic analysis of Spain’s railway stations, that explores the unserved areas and probes the differences between regions. “Deconstructing Estaciones” is the third 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. 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”.

Station Master

The prior analysis of trains in the essay, “Disassembling Trenes“, has provided a broad territorial assessment of Spanish passenger railways, but those trains ultimately serve people, people who access those trains at local stations. Before examining people and “connectivity” in detail – the topic of the next essay, “Understanding Obligación” – an overview of the railway network’s stations is useful. For this analysis, seats on shared trains (for example a regional product offered for local journeys on a longer-distance train) have been apportioned half to each product, and trains that divide into portions have only been counted once over common sections of route. Many of Madrid’s Cercanías line 7 train journeys have been counted twice at central Madrid stations, reflecting the fact that each half of line 7 serves a completely different set of suburban stations – trains on circular services were otherwise counted just once per station served. As described in the previous essay, “Disassembling Trenes“, stations allowing interchange between routes were generally counted as a single station, the main exceptions being neighbouring stations advertised separately for AV and non-AV trains, such Valencia’s Joaquín Sorolla and Nord. Three stations were not included in this analysis due to lack of observed service, but are known to have regular passenger services in term-time (Cadiz and Córdoba university stations) or in one direction only (A Pobra do Brollon in Galicia).

The observed service network contains 2531 railway stations with a daily passenger service. Of these, 1482 (59%) are served by national operator Renfe, 1098 (43%) by another operator, with 49 (2%) served by both. The busiest stations are primarily defined by non-Renfe services, especially metros: Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya is the absolute busiest station in Spain for trains, with over 2600 daily (all directions and lines combined), but only 17% of those trains are operated by Renfe. Overall, non-Renfe operators tend to offer much higher frequencies than Renfe, not least because non-Renfe routes tend be urban. Of all non-Renfe served stations, only the eleven stations on the northern half of the Pobla de Segur line (in Catalunya) receive less than 20 trains per day (both directions combined). The Pobla de Segur line is notable for its complex geopolitical history, and in recent decades has gradually shifted its funding, ownership and control from nation to region. In contrast, almost half (48%) of the stations Renfe serve receive less than 20 of their trains each day – and 11% are served by just two trains daily, one in each direction. For specifically Renfe trains, the busiest station is Madrid’s Atocha, with over a thousand daily from the Cercanías station alone, a total of 1290 when combined with the neighbouring AV terminus. Commerciality (using factors from the “Renfe Commerciality” table in the previous essay, “Disassembling Trenes“) is predictably skewed toward AV-specific stations, especially those with no (OSP) Avant service. At the opposite extreme, just over eight hundred stations attained a commerciality of 0%, representing 54% of the stations served by Renfe. 88% of all the stations served by Renfe are served only by state-supported OSP products: Just 12% of Renfe-served stations have some pretence of commercial activity, with only 2% of Renfe-served stations visited by more than 20 non-OSP trains each day. The overwhelming majority of Spain’s passenger railway stations are served because the state demands it.

The map below summarises the overall geographic pattern of service provision by station, each circle representing one station, with the area of the circle in proportion to the number of daily trains (both directions totalled). The core of the Canarias have been inset into the bottom-right corner of the map, all the (tram) stations on Tenerife. The islands cropped off the map have no passenger railways. The overall pattern is characterised by Spain’s larger cities and conurbations, which visually dominate. However there are subtle differences to observe: For example, the tapering of service frequency with distance away from the city centre is gradual in Barcelona, Valencia, and to a degree Sevilla and Bilbao-Donostia (San Sebastián), but for Madrid the transition is much sharper: For all the prior commentary highlighting the large proportion of trains crossing the community boundaries within “Castilla”, perhaps this proportion is not yet high enough, and the existence of administrative boundaries is somehow inhibiting schedules. Societal evidence from Toledo suggests so – and while Toledo has a broadly comparable relation to Madrid as Girona to Barcelona, with somewhat similar populations, Toledo is served by just a third the number of trains of Girona. There are also substantial differences in the distribution of minor stations (those with fewest trains), which tend to be closer together in the north of Spain than in the south. That pattern does not necessarily reflect differences in population density, and appears more closely aligned to variations in average operating speed (a pattern described in Is Alta Velocidad Fast?) – although it is unclear what constitutes cause and what constitutes effect: Do larger gaps between stations along a route allow the trains serving those station to operate faster overall, or do slow trains stop more often because the deceleration time penalty of stopping is less for a slow train?

Stations by Train Service
Stations by Train Service, where each circle represents a station and the circle’s area is in proportion to the number of trains serving the station (base geography – provincial boundaries in white, railway lines in grey – CC-BY 4.0 via Instituto Geográfico Nacional de España and ADIF)

Underneath most regional Autonomous Communities lay a few large provinces, and below them the standard unit of local administrative geography in Spain is the municipality. Municipalities specifically reflect societal – especially historic and cultural – perceptions of locality, with their size and character ranging from tiny villages to large cities. The older parts of Spain (especially Castilla y León) tend to contain a greater density of municipalities than the newer south, presumably reflecting historic differences in the structure of land ownership (specifically minifundio in the north and latifundio in the south). As discussed later, the Autonomous Community of Murcia has a particularly low density of rural municipalities across its region, which can skew comparisons. Municipalities remain important in the legislative structure of Spain, including local public transport, where traditionally municipal mayors controlled services wholly within their municipality, while those between municipalities defaulted to higher tiers of government. Municipal geography is not applicable to longer-distance travel, for which station catchment tends to exceed the immediate locality the station is in – an alternative analysis of this (called Hinterland Connectivity) will be presented in the next essay, “Understanding Obligación“. Municipal boundaries normally include any station that bears the municipality’s name, although modern AV parkway (“camp”) stations can be exceptions – for example, Figueres-Vilafant is in the second municipality, but primarily serves the first. However, generally municipal boundaries both reflect local travel and provide a basis for association – that a given locality has (or not) a railway station and service – which can have important societal and political connotations beyond mere transport need. In subsequent analysis the observed service network has been arranged not as links between stations, but as links between municipalities. Each train has been counted once per municipality, regardless of how many stations it serves within each. People have then been ascribed to passenger railway services using the municipal Padrón (census registry), specifically data from the start of 2017, the most recent non-provisional year. Initial analysis describes only people:

  1. People are the focus of “democratic” expectation, even if Modern Spain’s democratic model cannot properly mirror the interactions of its people, as discussed in the first essay, “Saving Ferroviarias“.
  2. People are de facto the most widely agree notion of equality within a society, and thus the most universal basis for understanding political counter-balances, even if the Orwellian reality is that the people of Spain are not equal.
  3. People are what board passenger trains, and in almost all cases resident populations are the prime determinant of passenger transport markets, a metric potentially nuanced by further factors such as wealth, age and car availability.
  4. The services and facilities people need, and the economic and cultural activity people engage in, also tend to cluster around groups of people, and thus the connectivity of one geographic group of people to other groups provides a basic measure of the connectivity of individual people to the facilities and activities they need. Only in rather specific cases, such as airports built outside the boundaries of the city they serve, or holiday resorts with few permanent residents, does this rationale fundamentally fail.

Continue reading “Deconstructing Estaciones”

Disassembling Trenes

Regional Depot

This essay deconstructs Spain’s current passenger railways to expose the deceptions of AVE and nation therein. “Disassembling Trenes” is the second 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. “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”.

Modelling Trains

Both infrastructure manager ADIF and the Spanish government maintain slightly different lists of railway stations and terminals, but both lists contain several hundred points which currently have no regular scheduled passenger railway service, so such infrastructure catalogues cannot be used to infer transport utility. Few Spanish public transport operators provide open electronic datasets, and most such data is limited to the larger urban areas that are not the focus of this analysis. Only recently, with the growth of channels such as Google Maps, has it become important to advertise public transport services beyond their immediate geographic locality, and many smaller operators and Autonomous Community governments still seem to lack the technical expertise or organisational will to produce interchangeable electronic data. Renfe may talk of big data and startup accelerators, but in practice can’t even manage to exchange basic schedule data within its own organisation: Regional/long distance, Iberian-gauge suburban, and narrow (metric) gauge services are each dependant on separate customer-facing internet interfaces, each of which tends to deny the existence of the services of the others. For example, passenger rail services between Gijón and Oviedo are split across all three systems, as if “Renfe” were three separate operators, which of course locally they are.

The analysis of regional railway services thus defaults to pre-electronic research methods: The manual interrogation of public timetables. Given the magnitude of the task, this was done for just one day (Friday 20 July 2018) and in one direction (away from Madrid, or broadly equivalent direction of travel). The period immediately pre-dates the signing of Renfe’s pre-liberalisation OSP contract, representing a brief period of network stability in which no major new LAV routes entered operation, and no liberalisation-related services commenced. The “day” starts with the first departures of the morning, typically at about 05:00, and continues until “end of service”, typically early Saturday morning – or Saturday daytime for overnight Trenhotel services that commence on Friday evening. Friday is one of the busiest days for longer distance rail travel so represents the network at its maximum extent (notably including a few routes which are not served daily with direct trains, such as Madrid-Águilas, or Madrid-Huelva via Medina), and also includes weekday suburban metro schedules with late evening extensions (typically until 02:00, but not throughout the night as is more common from Saturday into Sunday). July schedules do not include dedicated university services, notable only on the fringe of Barcelona, Cadiz and Córdoba. There are similar early-summer reductions in services for some Andalucían metros, but July schedules do not include the full August reductions to urban services common across Spain. In practice Renfe’s regional network changes little from day-to-day and month-to-month, so while the choice of one day and one direction will generate a few quirks, it can be considered broadly representative of regional services. The most notable differences between July and the winter months are on business-centric AVE routes, notably Madrid-Barcelona, where the July service only contains about two-thirds of the service offered in mid-September – the trains instead deployed to bolster leisure routes, such as an extra return journey each day between Barcelona and Málaga/Sevilla. While these seasonal changes alter the balance of operations and connectivity slightly, they do not radically change the number of trains operated or the places served. The observed service network linked all but three of (over 2500) stations known to have regular services. The exceptions are the dedicated university stations in Cadiz and Córdoba, which are only served in term-time, and A Pobra do Brollon (near Monforte de Lemos in Galicia), which has only one train a day eastbound (not west, the direction of travel from Madrid).

The observed service network contains all scheduled public passenger services operated on fixed rails within Spain – including metro, tram, and funicular lines where integrated into the surrounding public transport network. The only exceptions are trains that serve no local resident population and/or are priced at a “tourist” fare premium. Notable exclusions include Renfe’s Cercedilla-Cotos line (which while technically part of Madrid’s suburban Cercanías network, actually serves ski resorts) and FGC‘s Vall de Núria and Montserrat rack-railways (which are priced significantly higher than surrounding public transport, and likewise primarily serve tourist markets). Each individual service was recorded with the order of its station stops and the number of train journeys operated daily. Neighbouring pairs of stations advertised as an interchange were generally counted as a single shared station, with the principle exception of station pairs where Renfe specifically emphasise the difference between AV and local services (such as Madrid’s Atocha/Cercanías and Valencia’s Joaquín Sorolla/Nord). This method creates small inconsistencies in the count of stations, but does not affect analysis of access to services. In most cases timetable information was used directly, typically extracted from Renfe’s website by querying pairs of neighbouring towns to reveal any local services between. Train numbers were used to help identify trains uniquely across the network and avoid duplication. In a few cases, especially local seats offered on long-distance trains, both train numbers and schedule times for the same train differed slightly (notably in Galicia, as if passengers with certain ticket types board in a different manner), which required careful interpretation of schedules to identify shared trains. A small element of error is inevitable, especially when attempting to extract intricate service patterns from the Cercanías interface, which only returns journeys between the queried stations and does not provide a list of all the intermediate stations served: While some Cercanías service patterns adhere to their publicised metro-style route maps, many do not – for example, in the Asturias the majority of trains on the C2 (El Entrego) line appear to continue onto the C3 (San Juan de Nieva) line, while many C1 (Gijón southward) services routinely skip certain station stops. Cercanías’ metro-style presentation may have been copied from Madrid, but in places such as the Asturias, the practical implementation of the concept remains as varied as Renfe’s non-Cercanías Regional schedules. For metros where only service frequencies were published, the average headway was multiplied by its respective time period to give an approximate daily total. Where track engineering work had temporarily replaced trains with buses, an otherwise representative railway timetable was assumed. Non-rail modes were otherwise excluded.

Ultimately a full assessment of the role of rail should include other transport modes, and including local trams while excluding high frequency bus routes may seem inappropriate. The inclusion of trams reflects the inclusion of Renfe’s metric-gauge FEVE, the core of which operates like a low frequency segregated tramway or metro. A similar blur between subterranean metro and on-street tram is found elsewhere, with many cities presenting tram lines as “metro” services – the historic distinction between “light” and “heavy” rail no longer clear. The inclusion of metro services in turn reflects the inclusion of Renfe’s suburban Cercanías, whose operations range greatly in frequency, and on infrequent routes are directly comparable to local “regional” services: For example, “Cercanías” in Madrid includes urban services with over a hundred trains per day in each direction, while “Cercanías” in Valencia is used to describe the four trains per day (plus one shared with a longer distance regional train) from relatively rural Caudiel to Sagunt. Likewise parts of Valencia’s metro defy the popular frequency expectation of the term “metro”: For example, the southern section of Line 1 to Villamueva de Castellon carries just over 20 trains per day in each direction, a fraction of the frequency of most metro lines in Barcelona or Madrid (although both those systems contain their own frequency quirks).

The vast majority of services can be analysed as recorded. All trains are assumed to return, with observed services duplicated in reverse to complete the full service – an imperfect assumption, but one that is almost always an accurate reflection of Renfe’s service patterns. Obvious differences, notably tram routes which serve different stations in each direction, or “terminate” in a loop, have been recorded separately by direction. Services which operate in a continuous loop (Madrid metro Line 6 and Parla tram) use the start/end station shown in their respective timetables – and analysed with care. Where trains split into two portions mid-journey (which occurs on only eight long-distance commercial Renfe routes), each potion has been recorded for its full journey (as if operated separately throughout) and allocated a code to denote its unique section (to avoid double-counting over common sections in subsequent analysis). Seats offered only for local journeys on otherwise long-distance trains have been recorded in a similar manner – the local segment treated as a separate train, but denoted shared to avoid double-counting the same train in subsequent analysis. The observed service network does not contain information about connections between trains, since it does not record precise schedules. In practice low frequency regional services are not suitable for complex multi-stage journeys, while Renfe’s (non-Cercanías) products tend to emphasise direct links (not interchange), with many regional service patterns offering a wide range of different origin-destination pairs throughout the day. FEVE‘s service patterns include a few notably exceptions (El Berrón, Collanzo), but generally the absence of interchange only skew realistic journey opportunities within urban areas – which are not the focus of this analysis.

This observed network forms the basis of all the analysis contained in this sequence of essays. The next essay, “Deconstructing Estaciones“, specifically analyses stations, with the final pair of essays exploring the network’s connectivity. But before adding such complexities, a simple analysis of trains will expose the inaccuracy of many common perceptions about Spain’s railways.

Continue reading “Disassembling Trenes”

Saving Ferroviarias

ADIF at Luarca station

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.

Continue reading “Saving Ferroviarias”

Is Alta Velocidad Fast?

Awaiting Fast AVE

This essay analyses and explores the regional passenger fare structure of Renfe, Spain’s national railway operator. The question, “Is Alta Velocidad Fast?”, derives from Renfe’s tradition of pricing slower trains cheaper. The question asks whether, in the era of yield management (balancing current patronage to current capacity by modifying price), the traditional fare structure should be applied to high speed, AV, operations? The journey provides an insight into the structure of modern transport geography, the haphazard strategic development and exploitation of Alta Velocidad, the management of national inequalities through fares, the conflation of public and commercial roles within single shared operations, and, from a perspective other than infrastructure, the contemporary challenges to Spain’s railways.

The introductory section describes the current trend toward Temporal Ticketing, with a reflection on how this alters transport geography and state: While the growing reliance on algorithms challenges established operator dominance, it is not necessarily incompatible with societal behaviour, especially for less familiar journeys. A brief history of Avant follows, the Regional Alta Velocidad funded as a public service obligation (OSP), with extensive analysis of fares on Avant corridors, including an assessment of the selective use of yield management on parallel commercial AV services. Avant is placed in context by a similarly detailed analysis of fares on slower regional services, those on which passengers are Paying to Go Faster. The strong relationship between fare and speed is confirmed, but with a balanced structure of revenue-to-cost that equalises quite different styles of operation.

Fare’s Fair exposes the differences in fares and speeds between Spain’s regional Autonomous Communities, demonstrating how fares have apparently been used to manage the inequalities between regions. Unfortunately the same structure has not been adequately deployed to counter AV‘s inequalities, ultimately because AV pricing has been defined by commercial aviation markets: By matching, not taxing, aviation, the cascade effects (of inflated expectation) to lesser classes of transport can only be addressed through subsidy – the flawed policy that is exposed by AV Cercanías, a theoretical high speed suburban railway – Avant being the closest non-theoretical product to AV Cercanías. Inter-City probes how Renfe has evolved the management of marginal longer-distance trains, especially over non-AV routes, where the same train may share regional public service and inter-regional commercial roles. The conflation of pricing models is highlighted, and evidence is presented that suggests the state is subsidising the train, and not specifically the seats upon it – a pattern that might concern the European courts, were it to continue after 2020.

The concluding section takes a contemporary journey From Extremadura to Catalunya Nord – the origin exemplifying the political impact of AV‘s inequalities, the destination actively challenging the idea of region as strictly administrative. Along the way, how transport geography relates to the source of its finance, how the preoccupation of the Spanish political state with infrastructure inhibits behavioural policy interventions, and ultimately, how Renfe transpires to be a better manager of state than state. The Postscript provides an intense reflection on an otherwise somewhat long and technical analysis of what may seem quite a trivial topic, but actually explains much about the state of contemporary Spain.

Temporal Ticketing

The curious case of railway ticketing is one that invariably embeds and perpetuates cultural biases to the perennial question, what is value? For example, the pre-privatisation British Rail ingrained its primitive yield management strategy, that return fares were “cheaper after 09:30”, so deeply into the state psyche that decades later concessionary fares policy was still formulated to protect “the morning peak”, even though the late afternoon had long since become the busier period for many regional public transport networks in Britain. Britain’s railways are still stuggling with the issue, although Britain seems unlikely to shift away from a model that emphasises the temporal capacity of the transport system to handle the intending passenger, and prices journeys accordingly. In parts of Europe, not least Spain, the temporal capacity of the transport system is traditionally not a consideration in pricing. Indeed, every “salida”, the busy days for longer-distance travel at the start and end of holiday periods, the mere possibility that the capacity of Spain’s transport system might have been temporally exceeded, can be rendered a national preoccupation – the media routinely broadcasting reassuring images of half-empty roads and passengers boarding trains like normal. The underlying presumption is that the system accommodates the passenger, even if that means some time periods are far busier than others, and some operational assets lay idle during quieter periods. For example, Barcelona’s metro currently has no fare variation by time of day, even though its patronage is far from constant across the day. The idea of introducing such a variation has been considered only recently, as a means of managing peak overcrowding, and that was only triggered by the post-Independència financial realisation that increasing demand could no longer be met with extra capacity. For state-provided systems, the implicit presumption is that the state will provide. The reasoning is indubitable: State, in its broadest sense, is perpetual, as stable a constant as can be reasoned – not a facet that alters at 8 o’clock just because other people also want to travel then.

Where transport systems are liberalised, most obviously in European aviation, yield management has become the accepted norm. The price of a flight might double or halve from day to day, as airline operators try to fill every seat in every plane – managing their supply, which is largely fixed in the short run, by altering price. Likewise, few will be surprised to discover a flight from Madrid to Berlin (2300km) that today just happens to be cheaper than a flight from Madrid to Barcelona (600km) – in stark contrast to the state-centric model, where fares typically retain a strong correlation to distance. Just two examples of how liberalised transport systems are shifting geography from the spatial to the temporal, and, perhaps more alarmingly, de-humanising geography: Not only by emphasising the economy of the carriage over that of the passenger, but also by encouraging travel specifically when others are not, in opposition to many natural group dynamics. It is in the midst of this tumult that we find the contemporary “Alta Velocidad”, Spain’s high speed passenger railway – a state-implemented network operating in an increasingly liberalised market.

The question posed by this essay, “Is Alta Velocidad Fast?”, is not just the question it may first seem, that which begets the retort, compared to what? Traditional Iberian railway fare structures differentiate between trains based on their speed, where those that complete their journey faster cost more to travel upon. Thus, to quote Franklin, time is money – but here the value of time is constant over time, not varying within time (from hour-to-hour or day-to-day) as is more common in Anglo-Americanised markets. AVE, and similar long distance inter-regional public transport services, are forced by their increasingly competitive liberalised environments to adopt fare structures which undermine the base understanding of state: The national in Spain thereby becomes the liberalised global. Yet within Spain’s regions the traditional fare structure still predominates, and thus perhaps regions better retain their state. Spanish railway liberalisation implicitly acknowledges this by opening up most inter-regional services to competition in 2020, while likely retaining state control (via Public Service Obligation) of services within regions. An analysis that might confer the dominance of regional politics over national, but more specifically, that regions are more knowable among their own populations than the nation of “Spain”, and thus regions evoke greater protection of their state. The strategic counter-balance, that the national will, by dint of improved asset utilisation and reduced reliance on new assets to deal with insufficient capacity, become relatively more efficient economically. However as this essay explores, while local juxtaposes to national, regional is not necessarily aligned to local.

Such protection of the more local state is not arbitrary. The more locally and the more frequently a transport service is used, the more that use is considered normal by the user, the more the consistency of its state is appreciated. The hassle, what economists call shoe leather cost, of navigating a complex ever-changing fare structure may be acceptable for exceptional journeys, but surely not for a daily commute or a trip to the shops. The differing acceptance, based on geographic familiarity, of transaction costs – the cost of making a trade – evokes modern behavioural concepts such as bounded rationality: That decision-making is a pragmatic reflection on users’ perceived reality, that the terms of this “geography” are not as universal as the word might imply. The physical, spatial geography that makes the whole that science calls nature, may be reasoned universal. However societies in both Britain and Spain have strong “virtual” components – the British predictive analytic routinely juggles time across a wide spectrum of past-future, while the Catalans (and, dare I suggest, other Spaniards) emphasise social knowledge through “knowable groups”. In both societies the physical geography continues to play an important role, but analysis of only that role omits these virtual themes, which can be important when trying to understand modern societal behaviour. So instead of presuming a flawed universal notion of geography, derive geography from the perspective of those within their respective societies: An alternative model where transport geography is expressed in terms of users’ familiarity, rather than a specific absolute notion such as time or distance. For example, a regular or local journey is typically more familiar to the person making that journey, than an occasional or long-distance journey. The familiarity of each person is first and foremost a function of “knowing” – of, in the broadest sense, state. This relationship between knowing and geography is especially obvious in video game world design, a theme developed from my Adventures in the Invisible Tent: The scale of such a world, a hybrid of time and distance, is optimised for knowing that world. Game worlds are far more compact than planet earth because even complex games contain far less to know.

Optimisation for knowing differs from optimisation for analytic efficiency – and herein lay much of the tension between contemporary society and computational optimisation: Since (and arguably before) Euler tried to cross the 7 bridges of Königsberg, transport has been posing computationally challenging problems, from network route planning to supply chain logistics. But it is perhaps only in the last two decades that the average traveller has become directly exposed to such computational optimisations. In the mid-1990s the apocryphal tale was told of an Operational Researcher who commuted each day to his workplace in London Transport’s headquarters near St James’s Park, central London. Upon arrival in the capital at Paddington railway station he was faced with two potentially viable Underground (metro) routes – direct on the Circle line, or via Bakerloo and Victoria lines. For the casual user, the direct Circle line would be the obvious choice, both requiring no change of trains and, based on the stylised London Underground network map, of similar distance. However those distances are actually a lot less similar than the stylised map betrays, and the Circle line had a far lower effective frequency than the alternative route via Bakerloo and Victoria lines. The calculation of optimal route, at the precise moment our expert commuter arrived at Paddington, originally would have relied on train service predictions, but could now be improved with live-time data delivered to a mobile phone application. The optimisation rarely saved more than a few minutes. In the 1990s these were games played by mathematically-minded transportation planners. Now they are becoming the norm among regular travellers, those whose behaviour is optimised by their “smart” mobile phones. The domination of this technology over its human users is clearest among those that happily walk or drive round in a circle, simply because the underlying dataset is missing a network node or link – and thus cannot calculate the direct path that should be obvious to the user, had they not placed absolute trust in their (sadly fallible) device. In the final analysis, these users have become so optimised that they have ceased to know.

This trend is not new: In the spirit of Kuhn, the Enlightenment West has progressively expanded the complexity of its worldview by simplifying every-thing within that world. And given such apparent acceptance of technology over human, yield management of the most familiar of journeys should now seem entirely reasonable: Blind user trust in journey-planning algorithms readily extends to ticketing. In practice the algorithms taking users’ fare decisions would compete with the operator algorithms setting prices, a computer-vs-computer model already successful (except when dealing with the unexpected) in financial market trading. The economic efficiency implied would liberate humans to obsess about something else – and ultimately the minutiae currently associated with transport ticketing would be replaced by trust that the system tends to offer “best value”, with any user interaction reduced to broad concepts such as brand. Transport operators traditionally consider themselves to be the sales channel of their product, and even in the most entrepreneurial arenas (Ryanair vs Skyscanner in 2007) operators are naturally hostile to any optimisation they don’t control. Aside from exerting ownership over data (a battle largely lost), the operators’ only logical defense is to simplify their ticketing structure – logically opposing the yield management that is inextricably driven by market competition. Thus operators in open transport markets will ultimately be reduced to supplying a service sold by technology platform providers (such as Google) or travel metasearchers (such as KAYAK) – a keenly fought technology market that has not yet peaked or consolidated. And once again, in the midst of this tumult that we find the contemporary AVE, its state-owned operator, Renfe, accustomed to a national prominence that it will not yield easily – even if, as discussed in Arriva Celta, Renfe’s role as the provider of national “presence”, beyond mere journey utility, is easily taken by state track owner ADIF, leaving Renfe vulnerable.

Continue reading “Is Alta Velocidad Fast?”

Arriva Celta

Talgo Shunt

Arriva Spain Rail’s announcement of a new cross-border railway service from A Coruña (La Coruña) in Galicia to Porto (Oporto) in northern Portugal took some in the railway industry by surprise. The first proper phase of the liberalisation of Spain’s national passenger railways was widely expected to be focused on the high speed AVE network, a somewhat commercial near-aviation market, theoretically serviceable with trains acquired outside Spain. Even interest in cross-border services had hitherto focused on the high speed route from Madrid via Barcelona to the south of France, which judging by its latest search for 15 new cross-border drivers, state operator Renfe intends to respond to competitively. After all, the Spanish government had declared every regional railway service to be “Obligación de Servicio Público” (Public Service Obligation, OSP), to be financially supported as a Renfe monopoly, likely well into the 2030s. Add the difficulty of acquiring and operating uniquely Iberian gauged and signalled rolling stock in an environment where almost all the relevant assets are held by state operators, and one might dismiss the whole A Coruña-Porto scheme as an ill-conceived dream of a multinational that had not yet understood the local railway environment. Except the Arriva Group have been operating buses in Galicia since 1999 and Portugal since 2000, and so should know the territory as well as anyone. Perhaps more importantly, while Arriva’s British rivals sought liberalised markets for their initial forays “overseas” in the 1990s, Arriva learnt to work with whatever competitive environment it found on mainland Europe. That combination of local experience and competitive adaptability makes Arriva’s approach to Spanish railways unique. That Arriva’s first instinct is A Coruña-Porto, and not head-to-head competition on flagship intercity routes such as Madrid-Barcelona, reveals much about Spanish railway liberalisation. As explored in the following paragraphs, Arriva’s competitive strategy is contextualised by the need to:

  1. Address an underlying commercial market, not the “railway” market Renfe is structured around.
  2. Expose Renfe as no longer a “national” entity, thereafter making its role contestable.
  3. Exploit the structural weakness between national Renfe and regional government.

Arriva’s current parent group, Deutsche Bahn (DB), has already been burnt by the (non) liberalisation of Spanish railfreight: DB was fined 10.5 million euros by the Spanish competition authority, CNMC, for anti-competitive agreements to control the supply of traction – at rail-freight liberalisation in 2005, only Renfe Mercancías (its freight division) and DB subsidiary Transfesa (which had, exceptionally, operated privately since 1943 on RENFE‘s network) had freight locomotives that could operate across Spain. The case was emblematic of Renfe Mercancías’ anti-liberalisation strategy of asset control – from a non-auction of life-expired rolling stock that was all but useless for new operators, to a driver training paralysis that resulted in Renfe hiring competitors’ drivers (Renfe’s employment offer more favourable because of its public status). Renfe Mercancías’ approach was exceedingly traditional – defending the body of workers using the assets of the company – with scant regard for what those workers and assets were functionally there to do – move goods: Between its regular state-subsidised operating loses and its minimal impact on the national economy, Renfe Mercancías arguably lost track of its own importance and risks irrelevance. Yet even now the railway has few commercial logistics-orientated operators, and practical asset liberalisation is still dependent on the regulator forcing Renfe’s hand – hardly the panacea of free market liberalism envisaged by European Union policy. Even if this were the beginning of the end for Renfe Mercancías, it might also be the beginning of the end for freight on Spain’s railways: The underlying model (from the Spanish, not European Union, perspective) assumes the mercantile elite test the resolve of the national railway – the railway as a strategic entity of the nation – and only once that resolve has been broken does the national railway structure begin to yield actual liberalisation. However as simple transport utility, Spain’s internal freight was already somewhat liberalised on the roads, which convey the vast majority of Spain’s domestic goods traffic. Consequently it may have been easier to test the resolve of the national railway by capturing its freight market from the road, than compete on the railway itself: Renfe is easily blind-sided by functional competition that focuses on the market for moving goods, since Renfe’s organisational focus is “trains”, especially the staffing of trains.

While the problems of freight liberalisation have ensured intending commercial passenger railway operators are better prepared, for example establishing their own driver training schools and acquiring their own rolling stock, the underlying structure of Spain’s passenger railway liberalisation remains rather similar to that of freight. The baseline assumption, if only by historical pattern, is the emergence of a dominant commercial duopoly, plus Renfe: Perhaps a market similar to Spanish terrestrial television, where two dominant but counter-balancing commercial broadcasters co-exist with a state broadcaster. However, the dominant state actor is surely ADIF, the state owned provider of railway infrastructure: Commercial liberalised operators will rationally focus only on passenger “utility” (delivering a functional transport service), so, as discussed in The Expectations of Competition, the only unfilled role is that of “presence” (the physical manifestation of authority). While the original unified RENFE provided both utility and presence, on the modern railway presence can effectively be achieved by ADIF alone building and maintaining railway infrastructure: Exactly who operates the trains would not matter strategically, only that they were operated by someone. That cripples Renfe (specifically Renfe Operadora, its passenger division) as the strategic national entity it was, and explains Renfe’s desire to merge back with ADIF and thus remain part of a true national entity. Assuming Spain does not follow Poland and merge its national operator and infrastructure company back together, it will be incumbent on commercial operators to break Renfe’s monopoly position on track, so that Renfe can no longer be considered a national entity, thereafter allowing other operators to take Renfe’s role in subsequent non-commercial (typically regional and local) liberalisations. Mere dilution of Renfe’s patronage by indirect competition, such as by alternative modes, will not break Renfe as a national entity. Even competition only on high speed routes risks fostering a liberalised environment that cannot subsequently transfer to older (primarily) Iberian gauge networks, thus cannot compete effectively in whatever contractual regime eventually emerges for state-supported regional and local services, and hence maintains Renfe as a monopoly operator of much of the Spanish railway network.

If Renfe’s status as a national entity has been admonished by the time its OSPs are due for review (a maximum of 10 years after they are awarded), it will surely be politically impossible for Spain’s national government to continue to determine regional railway services: If there is a genuine choice of operator, the relevant Autonomous Community governments can scarcely be denied that choice for their own internal services. This is presumably the main aim of Arriva in Spain: To open up the large, but historically often uncontested, contractual market for public transport. A rather different aim to those market entrants focused on a handful of commercial near-aviation markets, such as Madrid-Barcelona. The hostility of regional government in Spain to Renfe is well documented in Catalunya, but from Aragon to Madrid to Extremadura, none has much love for Spain’s national railway operator. Regional government theoretically counters centralist Spain, representing a powerful ally against Renfe, even if the Catalan example suggests that such power is no guarantee of success. In some regions, Renfe could become vulnerable at much the same time as the local bus concessions that were last extended without contest in the 2000s: In Galicia, law 5/2009 extended most until the end of 2019. The metropolitan concession in A Coruña is already under intense pressure from the CNMC to be modified for compliance with European state aid rules. While all this raises the possibility of multi-modal contracts, especially attractive to an operator with the breadth of Arriva, the more immediate outcome should be greater clarity on the costs of delivering different services: As demonstrated in Catalunya, even apparently “fair” funding mechanisms can disguise substantial cost differences. In a similar vein, the Spanish government’s blanket OSP allocation is eminently challengeable as a policy: Aside from mocking its intended methodology by waving efficiency and utilisation targets for every service that didn’t meet them, INECO’s “rubber stamp” analysis ignores other transport modes, offering no reasoned assessment of Renfe’s contribution to policy objectives such as local mobility: Why support a train between Ferrol and A Coruña with an average of just 16 passengers a trip, when the route is more-or-less mirrored by a faster and more frequent bus?

As explored in The Art of Public Competition sequence of essays, Ferrol-A Coruña does not pose the rational economic question it may seem. The implicit long-run expectation is that the railway service will be improved to compete effectively as a balanced duopoly – although with up to a billion euros of investment required, those improvements may be a long time coming to Ferrol. Liberalisation implies the transformation of the societal model of competition, such as where discrete local duopolies maintain balance, to a more economic model of competition, where factors like cost and demand determine balance across a whole. A Spanish legislature devoid of absolute power can only expose the new model to an environment defined by the old – Spanish policymaking is necessarily structured in a way that lets its society test new legislation, successful EU “directives” included. The challenge for liberalised market entrants is thus to transform the old environment into a new model. Being more operationally efficient or market orientated than the status quo should be straightforward for veterans of open public transport markets. But if the terms of that competition don’t gain state (in the widest sense, of knowing) acceptance, then the theoretically liberalised market might be overwhelmed by attempts, however irrational, to the maintain prior “competitive” balances. As the operator of the Ferrol-A Coruña bus, Arriva presumably have some understanding of the challenge posed by Spanish railway liberalisation, and some strategy for addressing it. The three contexts outlined above – market redefinition, operator contestability, culminating in a regional endgame – give some clues as to why Arriva’s first foray into Spanish passenger railways is on familiar territory for Arriva as a bus operator (both in Galicia and northern Portugal). But is Arriva’s A Coruña-Porto passenger railway service a feasible commercial proposition, or is its purpose more… strategic?

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