Reporting from Madrid—When President Obama announced plans in April to spend $13 billion in federal stimulus funds on developing high-speed rail in America, he invoked the usual role models -- Japan, China and France -- as examples of fast-train culture.
He also praised another more surprising, high-speed-rail superpower -- Spain. Yes, sprawling, mostly rural yet worldly Spain -- less expensive and slower than most Western European nations, and one not often associated with high-tech innovation.
Francisco Franco's dictatorship, has become a world leader in a mass-transit technology that is barely in its infancy in the United States.
The short answer is that few nations have enjoyed as robust a democracy as Spain in the last three decades or moved as quickly to embrace progressive ideas for city planning and transportation.
Spain's first and very controversial high-speed rail line ran from Madrid, atop a vast interior plain, to Seville in the south, and was unveiled in 1992. Despite early suspicions about its cost to taxpayers and which cities would benefit, the AVE trains (Alta Velocidad Española -- ave is "bird" in Spanish) proved so successful that by this year, Spanish rail officials say they will have more high-speed track (1,386 miles) than any nation, with a promise of reaching 6,000 miles in another decade.
That was incentive enough for my teenage son, Cole, and I to spend a train-centric week in Spain last summer, but then we learned that one of the world's newest fast trains was the long-awaited Madrid-to-Barcelona line, which had begun service in 2008.
At any speed, we've come to love European train culture, from Milan's mammoth fascist-era Italian masterpiece, the Centrale station, to the restful cafes and local shops that make waiting for a train almost a pleasure. Sure, we miss the pat-down service at American airports, but there's nothing quite like hopping a train minutes before it pulls out, having Yao Ming legroom (even Wi-Fi sometimes) and arriving in the heart of a world-class walkable city, not a $60 cab ride away at Gooberville Regional.
Europe's trains are smart and dependable. Spain's high-speed trains have a 98.5% on-time record, second only to Japan's; delays of five minutes or more will get you a full refund in cash, and these things, for us, make transportation a destination. Trains have become our airline antidote, a refuge for intelligent, restorative travel with a view.
We hit a lucky patch of mild July weather in Madrid and spent two pre-train days in the capital on our typical father-son itinerary: Walk until weary. Hop on city bus. Eat in glorious open-air plaza. Repeat. We miss some museums and monuments this way, but we find more accidental treasures, such as a pickup basketball game.
In Madrid, a city of spectacular plazas, our treat at each day's end was to walk down Calle Atocha toward the Palacio Real to a local landmark, the grand Plaza Mayor. If only America's cities had such memorable public spaces. The Plaza Mayor, nearly 4 centuries old and rebuilt three times after historic fires, is large enough that it once entertained tens of thousands with bullfights and the occasional execution during the Inquisition.
Walled on all sides by four stories of shops and offices, today's plaza holds several outdoor restaurants with gallant white-jacketed waiters, a bronze statue of King Philip III, assorted comic jugglers and lip-locked couples, yet everyone has his or her space.
Heading in the opposite direction on Atocha, we found the HUSA Paseo del Arte, a modern hotel that resembles the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C., on the outside but is warm and expertly run inside. From there it's just two blocks to the Atocha station, home to the AVE high-speed train (and, infamously, the site of the March 2004 bombings that killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800.
Surprisingly, public security is not oppressive at Atocha, just police with dogs and baggage X-ray machines, which is more than at many European stations.
The next morning, as we readied to leave for Barcelona at 8:30, we found that the indoor waiting area for the AVE was a calming urban forest with hundreds of palms, tropical plants and turtles in a lily pond swaying to the piped-in sounds of Pablo Casals, the Catalan cellist. We walked to the train, shoes on our feet, dignity intact, as though we were touring the Prado. Three trains had left before ours that morning -- at 5:45, 6:30 and 7:30 -- so we probably missed the businessman crunch.
We left at precisely 8:30 a.m., and the train's three classes (club, business and tourist) were busy but not crowded. The cars have more in common with hotel lobbies than mass transit. The lighting is recessed; the blue-gray colors and leather upholstery say corporate chic. Pleasant attendants offer the suits on cellphones a tasty omelet and newspaper. There are no chugging machinery sounds in these high-tech tubes of electricity.
The narrow-nosed, German-made Siemens S-103 train slides out quietly, eel-like, and in minutes, as the buff-colored hills of the Castilla-La Mancha region (Don Quixote land) go hurtling past our window, a digital readout on the wall says we're humming at 185 mph. The train can easily go 220 mph or more, which might prompt the queasy to ask whether it feels something akin to taking an alpine bobsled ride. No, but it's probably best to look at the horizon and not directly below the window.
Before Spain's first fast trains left Madrid for Seville 17 years ago, there was great concern they might cause smaller cities to dry up. Apparently, the reverse has happened. New cookie-cutter housing has sprung up near several countryside train stations. Mid-size towns such as Ciudad Real, once lifeless and losing population, have been able to attract software companies, university professors and doctors from Madrid, 120 miles away, because the painless commute for the new avelinos is now only 50 minutes.
AVE has promoted a new interest in regional travel within Spain, from shopping to religious tourism, breaking down physical and cultural barriers for older citizens, lessening tensions among rival cities and enticing a whole new generation to travel.
"We Spaniards didn't used to move around much," José María Menéndez, a professor at the University of Castilla-La Mancha, told the Wall Street Journal. "Now, I can't make my students sit still for one second. The AVE has radically changed this generation's attitude to travel."
The Madrid-to-Barcelona AVE trains have been so popular -- 251,754 passengers in July -- that air-passenger traffic on this highly profitable route has dropped almost 40% in 18 months. The AVE cuts nearly four hours off the 6 1/2 -hour trip by car (315 miles) and virtually matches the door-to-door flight time when you add at least 90 minutes at the airports for arriving early, getting off the plane and retrieving baggage.
In September, prices for one-way Madrid-to-Barcelona AVE tickets were about $157 tourist class, $235 for first and $282 for club cars; however, we found Internet specials as low as $63 one way last summer. On Iberia Airlines, the same one-way ticket cost from $170 to $314. If the AVE prices remain comparable to flight costs, few see airlines regaining their dominance on routes of less than 400 miles.
However, how do you put a price on being able to avoid the dehumanizing security lines at airports, the cattle-like boarding process, the fetal-position seating and the anxiety, for many, of takeoffs and landings?
"Now everyone wants the AVE train," says Juan Matias, an official with Renfe, the Spanish rail agency. "The change in people's minds has been profound. We're spending about twice as much as other European Union nations on transportation infrastructure, and by 2020, we expect 90% of Spain will live within 30 miles of a high-speed rail station."
We rocketed past the towns of Lleida and Camp de Tarragona as attendants came by with Spanish wines and generic supermarket rolls.
Straw-colored hills dotted with pear trees and square hay bales gave way to even larger foothills, then tunnels and finally a hint of the Mediterranean. We entered Barcelona's Sants station precisely at the minute of our scheduled arrival -- try that on Amtrak -- and just as quietly as we had left Madrid. Very dignified. It's hard to imagine besotted soccer fans coming home on these dream machines. Perhaps they should pipe in a soundtrack of steam whistles and the roar of grimy engines.
"That was over way too quick," Cole said.
He, like me, felt strangely rested and unabused, ready to inhale one of Europe's special cities on a breezy summer evening.