The trains in Spain … an allegory?

The trains in Spain … an allegory?

AVE – the Spanish acronym for Alta Velocidad Española – the high speed trains. Of which Spain has the most extensive system in Europe in terms of miles of track laid. ‘Ave’ is also the Spanish for ‘bird’ – so I guess a happy coincidence?

The AVE, at least seen from Almeria province, this lovely corner of Spain, would lead you to suppose that the Spanish have a surprisingly north European sense of irony. In fact, there is other evidence of this. You just need to see the wide riverbed along the road between here and Almeria, bone dry year in year out but still bearing the name Rio de los Aguas, to realize that they have a tremendous capacity to put tongue in cheek.

But I was talking about trains. We noticed, as we drove south down the coastal strip from Castellón and Valencia to Almeria, some very impressive infrastructure and we wondered, perhaps for some future extended backpack ramble, about an Iberian inter-rail trip. Having loved the inter-railing from London to Istanbul, we would certainly be up for another age-defying jaunt with a tiny rucksack carrying 8 weeks supply of medication, sketch pad, paints, writing materials, and just enough room to squeeze in a toothbrush, a change of undies and some clean socks. But hang on a minute…

I don’t know what the rail equivalent of viaduct or aqueduct is. Feroduct? Choo-choo-duct? Whatever it is, there are loads of them here, spanking new, thrown across valleys and along hillsides, soaring over the motorway, sometimes swooshing under it or disappearing into a brand new tunnel to thunder through the rock. One can only speculate at the number of evictions and land acquisitions that must have accompanied this enterprise. It’s quite a sight and it stretches for miles and miles. As we scooted along in the bonnie blue Berlingo (vroom vroom) never far from some dramatic railway structure or other, I was just sorry not to have seen a train. I wondered if the velocidad was so incredibly alta that in fact they zoomed past at somewhere approaching the speed of light, or at least before one could say Juan Robinson!

And then, on expeditions down here near the cortijo, I realized that most of this infrastructure of steel supports, concrete, bricks and mortar, this explosion of big engineering has not a single bit of actual track laid upon it; there are no rails. So, trains? Nada!! It’s a strange sight, these miles of putative railway, splendid, immaculate, unencumbered and futile.

Oh yes, Spain has the AVE linking Cordoba, Sevilla, Malaga and Barcelona with the capital city in the middle of the plain, and yes, this means they cover quite a lot of distance. But it doesn’t serve a great many places – and you wouldn’t think to question it were it not for this impressive stuff threading across the landscape here. To travel by train from Malaga to Madrid courtesy of AVE takes about two and a half hours; the journey from Almeria to Madrid, roughly the same distance, takes more than seven hours. Oops – tough if you live in Almeria.

So, the train in Spain is an allegory – a very accurate rendering of the country’s recent economic story. Like a diagram of boom and bust: boom gets the bridges built and the tunnels blasted; bust means there’s not enough dosh left for the track and the trains.