Lessons for California from Spain about Trains

By Noel T. Braymer

There has been some hysteria from the media about the future of High Speed Rail in California after the recent Train crash in Spain. There is a great deal California can learn from Spain about rail passenger service and High Speed Rail. Spain is slightly larger in size, its population is also slightly larger while its economy is smaller than California’s. Spain has over 1,800 miles of High Speed Rail Lines. What most of the headline writers don’t realize is the Spanish train crash didn’t happen on a High Speed Rail Line. This crash was on an old rail line and happened after the train had just left a faster rail route. No one puts a 50 mile an hour curve in the middle of a High Speed Rail Line.

Spain's current High Speed Rail trackage. A Wikimedia Commons Graphic by HrAd

Spain’s current High Speed Rail trackage. A Wikimedia Commons Graphic by HrAd

The train crash appears to be the fault of the operator. He was not paying attention to what he should have been doing. The signal system on this old railroad gave the operator 3 warning alarms that he was going too fast, all of which he ignored. On this older section of track the signalling system could only give warnings.The Alvia S-730, the train involved in this accident also had a more advanced signalling system that if the operator ignored a warning the train would automatically brake to a stop. Had this more advanced signalling system been installed on this older railroad this train would have come to a halt and this accident prevented.

When will American Passenger Trains have such an advanced rail signalling system? In parts of California next year in 2014. For most of the rest of California and the Country by the end of 2015 and onto 2016. This is Positive Trains Control or PTC which is a wireless, GPS based system than keeps track of trains, their speed and the tracks they are on.This signalling system was mandated by Congress after an accident much like the one in Spain. In 2008 an operator for Metrolink wasn’t paying attention to what he was suppose to be doing and ran a red light and into a freight train in Chatsworth. The crash killed 25 people including the negligent operator. This incident has been ignored by the reporting of the Spanish tragedy when talking about the “lessons” of High Speed Rail in California.

There is much to learn from the Spanish experience of Rail Passenger service. Spain has several levels of passenger service to serve different markets. Spain has over 1,800 miles of High Speed Rail routes as well as over 7,600 miles of older slower railroad. Much of this older railroad is in a broader gauge than the traditional 4 foot 8 and a half inch standard gauge used by most High Speed Trains including those in Spain. California has less than 7,000 miles of railroad including short lines. Spain has several different levels of just High Speed Rail service for international, major cities, long and short distance travel. This is true in many places around the world, particularly in Europe.

Current and planned High  Speed Rail Lies in Spain.  Graphic from Wikimedia Commons by HrAd

Current and planned High Speed Rail Lines in Spain.
A Wikimedia Commons Graphic by HrAd

The Alvia S-730 trains are not used on the most glamorous routes. But they are able to connect smaller cities with the rest of Spain. The train that crashed last July was in Galicia, a region in the northwest corner or Spain which is one of the less prosperous areas of Spain. The terminus of this train from Madrid was Ferrol. Ferrol is a port town on the Atlantic with a population of about 78,000 in a metropolitan area population of about 242,000. This town is smaller than Escondido in San Diego County. To serve cities like Ferrol and connect them to the major cities of Spain, RENFE, the Spanish State Railroad uses the Alvia S-730 trainsets. The Alvia S-730 is able to run on High Speed Tracks, the Spanish Board Gauge Tracks and under catenary as an electric train. The S-730 is also has diesel generator cars for both locomotives so the train can be run on non-electrified railroads.

Direct service always has higher ridership than rail service requiring transfers. In Spain High Speed Rail is being built in increments to as much of the country as possible. But until that is possible, RENFE is providing as much direct, faster rail passenger service now using a mix of the old and new railroads. Spain is not the only country doing this. France which is the European leader for High Speed Rail Passenger services has been doing this from the start. French TGV trains usually use older rights of way to serve smaller cities that branch off of the High Speed Mainlines. Compare this to what is planned by 2023 if all goes well and California will have High Speed Rail service between Burbank and Merced for a distance of about 300 miles. For passengers from Southern California going to Northern California this means taking a train to Burbank, catching at train to Merced and then transferring to a train to Sacramento, Oakland or San Jose over the Altamont Pass.


A Spanish solution for the first phase of High Speed Rail in California would likely be trains from San Diego and Orange Country as well as trains from the Inland Empire arriving under diesel power at Burbank. From there these trains would go very fast under catenary to Merced. From Merced these trains would go over the Altamont Pass with diesel power where from Fremont trains could go to San Jose or Emeryville. Other trains from the south going through Burbank could junction at Stockton with some trains going to Sacramento and Redding while others go to Oakland. Doing so would open much more of California to High Speed Rail service sooner and to more markets with higher ridership.

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