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Madrid to Barcelona in a flash

Forget flying and all that entails these days -- Spain's AVE high-speed trains are a relaxing and fun way to travel. In fact, they've proved so popular, they're giving airlines a run for their money.

January 17, 2010|By Bruce Selcraig
  • Forget flying and all that entails these days -- Spain's AVE high-speed trains are a relaxing and fun way to travel. In fact, they've proved so popular, they're giving airlines a run for their money.
Forget flying and all that entails these days -- Spain's AVE high-speed… (Miguel Angel Patier )

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.

It seems fair to ask how Spain, a little more than 34 years removed from 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.

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. 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 businessmen's 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.

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