The Madrid-Barcelona railway service has benefitted from ending the Renfe monopoly, Source: Depositphotos

15 years of Madrid-Barcelona high-speed rail, far more popular than flying route

15 years of Madrid-Barcelona high-speed rail, far more popular than flying route

It shows how sustainable mobility development can organically challenge domestic flights, without resorting to legislative coercing

On 20 February 2008, the first high-speed AVE train departed from Madrid to arrive in Barcelona less than three hours later forging a new possibility for travellers between Spain’s two major centres. It immediately challenged the primacy of the airlines operating this route, because even though the direct flight time is shorter, it ultimately presents more of a hassle and it is less convenient.

Taking the airplane would require one to head to one of the cities’ airports first, pass through the obligatory check-in procedures and boarding and then take other means of transport to reach the downtown area of the destination. Whereas, the high-speed train transports you from city centre to city centre quietly and efficiently.

Fifteen years later, the results are in, and it is clear – the public overwhelmingly prefers the train rather than the plane. So much so, that when looking at the trips presently done between Madrid and Barcelona, railway trips account for 75% of passengers.

Plus, it’s a more sustainable option

The AVE surpassed flying in terms of popularity already back in 2012, meaning it only took 4 years for people to recognize the convenience of the railway option. In a way, it has also meant a Renaissance of train travel in Spain, with high-speed railway lines now radiating from the capital Madrid to all directions of the country.

The pandemic slowed things down a bit for all types of transport, but the increased mission to reach green goals in all sectors of life has meant that apart from convenience travellers have also become more conscious about their carbon impact.

And yet another boost has been provided by the liberalizing of the high-speed rail market and ending the Renfe monopoly (the operator of the AVE trains).

In late 2020, Spain accepted allowing private businesses to operate on the line, following EU guidelines – until then, only state-owned Renfe had been able to use the high-speed infrastructure.

In May 2021, France's Ouigo became the first private company to cover the service, with Renfe reacting with a low-cost branch, Avlo, and one month later – Iryo, from Italy, became the third operator in November 2022.

Prices plummeted as a result and, in 2021, 3.1 million people used either AVE, Ouigo or Avlo, surging by 164% compared to the prior year.

That kind of development has shown that it is possible to tackle the frequency of the polluting domestic flight simply by tech innovation and market liberalization, without needing to resort to legislative means, such as the recent case in France.



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