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Spain overtakes France as Europe’s high-speed rail leader

Spain will hurtle past France as Europe’s high-speed rail leader today when it opens a €6.6-billion line from Madrid to Valencia, banking on a boost to the economy.

The 438-km route will slash travel time between the Spanish capital and the Mediterranean port of Valencia, Spain’s third-biggest city, from four hours to just 90 minutes.

The project, built at a cost of €6.6 billion, brings Spain’s high-speed rail network to 2,056 km.

It places Spain ahead of the 1,896 km of high speed rail in France and 1,285 km in Germany, home to Siemens, the world’s largest manufacturer of high-speed trains.

Spain’s high-speed train service, known as Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE), boasts trains with noses shaped like a duck-billed platypus moving at speeds of up to 300 kph, and it is set to grow further.

Taking into account routes planned or under construction, Spain would be in second place globally with 5,525 km of high speed rail tracks, behind China - the world leader with 13,134 km - but ahead of pioneer Japan with 3,625 km.

“The AVE is very expensive. But it is an investment that generates many jobs and constributes to stimulate the economy, which is good at a time of crisis,” said the director general for travellers at state-owned rail network Renfe.

The Spanish economy slumped into recession in late 2008 due to the collapse of a property bubble that has caused the unemployment rate to soar to 20 per cent, the highest in the eurozone.

It posted zero per cent economic growth in the third quarter.

The new Madrid-Valencia line will create 136,000 jobs directly and indirectly, according to consulting firm Accenture.

But with a population of 47 million people, Spain has fewer potential passengers than France or Germany for its high-speed trains.

Spain’s bet on high-speed rail is “the other face of the property bubble” which fuelled economic growth in Spain for over a decade before it burst, said Ramon Lopez de Lucio, a professor at the Architecture School of Madrid.

“That a country like Spain has more kilometres of AVE than any other nation aside from China makes no sense,” he said, arguing that the Spanish government was over-investing in infrastructure.

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