Once upon a time there was sharp controversy in Spain over a plan for a high-speed rail line from Madrid to somewhere in Andalusia, which lies southeast of the capital, toward Morocco. Critics derided it as "train to Africa," meaning no one would ride it, anticipating the "train to nowhere" jokes about bullet trains in California.
And when then-Prime Minister Felípe González finally routed it to his hometown of Seville, the Andalusian capital, critics called it a vanity project for the ruling class, which would ride on the backs of the Spanish people.
This was in the late '80s and early '90s. At the same time, an ambitious plan in Texas for bullet trains to link the state's main cities had enough support that a special consortium called the Texas TGV was trying to drum up private investment.
By 1992, the Madrid-Seville line was finished, at great expense. It now makes up the first half of Spain's huge, and hugely popular, AVE (Alto Velocidád Española; ave in Spanish means "bird") system. The bullet trains run through the center of Spain from Andalusia to Madrid to Valencia, and they've revolutionized a previously decrepit rail system in less than 20 years.
The TGV in Texas, meanwhile, folded in 1993. What killed it was not just a lack of private investment but also Southwest Airlines, the Dallas-based carrier, which noticed a threat to its home turf and launched a "sweeping, aggressive public relations campaign throughout the state to discredit TGV and prevent the company from meeting its fundraising deadlines," according to the Austinist website.
Southwest understood better than most high-speed rail critics just how well the trains could work. AVE has reduced Spanish highway traffic — even for cargo, by freeing up space on the older rail network — and it's cut dramatically into domestic airline business. "The opening of the Barcelona-Madrid line [in 2008] marked the beginning of the end of the airlines' dominance," The Economistwrote in 2009. "Tellingly enough, Iberia [Airlines] is planning to cut domestic flights by 7% this year."
The dark side of the story is that Spain over-invested in high-speed rail. To pay for the system, the government took out loans based on ballooning property values, which deflated in 2008-09. "That a country like Spain has more kilometers of AVE than any other nation aside from China makes no sense," Ramón Lopez de Lucio, a professor from the Architecture School of Madrid, told the AFP news wire in January.
But that's another way of saying that high-speed rail is expensive, so building it requires wisdom and restraint. A new plan in Texas for bullet trains makes the phenomenal mistake of trying to link only the airports of Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas-Ft. Worth, instead of their downtown areas. Boarding a fancy fast train to cross Texas for a business meeting only to wind up in an airport somewhere outside town defeats the purpose of a high-speed system, as executives at Southwest could tell you.
The great benefit of a wisely built bullet train, in fact, is that it can stop whole regimes of short, impractical business flights. A high-speed line can do more than "lessen" a passenger's "carbon footprint" (since an electric train emits greenhouse gases at an average rate per passenger of one-sixth the pollution of a commercial flight); those statistics are an abstraction as long as half-empty planes still fly.
What isn't an abstraction is the huge savings in fuel — never mind the relief to the atmosphere — when passenger jets no longer make half a dozen daily runs between Berlin and Hamburg or Madrid and Seville or L.A. and San Francisco. That's palpable and real, as Southwest understood in the '90s.
Critics will argue that no American government should set out to put airlines out of business. Naturally not. But no government can lay rail fast enough to do that. The idea is to give airlines stiff competition in a small number of shuttle markets where fast trains are more sensible — yes, with public help, so the public can reap future benefits of less pollution and less reliance on dwindling supplies of often Middle Eastern oil.
There's nothing un-American about that. In light of the violent decade we just finished, in fact, what Southwest got up to in the '90s looks fairly unpatriotic.