Spain has most extensive high-speed rail network in Europe, new report finds

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A new report by engineering and consultancy firm Ineco has found that Spain has developed the most extensive high-speed rail network in the EU, with the lowest average construction cost per kilometer, while keeping quality high, project timelines tight and budgets on track.

The report, Efficiency of the Spanish sector in the development of high-speed railways, compared and analyzed data from the Transit Costs Project database and existing studies. It found that Spain builds high-speed trains at an average cost per kilometer of €17.7m, compared to €45.5m in the rest of the countries with high-speed trains.

According to Ineco, the study also extends the traditional perspective of construction to cover the entire life cycle of the infrastructure, including the cost of operation and maintenance which, although to a lesser extent, reinforce the leading position of the Spanish model.

Despite having a more extensive high-speed network, and therefore more network to maintain, the data shows that Spain is in line with or below the European average when it comes to life cycle costs. Ineco also points out that this finding is even more impressive when considering Spain’s high-speed rail model, which uses ballast. This material typically has higher maintenance costs than ballast-less track.

In this line and given the weight of maintenance compared to the cost of construction, the report points out that the Spanish strategic choice for ballast has not implied an increase in the global cost of high speed in a long-term perspective.

These production costs have not diminished the quality of the Spanish product. In fact, the study shows that no comparable country has a better quality-to-cost ratio than Spain, and that those countries that achieve higher scores on the quality index do so at the cost of more than proportional increases in their cost per kilometer ratio.

At the other end of the cost spectrum is the UK, with figures nine times higher than the Spanish model. The study analyzes the reasons that may favor this difference between the two countries after the recent cancellation of phase 2 of the British high-speed HS2. A project that has experienced a large deviation in cost and time.

The report compares the Spanish case with that of the UK in all its dimensions. Undoubtedly, labor costs in engineering and construction are comparatively lower in Spain. The Spanish network passes through some of the most sparsely populated regions of the country compared to the UK, where high population density and dispersed urbanization lead to considerable cost increases.

However, as the report reflects, this is not the only difference, being other technological and institutional factors of greater importance to explain the great difference in the evolution of both high-speed experiences.

The strategic conception of networks is another differentiating factor. While in Spain there is a clear consensus on high-speed rail and its mission in the modernization of the country and its opening to the outside world, in addition to the purposes linked to mobility itself, HS2 was born as an action to improve railway capacity and connectivity on existing axes which were already operating at full capacity, with its high-speed railway character being a secondary factor that has hindered the progress of the project.

The uniqueness of the legal context and governance in the construction of large transport infrastructure in the UK makes the development of the entire conceptual and planning phase a complex, bureaucratic and fragile process, which is rooted in the Anglo-Saxon legal framework and imposes much higher costs than in Spain in this phase. 

Click here to read the full, Efficiency of the Spanish sector in the development of high-speed railways, report.