The trains in Spain mainly reign

I was recently going through my notes and found these entries, written (for the most part) during a trip to Spain with my wife at the end of April:

 

April 29: Driving on the E-5 highway that slices from southwestern Spain directly through its middle, the feeling hits you: This is a big country.

As we are finding out today, it takes more than five hours to drive from Sevilla to Madrid, with a mandatory half-hour rest stop for the driver, a genial, earthy man named Paco.

The E-5 really does cut through the heart of Spain, too: About a half-hour south of downtown Madrid, the highway travels just to the west of a monument that marks the center of the Iberian Peninsula.

As Americans we are a nation of drivers, and it’s clear that Spain also loves its driving: This is a holiday weekend, as Paco points out, and traveling up through Andalucia we see a wall of traffic backed up for miles and miles. The cause is a cloudburst that had causes some flooding on the southbound side of the highway. Thankfully we are going on the opposite direction, toward the Innside Luchana Hotel in Madrid, where they don’t operate the HVAC system in the springtime. *Shudder* Had we been headed south, I’m not sure we would’ve made it there by midnight.

Even with good traffic, the day has been long enough. In the end, we will have been on the road for over six hours, having toured La Almuzara horse farm, walked in and around La Mezquita in Cordoba and returned to the capital city.

 There is graffiti everywhere, on buildings, overpasses, sheds. Ron’s Crew and El Ron’s Crew have emptied untold cans of paint for miles between La Mancha and Madrid, probably well beyond. In New Zealand, graffiti was rare; when it popped up, officials raced to erase it as quickly as possible. But here in Spain, it seems to bother no one.

April 30: We receive a private transfer to the train station, which was another perk provided by Friendly Planet, our travel agency. The train station is beautiful and cavernous, with an indoor arboretum on the ground floor; dozens of turtles swim and clamber about in a small pond. Kacey and I wished we could have viewed the arboretum from up close, but once we had our baggage scanned — a cursory check compared to the security process at airports — it was unclear whether we could exit and make our way down to the arboretum. We decided not to chance it.

We are at the station to board the AVE, Spain’s high-speed train. Relative to the price, I cannot imagine a better way to see the Spanish countryside than a trip on the AVE. 

Spain may be, like the United States, a country of drivers, but it also has advanced public transportation, like most of the rest of Europe. To travel 385 miles from Madrid, in the center of the country, to Barcelona, on the northeastern coast, we take the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española). The train looks no bigger than Washington’s Metro, but that is where the similarities end. The AVE zooms along the track at speeds up to 300 km an hour or 180 mph; the line between Madrid and Barcelona first opened in 2008. Once we left the outskirts of Spain’s capital, the train hovered near that speed for most of the ride. By comparison, the Metro has a permitted top speed of about 60 mph and an average speed of only about 30 mph. (Those numbers don’t reflect the widespread delays and closures in the Metro system this summer, part of a yearlong project to fix the crumbling system.)

While the ride on the bus on the E-5 was often bumpy due to the hit-or-miss condition of the road, the AVE was incredibly smooth — especially considering that we were traveling nearly as fast as a NASCAR driver running “wide open” at Talladega Superspeedway. And the AVE is quiet — so quiet that it took me an hour to realize that the noisy ride that I expected wasn’t coming. I suppose I am inured to the bone-rattling comforts of the Metro and the New York subway. The first two rooms we had at the Innside Luchana hotel in Madrid were much noisier than the AVE.

At 180 mph, the scenery immediately in front of you is just a blur; blink and you will miss it. But as you look off into the distance, from 500 feet away to as far as the eye can see, the view is unforgettable. Brown rolling hills sprinkled with green give way to darker mountains. The fan blades of white windmills spin; from afar they look like children’s pinwheels whirling lightly in the breeze.

White, puffy cumulus clouds hang low, beckoning mortals to reach out and try to touch them. But we are moving past them so quickly that even if we could, we would not catch even a wisp.

On screens hanging down from the ceiling of the train cars, one of the “Night at the Museum” movies plays. Just before the train departed, attendants offered headphones to riders.

Curious, I plug in a pair of earbuds left over from the flight; a jaunty big band number flows through the speakers. There are eight radio stations in all, from rock and roll (en inglés!) to classical. Can you imagine a train service in the United States offering an in-ride movie as well as a music selection?

 

It’s clear the U.S. has a deficit compared to much of the rest of the developed world when it comes to public transportation. We are addicted to driving and we have little incentive to do less of it or give it up entirely, even though the average American spends 42 hours a year stuck in rush-hour traffic. And there’s also the fact that some of the most negative effects — mainly, carbon emissions that contribute to global warming — are all but invisible and so incremental that we never see their direct impact.

If there’s any consolation, in 10 years we might be riding at 800 mph on this thing.

 

>>Here you’ll find a bit more from the Spain trip, including a strange little tale about a cellphone, a plane and a paranoid woman.

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