Before the high speed line Madrid – Valencia was inaugurated in December 2010, the city of Cuenca, located in central eastern of Spain, was in the middle of nowhere. People were moving to bigger cities. And the old city center, declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1996, was being abandoned. The construction of Cuenca’s new high speed station Fernando Zobel was the opportunity to put Cuenca on the map. Nevertheless, two years after its opening, the benefits brought by it are not as many as expected.
By Alejandro Izquierdo
Sebastián Garcés is a vocational teacher in the agricultural sector. He lives in Albacete but teaches in Cuenca. The AVE –A Spanish acronym for the high speed train-, launched in 2010, has made his life easier. Since the new academic course started in September 2012, he has being traveling the 145km that separates Albacete from Cuenca in 36 minutes, instead of taking the car which would take him almost two hours. Sebastián explains that there are different tariffs. The cheapest one is to find three colleagues and complete a Neta –four confronted seats around a table-. “This way, each of us spends €13 per day which is €350 per month, but for a single person, the price rises to €52”. According to him, around 30 people go and come back from Albacete to Cuenca every day.
The Fernando Zobel station was supposed to accomplish the 18 compulsory requirements of the 360º station concept designed by Adif, the company entrusted with the construction of the entire project. This concept is based on triple sustainability during the whole station’s life cycle. For instance, the requirements during the urban development phase entail integrating the station in the landscape or during the use and maintenance phase, the 360º concept also includes an inventory of the emissions into the atmosphere.
Ecologistas en Acción, a confederation that unifies more than 300 environmental groups has been politically and legally fighting against the construction of the entire line and the new station in Cuenca. They claimed that from an engineering and environmental point of view, the Fernando Zobel Station may be a jewel, but economically and socially is unsustainable. According to its president for Cuenca, Carlos Villeta, there were three main reasons to be against the construction of the high speed line and therefore, the new station.
First of all, the location of the Fernando Zobel station in Cuenca is “foolish”. They claimed that the old station in the city center could be upgraded in order to reduce the cost and the environmental impact. According to them, even though the line and the station may be environmentally friendly, whenever a new infrastructure is built there is an impact that in this case, they claim could have been avoided. Ecologistas en Acción together with the Platform for the Defense of the Public and Social Railway presented an architectural proposal to upgrade the old train station. It was refused.
For Carlos Villeta, the station was located there because the government at that moment wanted to appreciate the surrounding areas. “Since 2004 that government was trying to implement a new Municipal Urban Development Plan –POM by its acronym in Spanish- that planned to build houses and infrastructures for 250.000 people in 12 years” Mr. Villeta says. In 2009, the plan was refused by the Regional Urban Commission, which claimed that it was “excessive” Nevertheless, the station was almost built.
Two years after the construction of the station, Cuenca has no more than 57.000 inhabitants, a reformed POM hasn’t been approved by the new elected government yet and all the housing and infrastructure projects surrounding the station have not even been started to build.
Secondly, the high speed railway is considered by Ecologistas en Acción as an elitist mean of transportation which is not socially sustainable. Mr. Villeta quotes in an article published by El País on January the 11th based on reports and books, such as The Economics and Politics of the High speed raid, Lessons from experiences abroad, explaining that “the high cost, united to low demand, results in high prices that only wealthy people can afford”. The AVE’s annual maintenance costs are about €400 million but it only represents 1% of the passenger’s mobility and the economic impact of it is very low as it doesn’t create any new additional passenger flow.
Finally, Ecologistas en Acción claim that the 6,6 billion invested on the Madrid – East coast corridor line with its connection to Albacete only benefits big cities. “My colleague Sebastián Garcés is one example of this” Mr. Villeta says, “as him, more and more people come from bigger cities such as Albacete to work here instead of living and spending here. On the other hand, other transportation means such as the conventional railway system, or other economic sectors are being less privileged”. In the case of Cuenca, he says that the government spent €19, 5 million in a new “useless station”. “We aren’t against the high speed but we think it was a mistake to spend so much money on it and not in other sectors that are losing funding”.
The cultural industry is an example of one of these sectors. Consuelo Garcia, the director of Cuenca’s culture public foundation, says that their budget was reduced by 25% in 2012, but she still thinks that the AVE is something “revolutionary”. “Before, Cuenca was forgotten but now we see more people interested in our cultural events”. Despite having problems with the budget as well, Miguel Lopez, director of the Antonio Saura foundation has positive feelings about the AVE. “Thanks to the high speed train people can come to see our temporary exhibitions, have lunch, and be back to their homes the same day”.
A journey into the future
For the actual government who didn’t have to decide the location, the place where the station is located is a lesser evil. “It is better to have the station where it is that not have it at all” the head of the government’s press Cabinet, Aurora Ponte says. From the municipality, they defend the station because, according to them, the high speed railway is the best opportunity Cuenca has had for a long time. “It can’t be said that the station is or it isn’t profitable, the problem is that it has been built at the worst time. When the economic situation recovers, we will have all this potential available to us” Mrs. Ponte states.
She puts forward the 250.000 users that the station had the first year of functioning as an argument to defend its economic sustainability. However, according to the article quoted by Mr. Villeta, a high speed route has to have a demand between 6, 5 to 8 million passengers per year in order to, at least, cover its maintenance costs. The article states that in Spain, not a single line achieves this demand and therefore it’s almost impossible to find an economist who defends the high speed train from and economic point of view.
The construction company Adif claims that economically, the station is sustainable. “The station’s capacity is sufficient and appropriate for the demand and train services offered by the Spanish railway company RENFE” affirms Ana Díaz, an Adif’s press officer. “In two years, the station has been used by 409.000 people but in the foreseeably future, this number will grow as RENFE increases the train service frequency and the services offered by the station itself”.
Speaking about the construction of the line and the location of the station, Mrs. Diaz says that the government and the company followed the national and European legislation and therefore, their work is legally irreproachable.
According to Adif, the Fernando Zobel station in Cuenca is the 360º model as it accomplishes the 18 requirements of the concept and some of the recommendations. Among others characteristics, the station has public transportation connections, taxi stops, and a parking area for around 300 cars. Its ample accesses and clear itineraries make it easily usable for disabled people. Environmentally speaking, it was designed to be energy efficient as proves its geothermal climate control systems which uses sub-soil energy to keep the temperature stable reducing 50% of the energy waste and in its construction, the company used “low contaminating materials without minium or chronic substances” the Adif website explains.
Despite the environmental and engineering facets of the Madrid – Valencia line together with Cuenca’s Fernando Zobel station being covered, its cost-effectiveness and profitability aren’t as expected. However, at least some people like Sebastián are enjoying from the low cost high speed journeys.
Alejandro Izquierdo is a 2012-2013 student in the Europe in the World programme; this report about Cuenca was written as a part of the courses in the Utrecht half of the one-year programme, which run partly in Utrecht (the Netherlands) and partly in Aarhus (Denmark).