The same train that inaugurated the first high-speed AVE line between Madrid and Seville has just arrived in Alicante, which thus becomes the 31st station on the high-speed network. The inauguration of the Albacete-Alicante line, whose 165 kilometers represent an investment of 1.92 billion euros, completes the initial plan announced in 2001, but is well behind the forecast completion date, and comes amid gathering uncertainties as to the future of the wider project of joining all of the country's provincial capitals to Madrid with AVE lines. The budgets available in the boom years made an intensive program possible; one that has turned Spain into the European country with the highest amount of high-speed routes — 3,100 kilometers in all — and the second highest in the world after China, a country that is 20 times larger than ours.
These figures might encourage optimism, were it not that the economic situation has changed so radically that to boast of them now might be considered overly smug and even inadvisable. The question is whether the country can afford to keep up this rate of investment in the completion of the network and the high maintenance costs associated with it. With a drop in investment in research and development that may irreparably compromise the future, and at a time of painful cutbacks in public healthcare and education, some of the parameters with which the high-speed rail network was initially planned are clearly out of date, given that they are unsuited to a scenario of recession. The crisis itself has reduced the impact that was forecast for the arrival of the train in the localities it reaches, and it is regrettable that certain public authorities, thirsty for good news, have again fallen into the habit of disproportionate projections as to the number of passengers and their impact on the creation of employment. The record, so far, of the Madrid-Valencia line counsels realism: the forecast 3.6 million passengers have turned out to be 1.9 million in the first year, and 1.7 million in the second.
Prudence, then, is advisable when it comes to creating expectations and pushing for investment that, in the light of the new situation, may be questionable. For example, 11.5 million euros was poured into building a station in Villena (population 35,000), whose dimensions and location suggest that the same mistake has been committed in Tardienta and Lucena, where stations representing massive investments receive only a few dozen passengers per day.
There is no doubt that AVE connection brings advantages; that high travel speeds are an important factor in development; and that the returns on this investment include the major rail construction contracts obtained in other countries. Also of value are the social and ecological benefits that the high-speed train offers in comparison to other, more costly and polluting means of transport. But the rate of construction and the operative activation of the network so far constructed must be reconsidered in the light of the new social and economic priorities that have been imposed by the crisis.