There’s nothing plain about the rail in Spain

Autovia 8, west of Bilbao, where it finishes

Spanish rail is a delight.

It’s cheap, about as difficult as getting on a bus, and more or less on time, and you can travel locally at our train speeds (for about two euro an hour) or at 300km an hour if you’re going cross country and want to spend a little more. It’s a goddam pleasure at that speed to just have a glass of wine, lie back, and watch the train unzipping the countryside. Barcelona to Madrid is roughly the same distance as Auckland to Wellington. In Spain that’s less than three hours, from the moment that you dive into one underground until the moment that you emerge out of another.

It’s a similar distance to travelling, say, between Queen Street in Auckland and Lambton Quay in Wellington. With our check-in times and the quality of our transport to and from each airport here in New Zealand you’re lucky to make that sort of time if you fly. And we easily the have the population density to support just one train line between our two main north island cities.

For years our transport policies have focussed on getting more land under tarmac and more vehicles in and out of cities faster while refusing to invest in any reasonable alternative. The revolution in communications seems to be happening, but surely our bodies need to keep pace with our minds?

Grumble mumble mumble.

Yes, Spain is near-bankrupt now, and partly as a result of their infrastructure spending, but they finished their rail at least, and we’re in no economic position now to scoff at them. When I was working in Spain in 2010 the country had a functional rail system and had started building a series of Autovias. These are superhighways that cut against the flow of the land. They punch through Spain’s constant mountains in miles-long tunnels and then go roaring out across the valleys, six lanes poised on concrete pillars twenty storeys high. Going west from Bilbao by bicycle last autumn I found myself on forgotten C-roads which wandered and wriggled around the feet of these monstrous highways. The c-roads were often cobbled, sometimes even drifted with leaves from a lack of traffic, as the autovias had absorbed all the cars.

Spain’s Autovia system never got finished. The Autovias often dissolve into huge construction sites surrounded by pieces of heavy machinery with weeds growing through their tracks. And sure, the rail network did help to bankrupt the Spanish economy, along with the museums, the theaters, the galleries, and the hospitals, but it was these multi-billion-euro-each roading projects that put the nails in Spain’s economic coffin, made several wealthy men wealthier, and savaged a lot of lovely landscape. Spain’s Autovias are great roads, but I think much of the pleasure of travel is the pleasure of not having to climb into a car and sit nose-to-tail in traffic.

I’d prefer to read the paper and see the world go by from a fast train.


New Zealand is a compact country strung out in such a way that we’d need just one high-speed rail line to connect the North Island together. It could hugely reduce our greenhouse emissions from air travel (moving a person by train between Auckland and Wellington produces 4 kilos of co2, but moving the same person by plane produces 146 kilos) and yet trains can move people and goods in the same timeframe as an aeroplane can.

Much of my work is currently rewriting urban planning documents so that the public will find them zesty, so I have (perhaps) some slight insight as to what is being planned for our country over the next few decades. Most of it’s exciting. Eco cities and urban gardens and cycle paths. Seemingly designed by people who eat from Pak n Save and who don’t own bicycles, but a good attempt still. However not one of these urban initiatives takes much account of how our nation actually joins up.

Auckland City Council and Wellington City Council are both offering the public similar and excitingly progressive ideals (The Auckland Unleashed world’s most liveable city vs the Wellington 2040 eco city). These are important. Auckland will have another million people in the next two decades according to the projections in the Auckland Unleashed master plan. But transport planning in Auckland focusses on the route into Auckland, and nowhere else. Public transport across this country is currently so dire that getting anywhere else requires a car. So what happens when all those people in all those new suburbs want to drive somewhere other than into Auckland?

Answer – the roads will gridlock, there will be an outcry for bypasses, more countryside will go under tarmac, wealthy men will get wealthier, and we will be as car-bound and unhappy as ever.

In New Zealand, we don’t seem to have quite found a way to evolve past a 1960’s society so far as transport is concerned. Our reforms, typically misnamed as improvements, have dismantled much of our past without providing a sustainable future. We know we can’t go like this, but current NZTA policy sends 85.17% of it’s budget to roading projects, and 10.9% of it’s budget to walking, cycling and all of our public transport combined (of which 7.2% is non-infrastructural “public transport services”). So that’s actually 3.7% of the NZTA budget available to invest in infrastructure for Walking, Cycling, and Rail combined. Who is NZTA looking out for? Not me, for one. The Wellington and Auckland City Councils are trying at least.

NZTA has a considerable budget. This is the agency that controls our national transport systems and is dead set on spending two billion just to get people in their cars from Levin to Wellington Airport a bit faster than they do now, and putting a flyover across the Basin Reserve in the process. (Because Wellington airport is where State Highway One ends and highways are obviously the only things that matter. Never mind considering what everyone will do with their cars once they reach the airport.)

Two billion could build half of an Auckland-Wellington highspeed rail link. The neccissary land is already owned by NZTA. NZTA are also the agency that produced a study condemning the proposed Auckland inner-city rail link as inefficient, advised against it, and refused to help fund it. Yet every other study seems to have come to the conclusion that the rail link is Auckland’s one great hope for transport sanity.

I’m sad for Auckland.


The Madrid-Barcelona rail line carries up to 808 people per train. Cheaply. 17 trains leave per day in each direction and you get wifi and a workspace and a restaurant and a bar and a choice of films. It often carries over 2000 people an hour, and before the rail link opened in 2008 Madrid-Barcelona was the world’s busiest single air traffic route. Now 80% of that air traffic is carried by rail.

Right now we can carry 288 people an hour on Air NZ at peak time between Auckland and Wellington, and you’re mad not to book weeks in advance. I’m uncertain of the capacity of the other airlines on the same route, but a lot of people fly between these two cities regularly. And a whole day of trains would produce less CO2 than just one flight. We can’t sell our 1950’s trains for anything but scrap metal, but we can make modern trains. Yet we won’t it seems, because (of course) NZTA refuses to invest in them, chosing a tender from China over a tender from a Dunedin based firm this year to produce rail units, despite the Dunedin tender being within 5% of the Chinese one.


I speak Spanish and Portuguese, and my first introduction to our rail shortfalls was when I travelled Auckland-Wellington in 2004 and rescued a confused Spanish couple who’d also caught the train to Wellington. They discovered, as I did, that the train was expensive, had run out of vegetarian food, and would probably take 11 hours.

I am vegetarian also and I had packed a lunch. We shared it, but it didn’t last. Our trains at that time often had to travel at 40kph, because a previous National government had sold our rail network and allowed it to be welded together to lessen maintainence, which meant that in summer the rails would expand as they heated, buckle, and so force trains down to this speed in order to negotiate the twisted track safely. We got to Wellington, starving, after 19 hours in transit. I was meant to be home for dinner, but unlocked my door at 3am.

The Spanish couple had found the trains in Zaire to be better than ours.


It all reminds me of the Aqueduct conversation in Hemmingway’s Islands in the Stream:

The people of Havana desperately need an aqueduct. Therefore endless public funds can be diverted to build an aqueduct. Unless an aqueduct is actually built. In which case no more public funds will be available. So no politician will actually ever build an aqueduct. Although many may campaign on the strength of it.


This question of public transport needs to be addressed at the planning stage of any new development. Off-street parking and a quick route to New World are not enough. Lee Corbusier’s Radial City has so far proved a boring and ineffective piece of 1950’s corporate idealism, but moving large numbers of people quickly and pleasantly is still a necessity, and private cars on inadequate roads will not solve this problem.


The Spanish invested in rail (while they could) because they knew that significant numbers of people wanted to compress time and distance while still being able to work, sleep, eat, and talk to their friends. Roads and cars do not allow this. Only a sophisticated mass transit system can make our century possible.

Look. I started writing this monstrous rant from a train now whilst travelling from Petone to Wellington. I normally cycle, but, goddammit, it was actually snowing out there and I was cold. Cars were stacked up on state highway 2, nose-to-tail, stopped. I was online as I wrote. The surf report was poor, and facebook was clogged withs pictures of wimpy misshappen snowmen. (Wellingtonians are not hugely experienced in the manufacture of snowmen.) I was travelling, working, playing, and communicating, all at once.

I’m finishing this rant while pedalling a bicycle to run a generator that charges my laptop as part of an installation (Nag) in Auckland’s Aotea Square, riding and writing back-to-back with my editor, Matt Fairhurst. The Occupy Auckland protest is set up right next to us, and fine company they are.  In the evenings as we get tired and sweaty trying to power lighting & chandelier as well as our laptops and jazz they’ve been coming over and dancing to our music and sharing ideas.

I find myself looking over towards them and thinking about what they’re here for and what they’re trying to achieve. It’s a long way off. But organising some decent public transport across this country might be one step towards a less selfish and corporate future.

Marcus McShane

Nag in Aotea Square, with me finishing the first draft of this & Matt Fairhurst winding up to editing speed

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