Spain's sleek new high-speed trains have stolen hundreds of thousands of passengers from airlines over the last year, slashing carbon emissions and marking a radical change in the way Spaniards travel.
Passenger numbers on fuel-guzzling domestic flights fell 20% in the year to November as commuters and tourists swapped cramped airline seats for the space and convenience of the train, according to figures released yesterday.
High-speed rail travel - boosted by the opening of a line that slashed the journey time from Madrid to Barcelona to 2 hours 35 minutes in February - grew 28% over the same period. About 400,000 travellers shunned airports and opted for the 220mph AVE trains.
Last year's drop in air travel, which was also helped by new high-speed lines from Madrid to Valladolid, Segovia and Malaga, marks the beginning of what experts say is a revolution in Spanish travel habits.
In a country where big cities are often more than 500km (300 miles) apart, air travel has ruled supreme for more than 10 years. A year ago aircraft carried 72% of the 4.8 million long-distance passengers who travelled by air or rail. The figure is now down to 60%.
"The numbers will be equal within two years," said Josep Valls, a professor at the ESADE business school in Barcelona.
Two routes, from Barcelona to Malaga and Seville, opened last week. Lines are also being built to link Madrid with Valencia, Alicante, the Basque country and Galicia. The government has promised to lay 10,000km of high-speed track by 2020 to ensure that 90% of Spaniards live within 30 miles of a station. The prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, boasts it will be Europe's most extensive high-speed network.
The high-speed train network is also helping Spain control carbon emissions.Straight tracks and few stops mean AVE trains use 19% less energy than conventional trains. Alberto García, of the Spanish Railways Foundation, has calculated that a passenger on the Madrid-Barcelona line accounts for one-sixth of the carbon emissions of an aeroplane passenger.
High-speed rail tickets are often cheaper. The lowest one-way price on the 410-mile Barcelona-Madrid route this month is €44 (£40). Rail operator Renfe says 99% of trains on the route arrive on time.
That sort of efficiency was sorely missed at Madrid's Barajas airport at the weekend. Tens of thousands of passengers suffered delays of up to 30 hours because of snow, a work-to-rule by Iberia pilots and a lack of air traffic controllers.
Zapatero, who has put infrastructure projects at the heart of an anti-recession surge in public spending, plans to invest €108bn (£96bn) in the high-speed rail network until 2020.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017