A planned high-speed rail link connecting the Basque Country in northern Spain with Madrid to the south and France and the rest of Europe to the north is expected to provide a major boost to investment and overall economic growth in the region.
“The high-speed train will place the Basque Country in the vanguard of the 21st century,” says Ana Oregi, the regional government’s minister for the environment and territorial policy. “A fast connection between Madrid and the major Basque cities will at last become a reality.”
The so-called Basque Y will run through the Basque Country in a Y shape, from Vitoria-Gasteiz, the regional capital, branching out to Bilbao and its port on the left-hand spur, and San Sebastián and the French border on the right-hand spur.
The project forms an integral part of the EU’s Atlantic corridor, which will link the Iberian peninsula to Paris, Frankfurt and Strasbourg with high-speed rail lines. Conventional rail lines will run in parallel with the high-speed lines, providing for the continuity of the rail network. Moreover, the Basque Y will be built in standard rail gauge, instead of the traditional Spanish gauge, to facilitate rapid transport across the border into France.
Ms Oregi says the high-speed train is being built with three objectives in mind: to improve the freight transport system, reduce transportation costs and minimise the environmental impact of overland transport. “The Basque Country’s extensive transportation network already makes it an exceptional option for companies interested in Spanish, Portuguese and French markets, as well as [providing] access from these points to the rest of Europe, Africa and transoceanic connections,” she says.
The 172-kilometre Basque Y network is one of Spain’s most ambitious engineering projects. The link will have 80 tunnels along the route and 60% of the network will run underground, thereby minimising the environmental impact that has sparked protests from opposition groups.
The Basque sector of the rail link could conceivably be completed by 2020 if Madrid's authorities agree to provide its share of the outlay, which so far has been slow in coming. Leaders in the Basque Country, the only one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities providing direct funding for the rail project, have criticised central government for failing to prioritise the country’s commercial connectivity with the rest of Europe.
Once up and running, the journey time between Madrid and Bilbao will be slashed from five hours to two-and-a-half, with the journey to Paris set to be reduced to slightly over four hours from the Spanish border, and major French cities such as Bordeaux and Toulouse less than two hours away from the border. The cost overrun has yet to be quantified, but it is likely to be considerably more than the €4bn originally estimated.
“The project is a vital part of Basque Country logistics – the government’s plan to deal with all the needs of industrial and commercial freight – as well as transport and distribution within our strategic European hub, and links to our major ports and airports,” says Ms Oregi. “The programme brings together the ports of Bilbao and Pasaia, our three airports, public- and private-sector logistical platforms, rail operators and the Basque transport sector.”
Ms Oregi points out that the Basque Country – strategically located between major Spanish industrial production and export centres and France – suffers from a congested road network. The high-speed train, she adds, will be able to transport the equivalent of 800,000 lorry loads of freight per year.
The high-speed rail link with Europe will be welcomed by major international investors in the Basque Country. These include car manufacturer Daimler, whose chairman Dieter Zetsche recently announced plans for the company’s Mercedes-Benz Vitoria-Gasteiz plant to start production in late 2014 of the new Vito van, which will be assembled alongside the V-Class multi-purpose vehicle.
“We are very proud of this long-standing plant and our highly motivated employees at this production location,” says Mr Zetsche. “As part of our most recent model changeover, we have invested about €190m here to create the foundation of a bright future in Vitoria."
Volker Mornhinweg, head of the Mercedes-Benz Vans division, adds: “Our plant in Vitoria plays an important role as a leading production factory for our medium-sized vans. This is the point from which our new Mercedes-Benz van models will emerge to challenge the competition in 2014.”
Access to Europe
The Basque government’s deputy minister for transport, Antonio Aiz, cites this as an example of how investors such as Mercedes-Benz stand to benefit from access to the Basque Y. “The plant will have access to the rail link, which runs through Vitoria with a direct connection to the port of Pasaia and the markets of Europe,” he says. “It is good news for the company and also for its suppliers.” The economic impact of the high-speed train, he says, will bring a €5.9bn boost to the Basque economy, of which 56% corresponds to the service sector.
This opens up opportunities for investment in the tourism sector, with an expected 185,000 more overnight stays per year in the Basque Country, based on an estimate of 15 high-speed trains per day, each carrying 300 visitors, of which 15% will be spending at least one night in the Basque Country. Hotel profits are forecast to grow by 16% on average once the train becomes operational.
Bilbao, and most importantly its port, is forecast to become one of the high-speed train’s chief beneficiaries. The port aspires to reinforce its role as the main intermodal logistics hub in the north of Spain and south-western France, extending its zone of influence. The port’s 2013 to 2017 strategic plan forecasts a 30% growth in freight traffic to 37.5 million tonnes over this period. Once the left spur of the Basque Y reaches Bilbao, it will be connected by rail to its sister port of Pasaia, which lies closer to the French border, in just over half an hour, compared with the current two-hour train journey time.
“The construction of the Basque Y is one of the most outstanding features of Basque Country logistics,” says Ms Oregi. “It represents a crucial link in the integration of Europe’s freight transport network.”