WHEN the 471 km AVE line from Madrid to Sevilla opened on April 20 1992, high-speed rail travel was a novelty for Spain. Who dreamt then that Spain would now be committed to construction of a national high-speed network? Yet work on Madrid - Barcelona route is well advanced and plans for other lines are making steady progress.

Launch of AVE services between Madrid and Barcelona in 2002-04 will not have the same surprise impact as the link to Sevilla, where AVE now has a 52% market share and 83% of the rail-air market. In the words of AVE Managing Director Dr Juan Luis Martín Cuesta, the 350 km/h high-speed trains will be fighting ’against one of the busiest air shuttle services in the world, shifting some 3·6 million passengers a year on 64 daily flights in each direction with a lot of companies in strong competition’. Marketing will be critical to success to win over ’expert fliers’, but Cuesta told the HSR2000 conference in London last month that ’we have no doubt that high speed will triumph’.

In some senses it already has, for how else can we construe the promise made by Minister for Development Francisco Álvarez Cascos on June 16 that by 2007 no regional capital will be more than 4h from Madrid? By that time the longest inter-city cross-country journey will be 61/2h. Firm commitments are enshrined in the government’s Railway Programme, which specifies inter-city journey times. M