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The rail tunnel – once Spain’s longest – used to be hailed as a triumph of modern engineering.

The seven-kilometre long passage took almost 20 years to build at a cost of 1.7 million euros. It was designed to link two important ports, mostly for carrying freight.

Today the tunnel lies abandoned, its walls gradually collapsing following years of neglect. But this is not the Sorbas tunnel, it’s de La Engaña in the north of Spain, one of dictator Franco’s star rail projects aimed at linking the cities of Valencia and Santander.

Built after the Civil War, the tunnel straddled Burgos and Santander but was never completed. The writing was on the wall in the 1960s, when officials decided that rail had had its day and would quietly make way for the brave new age of the motorcar.

A decision by the Socialist government in the mid 1980s to close unprofitable lines and a partial collapse of the tunnel in 1999 sealed de la Engaña’s fate.

Since then, there’s been talk of re-opening both the line and the tunnel for bicycles or cars – still-born projects doomed by a lack of cash, if not ideas.

Turn your gaze towards Almería’s high-speed rail project and it all sounds tiresomely familiar.

The project has been dogged by cash shortages from the outset and is now assailed by the government’s swingeing cuts and rising costs.

To date, just four out of the 13 planned sections that were meant to traverse the province have been completed, at a cost of 434 million euros. This includes the majestic Sorbas tunnel, which at 7.5 kilometres is of similar length to its ill-fated predecessor.

The latest news that the Government is considering reducing the AVE in Almería to a single track, arguing that it would help speed up construction work “so that it arrives as soon as possible”, has all the hallmarks of a cack-handed afterthought.

The ‘single-lane AVE’ idea comes just weeks after it was announced that there will be no new construction work undertaken for the high-speed train in the province next year, only for the tendering of contracts. And that’ll cost 100 million euros.

Many months ago, when it became clear that the AVE would literally hit the buffers in the provincial capital (the much-mooted city terminal is not even in the planning stage), there was talk that the high-speed rail link could end further to the north, in Carboneras.

The aim was to take advantage of the freight side of the business and the new dock, which was recently completed.

It seems the phrase ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’ is being taken very seriously in Madrid, but surely this is not what high-speed travel was designed for.

The ‘will it/won’t it go ahead’ saga now appears part of a cynical attempt to prepare the public for the worst, without wholly dashing its hopes.

The rail tunnel PHOTO

The AVE is now widely derided in the province

The AVE has effectively been transformed from a totemic symbol of Spain’s economic might, built on the shaky foundations of the property bubble, to another embarrassing example of government waste and poor planning.

The idea of linking together the entire nation via a high-speed rail network was concocted at a time when reining in public expenditure was as rare as the sight of a thrifty politician.

What Almería – and much of Spain – in fact needed was a realistic assessment of its modest transport needs, based on demographics and real growth prospects.
If that had been taken into consideration, it’s likely the province would have benefited more by having a conventional commuter train network.

Unfortunately, high-speed rail has a glamorous appeal and a political cache no conventional train can ever hope to match. Therein lies the problem.

When the Sorbas tunnel was near completion in 2011, a Spanish public works official giddily announced that future trains would race through it “at 300 kilometres an hour”.

Well, here’s a sobering fact. In order to attain such mind-bending speeds you need long, straight lines of track, but a quick glance at the Los Gallardos-Turre section will confirm that it meanders more than a drunk on a pub-crawl.

The AVE, once an acronym for ‘Alta Velocidad Española’ (‘Spanish high speed’) but also meaning ‘bird’, is looking increasingly more like a dodo incapable of taking off the ground.

Should the project end up on the scrapheap of history, my advice to the politicians who devised the AVE is that they head for the Sorbas tunnel – it’s highly unlikely anyone will go looking for them there.

Richard Torné

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