The railway is the best mode in terms of social coherence and the most environmentally sustainable

JOSÉ LUIS ÁBALOS MECO, Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda

Mafex Magazine: In the present context, marked by the pandemic, the Board defends that the transport sector should play a key role in the European recovery plan. Consequently, what will be the main pillars underpinning this new mobility?

José Luis Ábalos: The Government has prepared the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan based on 4 guidelines: ecological transition, digital transformation, gender equality, and social and territorial cohesion. Pillars that the Government has placed at the centre of its policy from the beginning and that fully comply with the European crisis exit strategy.

But these are only some guidelines and we should not lose sight of the fact that the transport sector is facing a period of profound changes, which will increase over the coming decades.

The investments included in the budget proposal and in the European recovery plan respond to both short-term and long-term needs. This situation will pass, our way of life will return to normal and, at the same time, mobility and traffic will begin their progressive growth.

Besides, the orientation that we are giving to investment is not designed for a large increase in traffic but to make infrastructures and mobility safer, more sustainable, more resilient. In short, to modernise them.

New technologies, environmental challenges and the increasing concentration of the population in large urban centres are causing a disruptive transformation in mobility policies.
The Spanish transport system is among the best in the world. We are the European country with the most kilometres of high-capacity roads, and also European leaders in high speed. Given the advanced degree of development of our infrastructures, the Ministry of Transport, Mobility and the Urban Agenda (MITMA) must now focus on optimising their use, providing real citizen mobility solutions.

Our current role goes beyond the mere provision of infrastructures, as we have evolved and set the goal of planning mobility as a whole, so that our legacy is a safe, sustainable and connected transport system for future generations.

Mafex Magazine: They have recently presented the draft State Budget for 2021, which reaches the highest level of expenditure in the last ten years. The new growth model is based on innovation and ecological transition. How important is transport in this programme?

José Luis Ábalos: The Budgets presented are actually historical and their investment, as is rightly said, reaches the highest level in the last 10 years. They are, therefore, a radical change in trend that allows us to give a decisive boost to recovery.

Specifically, the set of actions of the Ministry and its companies amounts to € 16.664 million. In addition to representing an increase of 53% with respect to current Budgets, this also means allocating almost 13 billion in investments in transport and mobility, which will allow us to decisively promote policies and transformations in which we have already been working. It will allow us, on the one hand, to advance in the promotion of public transport, in the decarbonisation of cities, in providing aid to companies for the digitisation of logistics, improving the services provided by our public companies and the intermodal connection of the different modes.

Mafex Magazine: Among the different modes, the railway monopolises a significant investment, which is something that Mafex has always defended as a mode that favours economic and social development. But why did MITMA decide to focus on this means of transport?

Because the railway is the best mode in terms of social coherence and the most environmentally sustainable. Cohesion implies equal opportunities, not penalising citizens for the place where they live or circumscribing their life and professional horizons to their place of residence.

In an advanced society, mobility is a basic right and the railway is the public transport that best ensures this right. It has a social and ecological dimension and promotes competitiveness, as well as being the backbone of Spain.

Within the modes of transport, this Government’s commitment to the railway is public and notorious. The railway represents 42% of the total investment of the Ministry, with which we have consigned railway activities valued at 5.876 million euros, 1.567 million more than in 2020.

This railway investment will bring advantages to Spanish society from many different perspectives. It will be beneficial both to improve long-distance travel, daily mobility and, of course, freight traffic. It will be a territorial and socioeconomic backbone. In addition, citizens’ mobility will be greatly improved by providing them with services, connections and frequencies that are much better than the current ones, and by creating new itineraries as we expand the network and complete corridors.

This investment will therefore contribute to the improvement of commuter and medium distance services in the main cities and metropolitan areas, and it will also allow us to proceed with less carbonised, more efficient and diversified logistics processes; we consider these to be key elements for the security, competitiveness and resilience of our industrial and foreign sectors.

Mafex Magazine: What role do you think this mode of transport should have as the backbone of mobility in the sustainable future? Is our country’s focal point in line with the European green strategy (Green Deal)?

It will play a central role. It is a backbone of the territories and the main engine of development of many of them. As of today, the railway’s share in the transport system is relatively modest compared to its actual capacity. Making the investment of the last decades profitable will bring economic, social, territorial and environmental benefits.

As I said before, the Ministry’s commitment to the railway is fully in line with the European green strategy since rail is a sustainable mode of transport.

Achieving a reduction in polluting gases is a key to the 2030 goals and we must not forget that road transport in Spain is responsible for emitting 25% of greenhouse gases and that its reduction is a challenge to which both Europe and this Government is committed.

It is a social necessity to move towards environmental sustainability, where the railway will play a key role in reducing congestion, accidents and noise, especially in metropolitan environments.

It is no coincidence that 2021 will be the year of the railway throughout the European Union. This will allow us to convey these ideas to the public to arouse their awareness and participate in the benefits of this means of transport.

Mafex Magazine: The funds allocated to the railway are expected to increase by 1.567 million euros, 36.4% more than in 2020. Could you tell us what the priorities are in this item?

Of course. Some of our priorities concerning the railway are clearly outlined in the Budget.

The two key pillars for the development of the railway sector are, in the first place, Cercanías (the commuter belt), which is the jewel in the crown, a mode of transport associated with daily mobility that is used by 90% of railway users in Spain . We invested a record figure of 1.5 billion euros to it, increasing its budget by 160%.

Secondly, for the development and improvement of the entire Trans-European Network, as well as for intermodality and logistics activities (rail access to ports, terminals, digitisation of logistics chains and other activities included in the Goods-30 Plan), to which that we allocated 4.370 million.

All this without forgetting the more than 1.2 billion euros allocated to Public Service Obligations (PSO) that, although not included in the investment section as such, allow us to offer the public with a more attractive and consistent service to meet their needs.

Mafex Magazine: How much of these funds will go to each of the subsectors (rolling stock, infrastructure, digitisation, etc.)?

Mainly and roughly speaking, out of the total 5.876 million euros, we have consigned about 4.7 billion to ADIF and ADIF High Speed.

This enabled us to double the investment budget in conventional rail travel with more than 1.8 billion euros, in what I dare say is the most ambitious budget in history to modernise a network that had been forgotten for years, as well as maintain our commitments to high speed with more than € 2.8 billion.

Meanwhile, Renfe has recorded actions valued at 857 million, in addition to the 1.2 billion that I mentioned before for PSO.

Mafex Magazine: One of the most outstanding aspects in terms of infrastructure development is the promotion of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Corridors, with an investment of 1.259 million euros. What plans do you have to achieve this goal? What are the sections that you plan to complete in the coming years?

The Atlantic and Mediterranean Corridors are an absolute priority for the Government and for the European Commission. As part of the trans-European transport network, these corridors are a key element in reducing emissions and achieving greater sustainability in transport, which is a goal that this government pursues to achieve the European Green Deal.Given the progress of several sections and the planned investment included in the budget plan, we are working towards completing the two corridors and there will be many sections that we will be terminating during this term.

The section that requires immediate completion in the Mediterranean Corridor is the Monforte-Elche-Orihuela, whose commissioning will take place after machine operator training carried out in December.

As for the Atlantic Corridor, our next milestone is the completion of the Pedralba – Campobecerros and Campobecerros – Taboadela road in this same month and, in December, we will complete the catenary, which brings us closer to commissioning the Pedralba-Orense service as a continuation of the recent commissioning of Zamora-Pedralba.

Mafex Magazine: Spanish industry has been a very important lever in recent years to position our railway network as one of the most modern in the world, both in high speed and urban mobility. What measures are contemplated so that this continues in the future? How will investment in innovation be reinforced?

The Ministry and the companies of the MITMA group must take advantage of the opportunity that “digital transformation” offers us and explore the use of innovation and technology as tools and not as ends in themselves to solve the great mobility challenges (efficiency, sustainability, security). All this without forgetting the social and economic component, where we place the user and the general interest at the centre of our policies.

The availability of accurate information, in real time and on all types of interconnected digital platforms, provides users with information on all services offered and enables them to plan their mobility according to their circumstances, which will imply an increase in social, economic and environmental transport efficiency. With this increase in efficiency we intend to improve both passenger and freight services, as well as reduce the transport-related setbacks such as congestion, emissions, accidents, etc.

In addition, we will invest in lines of work that will improve the experience of users of public transport. Our goal is to offer users and companies new technologies and digitisation. We will promote intermodality, allowing door-to-door and “barrier-free” travel, and we will move towards mobility as a service.

We will also invest in the automation of transport and logistics, which will result in greater system efficiency and greater accessibility to flexible and personalised mobility for population groups that previously lacked it, or the development of new mobility guidelines and new business models.

To achieve all this, MITMA intends to identify and support projects that contribute to decarbonised mobility through innovation, adopting a role of facilitators to promote innovation in mobility, without intending to replace private initiative or other ministerial departments or Administrations with whom we will, of course, collaborate.

Mafex Magazine: With the ambitious investment plan you are considering, how do you see the future of the transport sector in our country? Will it continue to be an exportable model?

The Transport sector is a very important pillar of our economy. It generates more than 800,000 jobs and represents around 4.5% of our GDP.

In line with the above and in relation to what I said at the beginning of this interview, we are facing a disruptive transformation in mobility policies. That leads to dynamism, on the other hand… and, of course, opportunities.

This appearance of disruptive technologies in traditional business models forces us to increase investments in R+D+i to guarantee the competitiveness of MITMA and its dependent companies, but also of private companies.

We must seize the opportunities offered today by recent innovations, especially in the area of information management, bearing in mind that different advances, methods and technologies will be based on intensive use of information and data. Accordingly, the use of Big Data techniques will be essential in the use of transport data.

As in all sectors subject to a change of paradigm, everything that is at the forefront will be exportable, so it will be all of us, public and private companies, citizens and companies, who must jointly face this challenge and fight with all our strength and intellect to position our industry at the forefront of Europe.