Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Train Not Now Standing ...

Amongst the various measures announced by the Spanish Government to save energy and oil in light of the little local difficulty in north Africa is one to incentivise the use of public transport. An incentive, that of a 5% discount on local train journeys, does not, unless I'm very much mistaken, apply in Mallorca, as this reduction applies to services operated by Renfe, and Renfe doesn't run services in Mallorca.

Whatever incentive may or may not be flying around, therefore, would have to be one through SFM (Serveis Ferroviaris de Mallorca), the local operator. The problem is that SFM doesn't always do the greatest of jobs in incentivising travellers, because of its proneness to breaks in service. For ten months, following an accident near to Sineu station, the line between Sineu and Manacor had been closed. It re-opened on Monday of this week. Up and running once more, there have, however, been delays in the service.

The unfortunate accident at Sineu just added to the woes that SFM has had to contend with, such as a train catching fire and an attempt at sabotage on the line near Inca. There have also been other delays to services, the consequence of the process of electrification, which is due to be mostly finished by the end of this month. This upgrading of the network, welcome though it may be, disguises, though, the dashed ambitions of the current regional government.

When Francesc Antich re-assumed the presidency in 2007, one of his Big Things was that his new administration would usher in "the age of the train". With the words of Jimmy Savile not quite ringing in our ears, we waited on the platform of political promises for the arrival of trains to take us to Alcúdia and Cala Ratjada. And we're still waiting.

The two main rail projects were to have been the extension of the line from Sa Pobla to Alcúdia and the re-creation of the old line from Manacor to Artà and on to Cala Ratjada. Both have been controversial; one (the Alcúdia extension) has failed to emerge, the other has been dogged by problems, so much so that the Balearic parliament has now censured the transport minister, Gabriel Vicens (PSM - Mallorcan socialists), and called for a legal and technical audit of works.

Yet the Artà line had benefited from having additional funding, money that was finally diverted from the Alcúdia line, after months of bickering between Vicens's department and Alcúdia town hall as to the siting of the rail track and terminal had threatened a complete withdrawal of central government finance. The stand-off between the town hall and the department, regardless of any differing and legitimate logistical and environmental issues, was a nonsense of rivalry between Mallorca's two nationalist parties - the now defunct UM of the town hall and the PSM of the transport ministry. The result? No railway.

In spite of the odd accident, fire, delays, undelivered new lines and political handbags, the rail service in Mallorca is not bad. Like buses, the service is inexpensive. But, also like buses, it only does so much. Governments, such as the Spanish one, may talk blithely of incentives to change transport habits, but behaviour will not change when the infrastructure, in terms of network coverage, is lacking. And in Mallorca, there is a real issue in respect of where you put this infrastructure, as evidenced by the farce over the siting of the Alcúdia extension.

Another hope of government is that the public will eschew King Car in favour of cycling. Fine, but as pointed out the other day, there are issues of safety as well as facility where biking is concerned. The wish to create a new cycle lane across the northern tourism zone is fair enough, but how can it be done? In parts of the road that would accommodate this new lane, which would need to be much wider than is currently the case in order to confer genuine safety, there simply isn't the space.

Along one stretch, that from Puerto Alcúdia to Can Picafort, there has also been ambition for a tram service. And to one side of part of this stretch is a damn great, legally protected nature reserve. How could all the competing transport needs - cars, lorries, taxis, buses, bikes, trams, to say nothing of nutters on roller blades and tourist trikes - all be comfortably fitted in? They couldn't be, unless there was a complete change in attitude among the main road users - drivers of cars and commercial vehicles.

Mallorca has one of the highest levels of car ownership per head of population anywhere in Europe. The car is king. For a very good reason. Public transport services only run, or run with anything like reasonable frequency, where demand makes economic sense, which excludes a great deal of the island.

In urban areas, such as that of the northern conurbation on the bay of Alcúdia, roads devoted to multi-use, as envisaged with the addition of trams and new cycle lanes, could only hope to work were there a system under which priority was given to everything - and everyone (pedestrians, therefore) - other than cars and lorries; a system akin to that which exists in parts of the Netherlands. But in a land in which patience is not the greatest of virtues, you would have to wonder if such a system could ever function. And the same mentality would be unlikely to result in a major uptake in public transport services, incentives or no incentives.

Whatever central government might think, whatever the regional government might think (or have thought), Mallorca is not about to experience the age of the train anytime soon. Or the age of the bicycle.

Any comments to please.

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