Monday, May 06, 2013

A No-Hoper: The Artà train

When Francesc Antich became president of the Balearics in 2007, his "big thing" was to be the train. He envisaged augmenting the rail network by re-introducing the old Manacor to Artà line and eventually taking it on to Cala Rajada. A further development was to have been an extension from Sa Pobla to Alcúdia.

Antich's big thing was to prove to be a total and unmitigated disaster, and a costly one as well. The Alcúdia extension fell through because of the political fight between a town hall then dominated by the old Unió Mallorquina and a regional transport ministry headed by the UM's arch rivals on the left, the PSM Mallorcan socialists. The Manacor-Artà line looked as though it wouldn't fall through. As we now know, it has.

One can blame Antich for all the controversy surrounding the abandoned Llevant rail line. Up to a point it might be right to. But it, as with the Alcúdia extension, was meant to have cost the Balearic Government virtually nothing; Madrid was going to foot the bill. There was a good deal of sense with both projects as well as potential advantages in terms of the environment and tourism. Both projects, though, faced stiff opposition, mainly from landowners, and, in the case of the Llevant line, the sums that the Antich government had come up with didn't stack up.

Mallorca's Chamber of Commerce is not a body prone to wishing to undermine investment or development, but it was this body which issued a report in which it said that the volume of traffic that the Manacor-Artà line would have generated would have been only a third of that which the government had considered was required in order to make the line viable. If the Chamber of Commerce could have come up with such a telling and indeed damning finding, how had the government ever arrived at its figures? How could it have ever agreed to the project?

With the value of hindsight, one can style the rail projects as having been typical of profligacy. Yet, they weren't vanity projects and they weren't ones that could be blamed on a regional government spend-spend mentality. The regional government might have got its sums badly wrong, but there was still merit to the plan to extend the rail network. Unlike airports on the mainland that have no passengers because they have never opened, the rail lines would have had passengers; not as many as might have been thought, but passengers nonetheless.

In fact, the volume of traffic might just have been much greater than the Chamber of Commerce had reckoned. A year ago, a report by SFM, the island's rail operator, revealed that passenger numbers on the existing lines had doubled over a ten-year period. As infrastructure projects went, therefore, the Antich big thing might not have been as daft as had been made out.

The current government took the decision to scrap the Llevant line because of a lack of funding. And so what do we now have? Vast areas of land that have already been worked on that are doing nothing and for which nothing is planned. Thirty million euros will have to be found, so claim the environmentalists GOB and a pro-rail line group, in order to compensate builders and landowners. Madrid, meanwhile, is eyeing up what it had handed over and which hasn't been spent. It may well be asking for its money back. I'm not sure if the government has been able to sell on the new trains it bought, but buy them it had; an act of extreme folly, given that there were no lines for them to run on.

Though there was opposition to the line when it was first mooted and when work first started, the Llevant project was right for reasons other than questionable ones to do with passenger numbers and finance. Those who lived locally who expressed their opposition would surely have appreciated that the east-coast rail link would have had a potential economic benefit as well a psychological benefit: an often neglected part of Mallorca would have been receiving investment for once.

Arguably, Alcúdia didn't need the rail extension. Its road link to the northern hub city of Inca had already been greatly improved. In the east, however, the links from Artà to the hub of Manacor are not nearly as good. The train would have improved them. But perhaps it is the distance away from Palma that holds the key to why the Llevant line was scrapped. In Palma, they still hold out hope of finishing the Palacio de Congresos. In Artà and elsewhere in the east, all hope has gone.

Any comments to please.

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