The RENFE Scandal and Responsibility
I’ve been repeatedly asked about a RENFE scandal about its rolling stock purchase. The company ordered trains too big for its rolling stock, and this has been amplified to a scandal that is said to be “incompetence beyond imagination” leading to several high-level resignations, including that of the ministry of transport’s chief civil servant, former ADIF head Isabel Pardo de Vera Posada. In reality, this is a real scandal but not a monumental one, and Pardo de Vera is not at fault; what it does show is both a culture of responsibility and a degree of political deflection.
What is the scandal?
RENFE, the state-owned Spanish rail operating firm, ordered regional trains for service in Asturias and Cantabria on a meter-gauge mountain railway with many narrow tunnels of nonstandard sizes. RENFE did not properly spec out the loading gauge, which vendor CAF noticed in 2021, shortly after the order was tendered but before manufacturing began; thereafter, both tried fixing the error, which has not led to any increase in cost, but has led to a delay in the entry of the under-construction equipment into service from 2024 to 2026.
The head of the regional government of Cantabria, Miguel Ángel Revilla Roiz, demanded that heads roll over the spectacular botch and delay. The context is that regional rail service outside Madrid and Barcelona has been steadily deteriorating, and people outside those two regions have long complained about the domination of the economy and society by those two cities and the depopulation of rural areas. Frequency is low and lines are threatened with closure due to the consequent poor ridership, and there is deep mistrust of the central government (a mistrust that is also common enough in Barcelona, where it is steered toward Catalan nationalism).
The other piece of context is the election at the end of this year. Nearly all polls have the right solidly defeating the incumbent PSOE; Revilla is a PSOE ally and so Asturias head Adrián Barbón Rodríguez is a PSOE member, and both are trying to save their political support by distinguishing themselves from the central government, which is unpopular due to the impact of corona on the Spanish economy.
What is Pardo de Vera’s role?
She was at ADIF when the contract came down; ADIF manages infrastructure, not operations. She was viewed as a consummate technocrat, and I became aware of her work through Roger Senserrich’s interview with her; as such, she was elevated to the position of secretary of state for transport, the chief civil servant in the ministry. Once the ministry became aware of the scandal in 2021, she tried to fix the contract, leading to the current result of a two-year delay; she is now under fire for not having been transparent with the public about it, as the story only became public after a local newspaper broke it.
This needs to be viewed not as incompetence on her part. The scandal is real, but moderate in scope; delays of this magnitude are unfortunately common, and Berlin is having one on the U-Bahn due to vendor lawsuits. Rather, the success of Spain in infrastructure procurement (if not in rail operations, where it unfortunately lags) has created high expectations. In the United States, where standards are the worst, a similar mistake by the MBTA in the ongoing process of procuring electric trains – the RFI did not properly specify the catenary height – is leading to actual increases in costs and it’s not even viewed as a minor problem as in Berlin but as just how expensive electrification is.
I urge Northern European and American agencies to reach out to Pardo de Vera. In Spain she may be perceived as scandalized, but she has real expertise in infrastructure construction, engineering, and procurement. Often boards, steering committees, and review panels comprise retired agency heads who left for a reason; she left for a reason that is not her fault.
The motorist toll booths were closed and removed when autopistas “were paid for”, but such revenue from motorists should be used to subsidize the rail system to bring passenger fare prices down. Barcelona and regional cities could also eliminate curbside “free parking”, a wasteful practice that ignores blight caused by contraptions on city streets. This revenue could also subsidize rail transport.
I wouldn’t fare prices as being remotely close to the problems of the Spanish rail system, not even on the same planet. When I was touring there some years ago, the trains per day and direction between cities with six and seven digit population figures an certainly even more tourists could be counted with the fingers of one hand. But this seems to have become better by now. 😕
The price of AVE between Barcelona and Paris is normally a lot higher than airfare. The regional train fares could certainly be reduced, and autopista tolls increased to encourage motorists to give up the car when entering Barcelona from outlying cities. Automobile traffic and parked cars are a blight on Barcelona and regional city quality of life, as it is everywhere else, and rail transit can go along way to reduce this as long as general funding isn’t used to provide free motorways. This isn’t a tourist issue.
When is someone corrupt or in competent, and when did you spend a lot of money teaching someone how to do it right. This is vary hard to figure out when you are the boss in charge, and impossible for the general public who can’t keep up with everything. (one day I need to be a medical expert to understand if/why anti-vaxers are wrong, the next day I need to be a foreign policy expert to figure out the Ethiopia war…) It isn’t possible to keep up with everything so we have to trust expert. But who watches the watchers. News know this and will play stories up to give them more readers/viewers. I don’t know how to solve this.
I’m sure the media used to be better behaved.
Yellow journalism dates to the 1800s, but you have probably forgotten about that bit of history until I reminded you.
The media has mostly been bad, because that is what sells. There have always been exceptions to that rule, but you need to search them out. There was a short time when better quality news did sell well enough to be mainstream, it would take a lot of people willing to pay good money to bring those days back. I costs a lot of money to pay a reporter for a year to investigate something that might not even turn out to be a real story, even if there is a story it isn’t new anymore. Or you can quickly write up a story before lunch based on easy to find information from people who want to spread their bias.
(In New York, the media is significantly more informed and more ethical about its subject matter than the louts it’s reporting on, like the various agency heads.)