Spanish High-Speed Rail and the Financialisation of Infrastructure Development

My current project addresses the relationship between infrastructure development and financialisation through the case of Spanish high-speed rail (HSR). The development of the AVE network (Alta Velocidad Española – Spanish high-speed rail) is a project of unprecedented magnitude that has resulted in what is currently the longest European HSR network and the second longest globally, superseded only by the Chinese one. Contemporary Spain is a paradigmatic case of a financialised economy supported by the development of the construction sector, and infrastructural development has been a key pillar of the latter. The financial crisis has not resulted in a significant alteration of the project, and unlike the housing sector, infrastructure development has remained a central instrument of economic planning. My research addresses the social and political articulation of the AVE project, which I argue is a privileged lens for understanding the relationship between public debt, conflicting economic visions and new patterns of capital accumulation.

The origins of the HSR project are closely tied to the 1980s pressures for building a commercial railway. The three decades of existence of the HSR project are indivisibly related to the idea that the economic and political vision that accompanied conventional rail has become obsolete. In opposition to the non-commercial state monopoly, HSR was supposed to offer a competitive solution to a market based model of infrastructure planning. The current defense of the HSR, however, has been inverted. As HSR has failed to produce the envisioned economic outcomes, the proponents of the AVE have had to return to a political grounding of the project. The rise, defense and opposition to HSR have been the terrain on which competing visions of economic development and planning have unfolded. The current model of HSR and the institutional innovation that accompanies it are key to the rise of a financialised model of infrastructure development. The AVE, due to its unprecedented costs, has been a laboratory for dealing with the contradictions between infrastructure funding and the pressures to relieve national debt. Grounding the new paradigm of infrastructure funding and containing its contradictions has required the mobilization of various forms of expertise, well beyond those belonging to the strict field of economics. My research aims to recover the social articulation of the AVE in a double sense: on the one hand, it traces the social origin of the competing forms of knowledge and planning that have supported it; on the other, it aims to show the way in which a project that has been understood as primarily economic and political in the narrow sense, is fundamentally about competing visions of social organization and their inevitable confrontation in an era of financialisation.

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