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The Atlantic Axis express? Spain, Portugal launch new train

A faster train service between Porto and Vigo debuts today. Locals hope it will help unite the region.

After more than a century of waiting, including delays and project cancellations, the twin cities of Vigo in Spain and Oporto in Portugal will be united by a new nonstop train connection beginning today, shortening the trip significantly.

But more than simply speeding up transportation between the two cities, locals hope that the route will be the first step toward integrating the economies of the historical rivals to attract more investment and soften the bite of the European debt crisis.

“It makes a lot sense for the North region in Portugal and Galicia in Spain to act as one entity in order to gain scale to confront the crisis and globalization,” says Luís Valente de Oliveira, a former minister and veteran Portuguese politician who now presides over Oporto’s city council.

So close, but hours apart

Vigo is the southernmost city of the Spanish region of Galicia, on the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, and Oporto is Portugal’s second biggest city and the industrial hub of the North region. Galicia is a bit bigger than Portugal’s North, but has about 1 million fewer people. The gross domestic product of Galicia is about 56 billion euros ($73 billion), compared to its neighbor’s roughly 48 billion euros ($62 billion).

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The two regions, known as the Atlantic Axis, have a lot in common, including linguistic heritage, culture, and a long, intertwined, and often bitter history.

But while only 93 miles apart, Vigo and Oporto have been separated since 1886 by an unusually long train ride, which has taken 3 hours and 30 minutes with 13 stops, including a border crossing. 

Starting today, the trip will take 2 hours, with plans to cut the time by one and a half hours more by 2016 after completing works partially funded by the European Union.

The nonstop train is the beginning of a new phase, says Xoán Vázquez Mao, the secretary of the Eixo Atlántico, a cross-border umbrella group tasked with developing shared interests in the two regions, with private, public, and European funding.

“There are 34 municipalities [in the whole, urbanized Atlantic Axis] that create a virtual city. This train is a step toward creating a metro to join 7 million people and their economies,” Mr. Vázquez said. “Until now, we had a 19th century train border connection. Starting in July we’ll have a 20th century connection, and in 2016 we’ll join the 21st century.”

Crisis cooperation

The train route’s launch comes amid a growing need – driven by the European debt crisis – to pool together resources to synergize infrastructure and stimulate commerce and tourism.

Both regions’ economies have stagnated since the beginning of the crisis, with soaring unemployment  and suffocating public cuts – though the North’s core export, port, and tourism industries are growing, as opposed to Galicia, where the competing sectors are struggling.

But, stymied by political rivalries at the national and regional level, it has taken years to make progress on bilateral efforts to strengthen business and improve the economy. The plan to improve transportation links by train and road dates back to the 1980s.

Cooperation lags, not just across the border, but also within each region, as many still push for more integration within their respective country instead of with their foreign neighbor.

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The crisis also forced the Portuguese and Spanish governments to indefinitely delay a high-speed train connection, as Portugal slapped new tolls on the modern highway system connecting the regions, further undermining joint economic development of the Atlantic Axis.

It was only in May that the countries’ leaders signed the final agreements to create a nonstop train, with a single ticket, and to integrate the highway toll system, raising hope that a new phase of cooperation will finally get started, after more than two decades.

“The idea is good,” Dr. Valente says. “There is a web of cities that know their problems well and the solutions” better than distant central government decision makers.

Promising plans

Vázquez has grand plans that all start with the train. “During the crisis we’ve transformed a handicap into an opportunity because we’ve accomplished what we’ve always wanted,” he says. The next priority is improving on the existing train connection and cutting cost for cross-border commerce, especially after highway toll hikes.

He hopes that cooperation on port facilities, border industry, tourism, and other shared development projects will improve the economies of the two isolated regions – by acting as a single entity to attract more funds and investment.

Integrating the tourism offer as a single destination, as opposed to competing with each other, remains a priority. Oporto attracts more tourism than Galicia, both by plan and by cruise.

The future concept is even more ambitious. Once  the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2015, shipping will surge. Vázquez of the Eixo Atlantic expects that to create a great economic opportunity for the region, which boasts a massive port capacity.

“The train is going to be critical to commerce, but also to interconnect port activity. Things will enter through one territory, and exit through another,” Vázquez says.

But Valente is more sober. “Just because we improve our trains doesn’t mean the ships will come here. I know people say it’s all about transportation, but perhaps culture … and universities will mobilize more cooperation,” Valente says.

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“The problem are not the ideas, but making them work,” he adds. “There are nine centuries of mistrust and things don’t change by decree.”