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US transport boss rides Spanish bullet train

Madrid — Spain showed off its bullet train system on Friday, giving U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood a firsthand glimpse of the high-speed rail grid that President Barack Obama previously praised as a model for America.

Lahood boarded a train at Madrid’s Atocha station along with Spanish Development Minister Jose Blanco for an hour-and-a-quarter trip to Zaragoza, a stop on the line heading to Barcelona.

Lahood toured Europe last week. He rode a TGV bullet-train in France and attended a transportation conference in Germany that also featured officials from the German railway system, Deutsche Bahn.

Obama last month unveiled an $8 billion plan to build a high-speed rail network in the U.S. and upgrade existing services. He cited Spain, France, China and Japan as countries with systems for his nation to emulate.

Lahood also toured a railway control center in Zaragoza, then returned to Madrid, where he met Saturday with Spanish business leaders and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Spain has become a leader in high-speed rail travel since inaugurating its first AVE line in 1992, from Madrid to Seville. The route has been a huge success, largely replacing road and air travel to the largest city in the southern Andalusia region.

The line to Barcelona, the latest to be completed, gets travelers to Spain’s second-largest city in less than three hours compared to a drive of about six hours. By plane, the trip takes about an hour, not including time to get to the airport and go through security.

Before the high-speed rail service began in February 2008, air travelers to Barcelona surpassed train passengers by more than seven to one, but as of this January, the two groups were roughly equal in number, according to government statistics.

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