First of four parts.

MADRID, Spain - At precisely 10:30 a.m., with quiet jazz wafting from its speakers, AVE Train 3103 glides out of Atocha Station in central Madrid, its sleek nose pointed east toward a rising sun and Barcelona.

Even with a stop in Zaragoza, the 385-mile trip, which takes seven hours by car, is scheduled to last two hours, 52 minutes. Without the stop, it's two hours, 38 minutes. Cruising speed: 186 m.p.h.

Of course, the train will be on time: If it's more than five minutes late, the passengers get their money back.

Compare that with the Pennsylvanian, the daily Amtrak train that travels a similar distance - 353 miles - from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. That laborious journey takes almost three times as long: seven hours, 23 minutes, a half-hour longer than it took in 1941. Twelve station stops. No jazz. No refunds.

Or compare it to Amtrak's Acela Express between Philadelphia and Boston: When it's on time, the train makes that 318-mile trip in about five hours. Slightly faster than driving, but slower and more expensive than flying. And it's late 30 percent of the time.

In Europe, fast trains are transforming the continent, bringing cities and countries within a few hours of one another, erasing centuries-old regional divisions, resuscitating long-dormant towns, cutting air pollution, creating new economies and manufacturing jobs, and, in a reversal of 20th-century fortunes, making some air travel obsolete.

Is this America's future, or simply a glimpse of a far-off world we'll never inhabit?

After decades of false starts, the United States is making a push for high-speed rail, which could bring many of the same changes to this side of the globe.

The Obama administration this year gave $8 billion in stimulus funds to jump-start high-speed rail projects on 13 corridors in 31 states. And the administration promised $5 billion more over the next five years.

It could be, as the administration claims, the biggest advance in U.S. transportation since construction of the interstate highway system half a century ago.

Or it could be another unfulfilled dream, done in by sticker shock and ephemeral political support.

For a country mired in automotive gridlock and air-traffic jams, increasingly dependent on foreign oil and polluted by its own toxins, the stakes could not be higher.

Here's the price Americans pay for a transport system that has become overcrowded, wasteful, slow, and expensive: $87.2 billion a year lost in automotive gridlock, more than $750 for every U.S. traveler. That's more than 2.8 billion gallons of gas wasted - three weeks' worth per traveler. And time wasted in traffic jams totals 4.2 billion hours - nearly one full workweek for every traveler.

The cost of domestic air-traffic delays, according to a 2008 analysis by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, is as much as $41 billion annually, including $19 billion in increased operational costs for the airlines and $12 billion worth of lost time for passengers.

The environmental price tag has become starkly clear ever since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, killing 11 people and spilling 210 million gallons of oil. More than 57,000 square miles of the gulf, rich in fish, shrimp, oysters, and crabs, remain closed to fishing because of the disaster.

Yet throughout the gulf, most drilling and pumping continues unabated.

For the nation is thirsty: With just 5 percent of the globe's population, the United States consumes 40 percent of the world's gasoline. And 70 percent of the 20 million barrels of oil consumed daily in the United States is used for transportation.

Starship Enterprise

The Spanish AVE (Alta Velocidad Española - Spanish for "high-speed") is so far removed from U.S. trains that it feels like a different mode of travel entirely, more Starship Enterprise than Acela Express.

It accelerates almost silently, and the graffiti-daubed buildings of Madrid quickly give way to the brown hills of Castile-La Mancha.

Inside, glass doors at the front of the cars hiss open and uniformed attendants move up the carpeted aisles, distributing audio headsets, newspapers, and magazines.

Ten minutes into the trip, a red digital sign above the interior doors displays the outdoor temperature, 14 degrees (57 degrees Fahrenheit), and the train's current speed, 271 kilometers per hour (169 m.p.h.).

The attendants return with warm washcloths, followed by drinks and a snack of ham, bread, and coffee. On overhead video monitors, today's movie begins: Amelia, in English, with Spanish subtitles.

By 10:51, the train is at cruising speed - 300 kilometers an hour (186 m.p.h.). But the ride is so smooth and quiet, there is little sensation of speed, other than the sere landscape flashing by the windows and the occasional ripple in the glasses of wine.

Time warp

For decades, the United States ignored technological advances in rail travel, leaving passenger trains in a nostalgic time warp. Devoted to their cars and jetliners, Americans dismissed "bullet trains" as engineering novelties or costly foreign experiments unsuited to the way we live and travel.

But now, 46 years after Japan inaugurated its 130-m.p.h. Shinkansen train service, 29 years after France opened its 160-m.p.h. TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, or high-speed train), 18 years after Spain launched its high-speed AVE service between Madrid and Seville, the United States finally seems ready to move.

With the Obama administration and Congress promising federal funds, the race is now on among states seeking to be the first in the nation to take high-speed rail from the drawing board to the construction zone. If fast trains are ever to succeed in the United States, the key will be selecting the best corridor to go first. Will it be in Florida? California? Nevada?

Foreign manufacturers and governments are watching hungrily, because the United States has no homegrown high-speed rail technology. The country will have to rely on companies based in France, Germany, Spain, Canada, Japan, and China, though administration officials insist U.S. workers will get thousands of jobs.

Not cheap

Want to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours, 40 minutes? Or from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 21/2 hours? Or from Philadelphia to New York in 37 minutes?

Want to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 71 percent per passenger-mile compared with car travel, or 76 percent compared with air travel?

Want to cut travel fatalities to zero? That's how many people have died in high-speed train accidents in France or Spain or Japan.

Want to escape airport security lines? Want to get out of seat belts? Want to elude traffic gridlock?

Want to spend $10 billion a year?

The lesson from Europe (or Japan or China) is that high-speed trains change the nature of travel and, by extension, the way people live. The other lesson is that they are not cheap.

Some of the lines operate at a profit, but they require public money to build.

In Europe, national governments and the European Union are pouring billions of euros into high-speed rail networks that are to almost triple - from 3,800 miles today to 11,000 miles by 2025. High-tech new tracks are traveled by ever-faster trains, with the latest generation designed to make trips of 620 miles in three hours.

In Asia, a similar boom is under way in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and, especially, China. China has more than 6,215 miles of high-speed rail in operation or under construction.

"This is what the rest of the world is doing," said Robert Yaro, an urban planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the Regional Plan Association, a New York-area research group. "We're behind not only France and Spain and the U.K. and Japan and China and Korea, but now Morocco and India and Vietnam are building high-speed rail. This is what we have to do."

Eugene Lowe, a passenger traveling recently from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh on the Pennsylvanian, had a different perspective as the train lumbered along the Juniata River toward Lewistown.

"Not in my lifetime," said Lowe, a former executive with Pittsburgh's transit agency. "I've traveled in Europe, and I love high-speed rail. I'd love to have it here. This train is tedious. But we just don't have the commitment to high-speed rail in this country."

High-speed cocoon

At 11:55 a.m., Train 3103 encounters a Madrid-bound train. With a combined speed of 370 m.p.h., the trains flash by each other in one second.

On tracks dedicated to AVE trains, unhindered by freight or commuter trains, free of vehicle grade crossings, sealed off by high trackside fences, Train 3103 runs in a high-speed cocoon.

The train is just the most visible part of a complex high-speed system. Special signals inside the engineer's cab replace trackside signals, and automatic controls stop the train if electronic sensors detect objects in its path. Cameras and computers constantly monitor its progress.

Unlike massive American trains, required by federal rules to be heavy to survive collisions, foreign high-speed trains are built as light as possible to travel faster and more efficiently. An Amtrak Acela train weighs twice as much as the French TGV train, and France's next generation, the AGV, is 17 percent lighter still.

Instead of building for crash survival, foreign manufacturers and operators focus on crash avoidance. With dedicated tracks and automatic train control, they are convinced they've managed to take much of the risk out of high-speed travel, and they point to their safety record to date: no fatalities.

With its duck-billed profile, Train 3103 looks like a sinuous bird as it rockets toward Barcelona. In fact, in Spanish, ave means bird.

The train's headway is marked in kilometers per hour, but the real measure is the clock.

When travelers decide whether to take a train or an airplane to Barcelona, they don't compare top speeds. They compare travel times. Even though the plane flies twice as fast, the train gets you there as quickly.

There are no long security lines (though suitcases must be passed through a scanner), no hurry-up-and-wait trips to the airport, and no expensive cab rides to and from the city's center.

"It's more comfortable than the plane, and a lot better than a car," said Anna Plaza, at the Atocha station, traveling from Barcelona with her young daughter, Lucia, to visit family in Malaga. "I notice people travel more now than before the AVE trains. It's so much quicker. I know I see my family more."

"It's been revolutionary," said her grandfather, Julio Plaza. "The speed and the comfort change everything. I used to go to Santander, and I'd leave at 7 p.m. and get there at 9 a.m. Now it takes three hours."

By year's end, the time from Madrid to Barcelona will be reduced further, as Spanish rail operator Renfe plans to increase the AVE's top speed from 300 kilometers per hour (186 m.p.h.) to 350 kilometers per hour (217 m.p.h.). That means a nonstop trip will take just two hours, 15 minutes.

The cost? Ticket prices vary widely, depending on the class of service and on advance and online purchasing. A standard round-trip Madrid-to-Barcelona tourist-class ticket costs about $300, though discounts can cut that in half. By comparison, a round-trip Philadelphia-to-Boston trip on Amtrak's Acela Express costs between $280 and $374, depending on time of departure.

The Madrid-to-Barcelona high-speed train service started in 2008 and already attracts more passengers than planes on the same route: Last July, Renfe had 251,754 passengers, while the air-travel volume on the same route was 245,945. On Spain's first high-speed route, a 21/2-hour trip between Madrid and Seville, trains now carry 52 percent of all passenger traffic, while planes carry 4 percent.

In France, which has 1,218 miles of track on seven high-speed lines, the most extensive network on the continent, the train has almost completely supplanted the airplane on several routes.

The high-speed train route between Paris and London, under the English Channel, carries 82 percent of the rail and air travelers. Between Paris and Lyon, the train/plane split is 90-10.

Spain, which didn't open its first high-speed line until 1992, has embarked on a building binge designed to pass France by year's end as the country with the continent's most extensive network. By 2020 it plans to have 6,200 miles of high-speed lines, up from the current 1,056 miles.

Spain's goal is to put 90 percent of the population of a country larger than California within 30 miles of a high-speed station by 2020.

In the next 10 years, Spain plans to spend $150 billion, half of the nation's transportation budget, on rail infrastructure.

"These electric trains will carry as many passengers as 90 planes a day," José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, then the Spanish prime minister, boasted to reporters when he inaugurated the Madrid-to-Barcelona service in 2008. "They make ecological and economic sense."

So, in the midst of a severe economic crisis that has pushed unemployment to 20 percent and forced widespread government cutbacks, Spain is betting its future on fast trains. In a massive building campaign, it is constructing stations, bridges, tracks, and tunnels. The heart of Madrid endures dusty turmoil as a 4.5-mile tunnel is bored beneath the city, linking the city's two main train stations for easier high-speed connections to the country's north and south.

Almost 1,400 miles of high-speed rail lines are under construction now. A line between Madrid and Valencia is to be completed by the end of this year. A joint venture with the French to connect Barcelona to the French TGV network at Montpellier, 175 miles away, is supposed to be operating by 2013.

Spain's spree on high-speed rail construction has created, directly and indirectly, about 600,000 jobs in the last five years, according to Adif, the country's railroad infrastructure administrator.

Since the European Union has required countries to open their doors to international competition, Renfe and Adif are competing with rail operators and managers from across the continent.

"The race is not for the highest speed, but for the best service and the most extensive network," said Adolfo Sánchez, a project manager for Renfe. "It's for time of travel and, particularly, quality of service."

Early arrival

Just before 1 p.m., speeding through Catalonia, Train 3103 passes old stone ruins and new farm buildings, as the landscape shifts from scrub brush to pine trees and then to the western outskirts of Barcelona.

After an announcement of the train's imminent arrival at Barcelona's Sants station, the loudspeakers switch to a serenade of classical violin music.

The train glides to a stop at 1:13 p.m., nine minutes ahead of schedule. No refunds today.

Spain claims an on-time performance for its high-speed train network of 98.8 percent. By comparison, Amtrak's Acela Express was on schedule 80 percent of the time in the last 12 months; for its Northeast Regional trains, the figure was 75.3 percent.

The speed and dependability of Spain's trains has created "a change in transportation patterns in the whole country," said Renfe's Sánchez. He cited Ciudad Real, a once-sleepy town between Madrid and Seville on the country's first high-speed line.

"It was brought back to life," he said. "The train was a real boost. It was a 31/2-hour trip by car to Madrid, but it's only about one hour by train."

The "Avelinos" who make the daily commute, the industries drawn to Ciudad Real by its new proximity to Madrid, and a growing university campus are all testament to the train's power to transform, Sánchez said.

Similarly, in France, the capital city of Champagne, Reims, has become something of a bedroom community for Paris, now that the TGV has brought the two cities, 90 miles apart, within 45 minutes of each other.

"People can buy a house, with a garden, and still work in Paris," said Laurent Gerbet, a spokesman for Alstom Transport, the French train manufacturer.

Critics say the money poured into high-speed rail has shortchanged the rest of the economy.

In Spain, "financing is becoming a serious political issue," said Jack Short, secretary-general of the International Transport Forum in Paris, an intergovernmental body on transportation issues. He said there was concern that "the investments planned involved spending far too much for the benefits received."

Short noted, though, that politicians who once opposed the high-speed lines are now big supporters.

"It's become a status symbol to have a high-speed line. . . . Every mayor in France wants a TGV line," he said.

In Spain, the ability of the high-speed trains to connect the country is seen as a serious threat by the militant Basque group ETA, which wants to separate its northern region from the rest of the nation. In late 2008, the group killed the owner of a company working as a contractor on a high-speed rail project in the north, and in 2009 it detonated a bomb at the headquarters of another rail contractor.

For most Spaniards, the politics seem to be less of an issue than the convenience.

"It's so much more comfortable than the plane," said Avantxa Aguirre, 64, who was traveling to visit her daughter in Jerez. "And it seems far to go by myself by car. There is a huge difference between the new train and the old Talgo, in time and comfort."

Monica Fernandez, 30, a civil servant in Madrid, said travel "might be a little cheaper with a car, but with the price of petrol, it's about the same. And there are no traffic jams with the train."

"I'm from Valladolid," she said, noting that her hometown 124 miles north of Madrid was thrilled when it got an AVE line, on which the train can make the trip in 43 minutes. "A lot of people from there used to have to live in Madrid. Now, you can live in Valladolid and just come to Madrid to work."


High-speed rail for the United States?