Taking the slow train as Europe meets hard times

An AVE or high-speed Spanish train in Madrid, Spain.

KAI RYSSDAL: Greece is the unwilling center of the European debt crisis at the moment, but it's not the only trouble spot over there. Yesterday, the rating agency Moody's downgraded Spanish debt. Today, Portugal's economy minister said his country needs to change how it does business.

One of the casualties of the austere economic climate is an ambitious plan for a high-speed train. It should have launched in 2013 and trim transit time between Spain and Portugal. Now Portugal says it can't afford it.

Lauren Frayer took the old, slow train from Madrid to Lisbon.


LAUREN FRAYER: The train ride from Madrid to Lisbon takes a slow, chugging 10 hours. It's a far cry from the high-speed trains that zip across the rest of Europe. A far cry from the glory days 500 years ago, when Portugal's explorers linked the world. But one echo of the past remains: Portugal's trains are leftovers from the 1970s.

SANDRO ANTUNES: I went from England to France on train, France to Italy on train.

My fellow traveler Sandro Antunes has been around the block, and he's seen few train systems so Spartan as Portugal's.

ANTUNES: I'm a bit surprised, especially that they didn't have Internet or anything like that. I thought it was a bit basic.

Portugal's government recognizes the problem. Several years ago, it commissioned a swanky new high-speed train, that would have cut the Lisbon-Madrid journey time by two thirds. But this year, it ran out of money and the plans have been
postponed. Spain's government had already paid $1.6 billion to lay tracks from Madrid to Portugal. Now they'll hit a dead end at the Portuguese border.

Luis Pais Antunes -- no relation to Sandro -- is a Portuguese lawyer and former member of Parliament. He says Portuguese contractors who'd been commissioned to build the new railway are taking legal action. But he says in the end...

LUIS PAIS ANTUNES: We don't have money to pay. So you have to stop.

And the high-speed train is just one of several projects being axed. Another is a new airport for Lisbon. Then there are huge cuts to public sector salaries and benefits. Yet Antunes says the cuts haven't produced the months of angry protests seen in neighboring Spain.

ANTUNES: Contrary to the Spanish, who tend to be more reactive and more noisy, the Portuguese tend to swallow.

Bleary-eyed, we finally pull into Lisbon, overlooking the river where Vasco de Gama set off to explore the world. These days, it's home to sad, empty cafes and a few bored-looking seagulls.

Martim Manoel wipes down tables at one of the cafes in Lisbon's port. He used to be a farmer in Portugal's poorest province, Alentejo. But he says you can't make a living off the land any more. These days, with Portugal's dismal economy, he says that's just one of the things people here have to accept.

MARTIM MANOEL: We're pessimists by nature. That's why we have fado, our type of music. Do you know it?

Fado is Portugal's melancholy folk music, first sung by widows mourning men lost at sea as they explored distant lands. It's what's playing along the cobblestone streets now, as I make my way back to the train station for the long trip home to Madrid.

In Lisbon, I'm Lauren Frayer for Marketplace.

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