One sunny day in Madrid a man was ushered into my office at our embassy there.  Short, rotund and elderly he bore a strong resemblance to Francisco Franco who was still alive.  He told me his name was Alejandro Goicoechea which meant nothing to me at the time, but I soon found out that I had met with a living legend.  Alejandro, who urged me to call him by his first name, explained that his company was competing for a project to build a light rail system in Miami Florida.  He wanted me to know about his bid and his background.

Alejandro was the inventor of the Talgo train, a watershed event in railway history.  The Talgo’s basic innovation was to have only one wheel axle per car with the front of the car in back resting on the back of the car in front.  The design was referred to as an “articulated” train. This basic design allowed for a closer to the rail system that allowed higher speed and greater traction.  Over the years the Talgo has progressed to become one of the fastest,  most reliable trains in the world today.  Alejandro was a real pioneer in developing modern, high speed trains.  And I had met him and become a friend.

I learned after his visit that, in spite of his Basque surname and origins, Alejandro was persona non grata in the Basque lands.  Its seems that during the Spanish Civil War Alejandro had been pressed by the Basque government, which had taken advantage of the war to declare its independence, to design and build the formidable defensive network surrounding Bilbao, the capital of the breakaway Basque Republic, called the “Cinturon de Hiero” or the “Iron Belt.”  Alejandro, however, wanted no part of an independent Basque homeland and subsequently fled to the Nationalist forces led by Franco.  He gave Franco’s men the plans to the “Iron Belt,” who used them to break through the barrier, and put down the revolt.  Result, Alejandro was never allowed back in his home town and province.

What has this to do with the environment?  One of the most vigorously pursued means to reduce carbon emissions is high speed rail transport.  Alejandro was a pioneer in this field and he gave me great insight into what it can and cannot do.  The project he was competing for in Miami when i met him was a light rail system that, along with high speed rail, are being actively pursued to reduce motor vehicle transportation.  Light rail means that the motive force of the train is distributed throughout the train as is the case for modern metro rails.  Instead of a heavy locomotive pulling a line of cars, motors are placed on all wheels, thus distributing the weight of the motive force over the entire train and allowing a “lighter” rail to hold up the train.

And why is this important now?  I am visiting California which has an active debate in the state legislature over state matching funds to allow the state to receive Federal grants the state has been granted to build high speed railways in the state.  In contrast my state’s governor, Rick Scott of Florida, rejected the Federal funds because he feared the state’s contribution would prove to be too high for the benefits of high speed rail.  He based his decision on Florida’s experience with a light rail line already in operation.  It runs from the airport in Palm Beach through densely populated communities to the airport in Ft Lauderdale and on to the airport in Miami.  Optimum routing for such a railway, connecting three major airports and the chain of communities between them.   In spite of its optimum routing, ease of operation, low cost power requirement and more, the railway has proven to be a distinct waste of public funds.  Ridership does not even pay operating costs, much less any of the investment cost.  Moreover, it has done nothing to reduce the brutal congestion on the highways and byways of the huge megalopolis that runs from Coral Gables to Palm Beach.

This disaster is not without parallel in our frantic full court press to develop alternatives to motor vehicle transportation.  And beyond lie the costly disasters to reduce fossil fuel consumption outside transportation, e.g. the half a billion dollar loss of Fed funds on the Solyndra photovoltaic project.  So the California state legislature should examine the bill to fund high speed railways very carefully.  And if it finds that it does not make economic sense, return the Federal funds for others to use.

Oh, by the way, the project that Alejandro came to describe to me was that light railway from Palm Beach to Miami that has proven to be a waste of public funds.