WisBusiness: State unveils details for new Talgo trains

By Kay Nolan

For WisBusiness.com

Wisconsin transportation officials have chosen a bright, white-and-red color scheme for the exterior of its new high-speed train sets, but the modern, cutting-edge passenger cars will be pulled, for the time being, by existing Amtrak locomotives.

The new Series 8 passenger train sets being manufactured for Wisconsin’s Hiawatha Service by Talgo will feature airtight doors, ice-free windows, handicap accessibility and wi-fi capability. There will also be a bistro car, which will serve hot and cold sandwiches and beverages.

Talgo has a $47 million state contract to build two sets of trains to replace cars on the Hiawatha line, with a state option to purchase two more trains later.

The state’s no-bid contract with Talgo has come under fire from Republicans, but officials from Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration said the contract was effective because it allowed the state to require Talgo to assemble the trains in Wisconsin. Talgo will assemble the trains at the former Tower Automotive site in Milwaukee, creating up to 125 jobs in the process.

The Talgo trains, to be painted bright white with a red stripe, will replace the gray railcars on the existing Hiawatha Service between Milwaukee and Chicago. They are also slated to be used for planned high-speed rail segments between Milwaukee and Madison, and from Madison to the Twin Cities. Earlier rumors that the trains would bear an image of Bucky Badger are not true, said a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. 

But the front of the new trains will look more familiar than futuristic, leading with P42 Amtrak Empire Builder locomotives. There aren’t any immediate plans to paint the locomotives to match, either, unlike Amtrak’s Cascades route in the Pacific Northwest, which uses Talgo Series 6 train cars pulled by Amtrak locomotives.

Department of Transportation officials say they hope to one day purchase Talgo locomotives as well. In the meantime, they say the new passenger cars will be far more comfortable and attractive than current Hiawatha cars, which were built between the 1970s and the early ‘90s.

“You know how when you get a new car, you have that new-car smell? That’s what you’re going to get: brand new equipment,” said Joshua Coran, director of operations for Talgo.

“This stuff tilts when it goes around curves, and therefore can go around curves faster than conventional equipment without having everybody end up on one side of the car or another,” he said. “We can make better time on the road, on curvy track.”

The side doors will be “plug doors,” a feature that Talgo says is common in Europe, but almost unheard-of here. “When the train is running, the outside of the thing is totally flush. There’s no wind noise; it’s better-sealed for the weather,” said Coran.

Walking between cars will be cleaner and easier, said Coran. “With conventional cars, the cars move relative to each other going into and out of a curve, and you have to let the ends move sideways and you end up with rain leaks, noise and dirt,” he said. With an almost total seal, “the cars won’t have this offset as they enter into curves, so it’s a much safer, quieter access from car to car, which is important because with a food service car, people will be wanting to walk through the train,” he said.

Coran said Wisconsin’s trains will also have a feature that’s unique in North America: a “floating floor” that keeps noise from being transmitted from the car body into the floor and into the passenger compartment.

WisDOT’s Alyssa Macy said the new trains will feature 13 cars, excluding the locomotive, consisting of five ADA-accessible coach cars with restrooms; six ADA-accessible cars without restrooms, the bistro car, and an end car, which will have a bicycle rack that can hold up to eight bikes. The trains will be 681 feet long, including the locomotive. The coach cars will have reclining seats, two on each side of the aisle, with places to plug in laptops, cell phones and other items. Total capacity will be 397 passengers.

Every car will have a wheelchair lift, and the regular entryways will be easier to climb.

“A lot of elderly people don’t like climbing those steps (on older model trains),” said Coran. “It’s a big step up and it’s a steep set of stairs, and if you’re carrying a bag or something, it’s not easy. Our cars have a much lower floor, it’s about 20 inches lower than the standard height so it’s much easier access, even for people who are not in wheelchairs.”

Talgo project manager Jeff Hart said improvements less obvious to passengers will include the train’s aluminum-bodied design and back-up power generators that will provide heat, air conditioning and lights in the event of a power failure in the locomotive.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the high-speed rail line will likely retain the Hiawatha name that was adopted in 1947 by the former Milwaukee Road which dubbed its “speedliner” service to Washington State the “Olympian Hiawatha.” Wisconsin could decide otherwise, however, he said.

So far, Wisconsin’s Talgo passenger cars have no names, unlike the Pullman cars of railroad lore, which were given fanciful names, sometimes after places or famous people. One Pullman car was even named after a porter, Oscar J. Daniels, who gave his life to save passengers when fire swept his train in 1925, according to historian Stewart H. Holbrook, author of “The Story of American Railroads.”

There have been conversations about that and about naming proposed high-speed rail stations, but no formal discussions have occurred, said Macy.

“We’re working on getting a project built right now,” she said.