Monday, February 20, 2023

Amtrak Cascades Talgo series VI trains

In 1996, the Washington State Legislature appropriated $20 million for the lease-purchase of two trainsets by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).  The trains were intended for use in the Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor, a federally designated high-speed train corridor.  After a rigorous Request for Proposals process, Talgo was selected to construct the trainsets.  Amtrak subsequently “tagged onto” the order and purchased two more trainsets from Talgo.  Talgo built a fifth trainset on speculation that it might be used for a proposed LA-Las Vegas service.   

Talgo Series VI train near Shoreline, WA along Puget Sound.
The construction of the trains was substantially different from Amtrak’s standard rolling stock. These trainsets consisted of cars approximately 46’ in length, versus a standard 85’ car.  They were a proven design in Europe, and similar cars had been leased and used in the US railway network for several years prior, with widespread positive passenger reactions.    

Talgo trains had several unique design features.  First, they tilted when going around curves, providing a smooth ride for passengers.  This feature enabled a substantial reduction in travel time between Seattle and Portland, as the trains could go faster around curves than conventional trains.  Secondly, the whole trainset was articulated, with cars sharing wheelsets, similar to modern double stack well cars commonly used in freight service to haul containers.  Third, the lightweight aluminum car shells were much lighter than steel, enabling the locomotives to accelerate the train faster than conventional passenger cars. 

The trains were configured initially in 12 or 13 car trains as follows: 

    Two End Cars:  One containing power generation for the train and the diagnostic computer, and the other a baggage car with bike racks.   

  •     Six coach class cars 
  •     One Dining car 
  •     One Bistro car 
  •     Two Business class cars.   

The WSDOT order included two extra end cars and one extra Bistro Car as spares.  The Amtrak Order include three additional accessible coaches.  These cars were placed in several trains, to boost capacity.  Amtrak’s technical staff assisted WSDOT with the overall project management.  Amtrak’s designer, C├ęsar Vergara, applied his industrial design skills to shape the overall interior design of the trains so they would ensure a “Northwest look and feel”. The signature car of the entire train was the bistro, which included a sweeping service bar and an illuminated map of the Pacific Northwest inset in the ceiling. 

Ceiling map featured in the Bistro Cars.
The four trainsets were all named for PNW mountains: 

  •     Mt. Rainier (WSDOT) 
  •     Mt. Baker (WSDOT)mm 
  •     Mt. Olympus (Amtrak) 
  •     Mt. Hood (Amtrak) 

The service was officially branded “Amtrak Cascades” in 1998, after an extensive research and branding effort by WSDOT.  The distinctive Pacific Northwest paint scheme and logo was applied to the entire Amtrak Cascades fleet.  The series VI Talgo trains entered service during 1999, as they were completed and finished their contractual testing milestones.  They were immediately a success, as riders loved the new service, and modern amenities in each train.   

The LA - Las Vegas service never materialized, and the fifth trainset was initially leased by Amtrak to supplement the PNW service.  Its design and color scheme were different, using a blue, black and silver scheme.  The trainset generally worked on the Seattle - Vancouver, BC daily round trip.  WSDOT, seeing the long-term need for more equipment, purchased the train in 2003 for $7.4 million.  The train was repainted into the classic Amtrak Cascades scheme, and named the “Mt. Adams”.   

The agreement with Talgo also included a 20-year maintenance contract for the trains.  The King Street Coach yard in Seattle was home to the fleet, with all major work conducted there.  During the 20 years of service, the trains underwent several retrofits and upgrades.  Cracks were discovered in the suspension tower supports, and the trains had to be retrofitted with special plates to reinforce the areas.  New seating and updated interiors were installed in 2009-2010 to replace the original maintenance prone seats.  Nevertheless, the trains rarely missed a scheduled departure, and maintained a 99% reliability rate.   

In 2011, the Oregon Department of Transportation purchased two new Series 8 Talgo trainsets along with the State of Wisconsin.  Wisconsin eventually cancelled its purchase, and ODOT’s trains arrived in 2013. Both the series VI and 8 trains provided the backbone of Amtrak Cascades service through the 20-teens.  ODOT’s series 8 trainsets are still in revenue service on the Amtrak Cascades.   

Mt. Olympus set at King Street Station in Seattle.
The Mt. Adams trainset was involved in the tragic Dupont, WA accident in 2017.  While the trainset was not the cause of the accident, the NTSB accident report made the series VI appear as a contributing factor.  As a result, WSDOT pledged to retire the cars as soon as possible.  The series VI Talgo trainsets continued in revenue service until the June 2020 expiration of the maintenance contract, when they were retired by WSDOT and Amtrak.  The two WSDOT sets were sold for $21,000 to a scrap metal dealer in California, and were shipped together via a special train in February 2021.  They have been destroyed.   

Amtrak sent its two trainsets to its Beech Grove, Indiana maintenance facility and placed them in storage.  Amtrak sold those sets for scrap in Fall 2022.  At the very last minute, the Northwest Railway Museum was able to negotiate the donation of one signature Bistro car, which has been set aside for preservation.   The Museum is grateful to Rail Exco for graciously donating this exceptional artifact to the Collection.

Bistro car 7304 arrived in the Snoqualmie Valley on 20 February 2023
for preservation at the Northwest Railway Museum

Friday, February 10, 2023

Rotary Snowplow on Snoqualmie Pass

Steam rotary crew, Snoqualmie Pass, 1916
Steam rotary snowplow crew, C.M. & St. Paul Rwy, 1916, Northwest Railway Museum collection.

The Cascades are noteworthy for heavy snow.  The term "Cascade Concrete" was coined by the earliest railroad workers charged with keeping mountain passes clear of snow.  So it was little wonder that railroads in Washington were early adopters of mechanized snow clearing, and steam rotary snowplows were found on every major road.

In the winter of 1916, just 25 miles from today's Northwest Railway Museum campus, workers on the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway's Pacific Extension took a brief break from snow clearing operations to pose for a photo by A.J. Holzman of North Bend.  However, a closer inspection of the image around the bottom of the rotary assembly suggests that some components are misaligned.  Was some maintenance being performed on the plow? Perhaps repairs were underway?  It was common for avalanches whether large or small to deposit tree trunks and rocks on the track.  If struck by the plow, this foreign material would shatter one or more of the rotary blade elements and require an immediate repair.

Imagining snow falling at a rate of one foot per hour, you quickly get a sense of how vital steam rotary snowplows were to railroad operations.  It was common for plow trains to have two rotaries, one facing in each direction. With such high rates of accumulation, without a rotary facing in the opposite direction, it was easy for a plow train to become mired in fresh snow on the return movement.