By Leah Harnack, Mass Transit
Talgo’s recently completed trainsets in Milwaukee could mean updates for Amtrak Hiawatha riders or they may be mothballed, depending on Wisconsin state government decisions.
Talgo Inc. has manufactured two intercity trainsets for Wisconsin at its plant in Milwaukee and caught in the middle of political crossfire, those trains may end up providing service elsewhere in the country.
On May 20, Talgo held an open house from noon to 3:00 for the public to, “be among the first to see the improvements awaiting riders on Amtrak’s Hiawatha line.”
Among a variety of technological advances, the trains feature lightweight construction, natural tilting and low center of gravity for a smooth ride, outlets between seats, Wi-Fi, closed-circuit TV and a variety of seating configurations for riders.
In 2009 the Wisconsin Department of Transportation purchased two trainsets with an option for two additional trains.
Lawmakers in Madison recently voted to mothball the trains, close the Talgo plant and continue to use the old Amtrak trains. They cite the much more expensive maintenance costs of the new trains as too big a burden on the state.
The vote means losing the $72 million already spent on buying the trains and a potential violation of the state’s contract with Talgo.
Talgo President and CEO Antonio Perez had been recently quoted saying, “I’m very disappointed with the way the facts were accounted for, how they were related and how the decision was made on very wrong assumptions of comparing very modern trains with other trains that need to be replaced.”
A Chance to See the New Trains
The Open House was a chance for the public to see what today’s trains look like. And before the event even opened there was a line of people waiting to get a sneak peak.
There was a diverse crowd of people, including hardcore rail fans, families with kids, friends and families of employees, business members of the community, people from the local area and those that just wanted to see what the high-tech trains look like.
Milwaukee Alderman for the district, Willie C. Wade, was present and said there has been a great partnership between the city and Talgo until the state government changed. “It’s a great facility and workforce and we will get this back on track,” he stressed. “It’s a high-class, quality product.
“The state’s goal is for the people not to see this product … this kind of advanced technolgy.”
And that’s just what this open house was doing. Perez said, “We want the people to see the train sets and we want them to compare these trains to the old Hiawatha trains.” He said when people see these advanced, modern trains, “The people see the trainsets and want to see them in operating service.”
Bob Schayer from the Chicago area came up for the open house because he occasionally rides the Hiawatha line. “I’m interested in the Chicago-to-Milwaukee line and have ridden that.
“I try to avoid O’Hare like the plague,” he said, noting that he rides the line to the airport in Milwaukee.
On one of the train cars, Talgo Commissioning Technician Bill Schmuhl was providing technical information for visitors. When asked by a visitor as to why the trains might not be used he responded, “The ridership is increasing each year [between Milwaukee and Chicago], so we don’t understand. We just build them.”
There were recent concerns in the news lately about the cars not meeting changes to federal ADA requirements and he explained that the new lifts from Ricon Corp., will be delivered within a year and the cars will be retrofitted to meet all standards.
Kim Poklar from Milwaukee had seen the open house invite on Talgo’s Facebook page and she and her husband John came to the event. “We wanted to see what they’re about to mothball,” he said. Kim said, “I love trains and this needs to be running in Milwaukee.”
And some were more straight forward about their feelings. “It’s dumb,” said Nancy Correll of Milwaukee. “We bring them here to build rail and then change our mind? It makes us look like idiots.”
People could tour through two of the train cars, take a peek in the factory, enjoy refreshments and learn more about Talgo and rail history of the area, and could learn how to contact the state government to voice their opinions on the operation of these cars in Wisconsin.
Talgo Vice President Public Affairs & Business Development Nora Friend said, “We want the government of Wisconsin to honor their contractual agreement and put these trains in revenue service.”
Judith Fischer works in the front office at Talgo and her boyfriend also works at Talgo as a fluids manager. “These guys have worked really hard and we want these trains to go into service. It would be a shame to park them and we don’t want to lose jobs.” She added, “That’s what it’s all about: jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Talgo is located in a neighborhood that is looking to be redeveloped, called the Century City Project. It includes 86 acres, 58 for a business park, 17 for retail or commercial uses and the remainder for single and multi-family residences. The long-term estimates for job creation are between 700 and 1,000 jobs.
Perez said Talgo employs about 140 people currently in the United States. In Spain they employ about 1,300 and have 50 percent of the market share of very high-speed trains there.
Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Richard Harnish was also at the event with his two young kids. “I want my boys to see high-speed trains here in the United States,” he stressed.
While there’s talk Talgo could be leaving Milwaukee as soon as June, there is no final word yet and Friend stressed, “We’re not giving up.”