Back in the 1990’s, Talgo made a major bet on the moribund US railcar market. It seemed like a good idea. Their trains were so far beyond Amtrak’s antiquated rolling stock, that the company should have really made a killing.
Things looked promising when they won a contract for the Amtrak Cascades service. But then the FRA found out about WDOT plans to use modern, light-weight European railcars.
The FRA would only grant approval for the service if a second deadweight locomotive was hitched to the back of the train (for “safety” reasons). And concrete blocks would have to be placed inside the locomotive.
When the national rail regulator is loading down your train with concrete blocks and a locomotive, it is not a positive sign that companies can expect a fair and open market. Things went downhill from there. Wisconsin Governor Walker reneged on a train order for the Hiawatha line. Then the final straw:
In an effort to jump-start the domestic passenger rail industry and create an extensive supplier base — a process Talgo had already begun — the FRA decided that California would lead a joint procurement of bilevel equipment on behalf of four Midwestern states (Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri). This was necessary, the FRA believed, to entice bidders with a big enough order to take on the engineering and manufacturing challenges of producing a brand-new design with stringent “Buy America” provisions.
Standardized specifications were dictated by the Next Generation Corridor Equipment Pool Committee, a group comprised of representatives from states, manufacturers, and Amtrak authorized by Section 305 of the Passenger Rail investment and Improvement Act of 2008. Although the committee had issued a single-level equipment performance spec as well, FRA staffers made it quite clear to Midwestern state rail planners that they were expected to be a part of the California-led bilevel request for proposals.
Because the request for proposals is equipment-specific, Talgo’s single-level product has thus far been shut out of Midwest lines now being upgraded for 110-mph top speeds, such as the Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac, Mich., Wolverine corridor. That route’s twist and turns would be a perfect fit for Wisconsin’s would-be orphans.
This decision wasn’t good for California either. California’s twisty routes would also have benefited from a Talgo tilt-train. And whereas the Talgo factory was up and ready to go, it will take years for FRA to design their new railcar and get it into production. In the meantime, California suffers shortages of railcars, and has even refurbished old 1960’s railcars as a stop-gap measure.