Taking the Talgo to Vancouver for the first time

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is this a glimpse of what’s ahead for Wisconsin and other states?

Precisely at 7:40 a.m., on Monday, Amtrak Cascades train No. 510 gently eased out of Seattle’s King Street Station, heading north to Vancouver, B.C. This was my first experience with these articulated, lightweight trains that run between Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Eugene, Ore.  These Spanish-built trains have been in service in the Pacific Northwest for 10 years now, and they’re nothing short of amazing. That they’re in North America, where Federal Railroad Administration rules make so many cool foreign trains unwelcome due to super stringent crashworthiness standards, is truly a miracle.

The train is a bit bouncy with side-to-side motion only at slower speeds or on short stretches of jointed rail, but once moving, the train I took was glass smooth on the journey over BNSF Railway tracks.

Service is excellent. I rode business class in Car 1, Seat 7C, a single seat next to a wide picture window view of mountains to the east, and across the isle and two seatmates, stunning views of the Puget Sound. The route is only 150 miles long, but it is blessed with impressive scenery: rockbound coasts, marinas full of boats eager to be taken out, and bald eagles fishing marshes. Morning newspapers are folded neatly into racks at the end of the car and available to all business class passengers. A benefit of business class is a voucher for $3 in the buffet car, and I took advantage of it to make my Pepsi and breakfast sandwich (sausage and egg in a microwave bagel) a mere $3.75.

My return trip was made great thanks to a beautiful sunset, a bottle of Chateau St. Michelle chardonnay, and fun chats with my fellow passengers: a Detroit newspaper editor, a couple in the banking industry, and a retired researcher in hearing. The run also came with a surprise: A check in with passport control at Vancouver that included an x-ray of my backpack and another stop at Blaine, Wash., where border security came on board the train, inspected passports again, and collected declaration forms. How odd to have two checks, when one would suffice in Vancouver.  I mean, airplanes don’t pull over for a second inspection en route, do they?

With more Talgo trains on the way to the Pacific Northwest and Wisconsin buying a set for its expanded Hiawatha service, these will be trains worth riding again. In this wireless age, Wi-Fi will be a necessity (I saw several riders pull out i-phones and connect them to laptops so they could work en route). The trains offer movies en route (bring your headset or get ready to pay $4 for a set you can take home).

On Tuesday morning, I met with Jeff Schultz and Andrew Wood of the Washington Department of Transportation, and talked about the Cascades service. More frequencies and higher speeds are their next goals on the route by 2015, they said. Schultz and I also visited the two people in charge of rebuilding Amtrak’s maintenance base in Seattle that is just south of King Street Station. Jack Schwaegler and Shannon Chapple showed me renderings of the new administration and warehouse that will be built starting in July in a project expected to take about two years. Also set for construction, a new, bigger Talgo wheel truing building for more efficient repairs. Of course the challenge for these folks and the train crews is how to build on a site that has to remain in operation the whole time.

The day and my Pacific Northwest trip ended as it should, with the departure of southbound Cascades train 513. It rolled out of the station on its way from Vancouver, B.C., to Eugene on time, just as it should.

an artist's rendering of Seattle's new administration building and storehouse















Shannon Chapple and Jack Schwaegler of the construction team rebuilding the Amtrak maintenance base in Seattle with an artist's rendering of the new administration building and storehouse. Jim Wrinn photo


Sounder trainsets layover















Sounder trainsets layover during the day at the Talgo wheel truing building, which will be enlarged during the rebuild of the Amtrak maintenance base. Jim Wrinn photo


Amtrak Cascades train No. 513 at King Street Station















Amtrak Cascades train No. 513 from Vancouver, B.C. to Portland, Ore., departs Seattle's King Street Station at 11:25 a.m. Tuesday. Jim Wrinn photo

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