UPDATE: Where Are Our Train Sets: DOT Considers Hiawatha Service Expansion

From today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinal (aka JSOnline) concerning expansion of the Milwaukee to Chicago Hiawatha route:

Encouraged by ridership that has doubled over the past decade and standing-room-only conditions on some trains, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has plans to add three express trains to the Hiawatha route, boosting the number of trips a day from seven to 10.

“The department really feels that people are becoming aware of the Hiawatha service and its convenience, and are looking for alternative modes of transportation,” said DOT spokesman Brock Bergey.

Bergey said the DOT expects demand to continue to increase.

“The Hiawatha service continues to grow, and the department is very interested in making sure we can meet the needs and desires of the traveling public,” he said.

So where the hell are the two new train sets that were bought and paid for specifically for this route? Seems like a perfect time to bring them out of mothballs and get them on the rails!

Update: I was able to exchange emails with Mr. Bergey today. Here’s is his reply: “Pending litigation, filed by Talgo against the state, WisDOT has no comment.”


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5 thoughts on “UPDATE: Where Are Our Train Sets: DOT Considers Hiawatha Service Expansion

  1. And its the maintenance contract that is the real problem with the whole deal. Talgo claimed as a selling point that their trains are more reliable and cheaper to maintain, yet their maintenance fees were much higher than those charged by Amtrak’s shops for the current equipment. When you compare Washington and Oregon’s costs to operate the Talgo Cascades compared to the Hiawathas, they are more than double despite carrying slightly fewer total passengers and operating fewer round trips. Also, despite close to $1 billion spent on new route improvements and Talgo equipment ridership increase barely keep up with the Hiawatha’s ridership increases using Amtrak cast-offs. The new Talgos run half empty most of the time and never have the standing room only the Hi’s fequently experience. Even though the Hiawatha desperately needs new equipment, the Talgos were not the answer. They required longer platforms, carried fewer passengers per trip and required an exclusive NO-BID maintenance contract. But perhaps the biggest problem is if anything went wrong like a broken toilet or a broken automatic door, the ENTIRE train would have had to be to be taken out of service because all the coaches share wheels with their neighbors. Removing a bad coach could only be done in the shop by Talgo, so if the problem happened in Chicago the whole train would have to be run to Milwaukee empty and repaired before returning to service. Current equipment can have the bad coach switched out in about 15 minutes and it can be done anywhere! Articulated trains like Talgo were tried in the US in the 1930s (the Zephyr at the Museum in Chicago is a fine example), but only a handful were built and most were pulled from mainline service by 1940 because they just were not capable of adjusting with ridership demands and maintenance proved too costly. Sound familiar?

    1. I have often wondered about the makeup of the Talgo trains…since they were always described as train sets…I also thought the big advantage of trains was you could add or delete cars at will to accommodate passenger load. So thanks for the details!

  2. Actually, one of the mothballed Talgos could probably serve nicely for the second daily Empire Builder if Minnesota wanted to buy it off of Talgo. What I find interesting is that none of the other state DOTs or Amtrak has publicly shown any interest in the Talgos. CA, ME, IL, MI, VA, NC, NY, PA, TX, OK, MO all seem content with operating traditional North American style equipment on their state corridor trains.

    Now for the Hiawathas, since WisDOT was shut out of the new locomotive and Bi-level car purchases which had absolutely nothing to do with HSR(embarrassing Obama and LaHood is a gift that keeps on giving), we need to look to other solutions. With IL running the show for the new Amtrak contracts, equipment probably wouldn’t see WI rails for years anyway. CA is also experiencing overcrowding and has grave concerns about IL manipulating the contracts and delivery schedule in its favor, so they have already taken my suggestion.

    An online search has found a very affordable interim option (less than $7 million per train) that could be running by next year, if we could skip all the environmental/community impact studies. (Really, why do we have to do these for a route that has had trains running for over 100 years sometimes at speeds over 110mph?) Metra has been selling off Bi-Level Gallery cars and GO Transit has been selling F59PH’s. There are at least 3 or 4 Rail shops in the Midwest who could immediately start work on gutting and rebuilding the cars to include all modern amenities. (CA has opted for single-level COMET cars from Metro-North and Amtrak’s own shops for its rebuild.) The train would have 4 coaches with new business class style seats, subdued lighting, electric outlets for each seat, Wi-Fi, bike racks and full ADA compatible lifts. Sterling Rail has done similar conversions already. One additional feature that could be included would be the return of a CNW-style “Hospitality” car. One section could serve as meeting space during the week day and serve as Bar in the evening, on summer weekends or during special events.
    This train consist would provide seating for 464 + 16 wheelchair spaces in a 4 car train requiring less than 400 feet of platform space vs. Talgo with 65 fewer seats requiring over 600 feet of platform. This is critical considering Chicago Union Station’s current crowding.

    As for maintenance and operations, 4 car Bi-level trains like this have been the standard in and out of Chicago for 60 years, so either Amtrak or Metra could provide maintenance and could operate them like any other express “commuter” train since they would be identical in length, height and control.

    This is a simple affordable solution that could give huge bang-for-buck and some well-deserved breathing room for passengers that I think Walker and WisDOT would gladly support.

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