When introduced in the 1990s, Amtrak’s “Talgo” trains brought new design standards to passenger rail travel in the Pacific Northwest. The Spanish-built cars were sleeker, lower, more comfortable, and fancier than typical Amtrak rolling stock. Then, a few years ago, when the 20-year maintenance agreement with the manufacturer expired, the original Talgos were sold for scrap and hauled away to California and the Midwest.
However, that’s not the end of the Talgo story. Thanks to the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, the one remaining “Bistro” car has been saved. The sleek artifact of relatively recent railroad history arrived via truck on Tuesday.
Richard Anderson is the executive director of the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie. He told KIRO Newsradio it cost about $30,000 to secure the Bistro car and truck it from an Amtrak facility in Indiana to Snoqualmie.
The Bistro car and other Talgo cars were built in Spain and purchased by Amtrak and the Washington State Department of Transportation 25 years ago. According to materials prepared by the Northwest Railway Museum, “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.”
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With a design that allowed the cars to tilt slightly around corners — which also featured shared wheels between the individual cars, seen pictured above — the ride was more comfortable. The trip between Seattle and Portland took less time than trains using other more traditional Amtrak equipment.
According to Jeff Schultz, who was the project manager at the Washington State Department of Transportation when the Talgos were first purchased, the tilting function “really enhance[d] the passenger comfort going around curves,” and meant that with Talgo equipment, Amtrak “was able, at the end of the day, to reduce the travel time between Seattle and Portland by about 25 minutes.”
The industrial designer who came up with the paint scheme for the Amtrak Cascades and designed the interior of the Amtrak Cascades Talgo equipment — including the rescued Bistro car with its long bar and with its signature illuminated map of the Pacific Northwest on the ceiling — is César Vergara. Vergara was born in Mexico and raised in the United States, studying design in Sweden.
When he first saw the low-profile Spanish train cars coupled to the much taller American locomotive that would pull it through the Northwest, Vergara was not happy.
“I went to see it and I was shocked at how awful the combination was of these massive Great Dane-looking locomotives with these little [cars that] looked like chihuahuas,” Vergara told KIRO Newsradio. “And I said, ‘You know, it looks like chihuahuas following a great dane, it’s awful. No one can take this seriously.’”
Vergara said his superiors didn’t like hearing that assessment.
“They took offense. And I said, ‘I’m not insulting you. I’m just saying this is an awful situation aesthetically,’” Vergara continued. “And they told me, ‘Your job is to come up with a paint scheme that disappears the height difference.’ And I answered right away. I said, ‘I’m a designer, not a miracle maker. That is impossible.’ ”
As it turned out, that height difference is what inspired Vergara to design a big fiberglass — and purely decorative — structure which he called a “wing.” To some, it looks like a big set of fins from a 1950s American car. The wing would become the most distinctive exterior visual feature of the Talgo equipment on the Amtrak Cascades.
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Getting that wing design approved, Vergara said, took some effort. But it was worth it for how it affected the look and feel of the non-Talgo locomotive.
“There’s no locomotive 120 feet long, but this one will look like it because the car that is butted against it will have this wing sweeping down all the way to the almost top of the rail,” Vergara said. “And it will make it look like an incredibly long, powerful locomotive.”
By most accounts, the wing design worked exactly as Vergara hoped. In retrospect, perhaps Vergara was actually something of a “miracle maker” when it came to transforming the great dane and chihuahuas into the swoopy Talgo Amtrak Cascades.
The basic Talgo interior was no dog, but it did become the place where Vergara was inspired to create the most distinctive interior visual feature of the train: a map of coastal Washington and Oregon, and part of British Columbia, on the ceiling.
Vergara said this idea came from a desire to make every surface in the car as beautiful as possible, and it just so happened that a local map fit very well onto the shape of the Bistro ceiling. Fiber optic lights to mark towns and cities gave the map a glow during evening hours and offered passengers a way to feel personally connected.
“If you were a person from that area, you could have your coffee [and] look up and find where you live with a tiny little light,” Vergara said, who clearly still treasures the way the map completed the look and feel of the Bistro Car, and firmly anchored the train in the Northwest.
One morning, not long before the Talgo was making its debut here, Vergara found himself in the Bistro Car. Though it was very early, crews were busy at work getting ready for passenger service. Somehow, amidst the commotion, Vergara had a chance to fully appreciate the ceiling map.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, it looks so beautiful,’” Vergara said. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe I designed this.’ ”
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“I never thought that of anything else I ever did” in his decades-long design career, he said. “Never.”
Jeff Schultz said César Vergara’s Bistro Car design was the heart and soul of the entire operation.
“We want[ed] this train to have a Northwest look and feel,” Schultz told KIRO Newsradio. “And I think the Bistro kind of epitomizes that to a ‘T.’ The whole train did. But I think, at the end of the day, the Bistro was kind of the pinnacle of the design for the entire Amtrak Cascades service, and definitely worth preserving at the museum.”
Richard Anderson said the Talgo Bistro Car is not yet ready for public viewing, but will be available to explore later this year. He also said the museum hopes to eventually incorporate it into the roundhouse-style exhibit building currently being planned.
Anderson also says the Northwest Railway Museum is collecting donations to help defray the cost of bringing the Talgo Bistro Car to Snoqualmie; there’s more information about how to help at their website.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.