Spain's Train For The Next Generation

March 22, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore caught a fleeting glimpse of Spanish technology yesterday as a high-speed train imported from Madrid rode the rails between Washington and Philadelphia.

The 12-car "Talgo Pendular 200" has been leased by Washington state to run between Seattle and Portland for the next six months, but yesterday the red, white and blue train made a onetime trial run through Maryland.

For travelers accustomed to the standard 1960s-vintage Amtrak accommodations, the train offers a glimpse of a more luxurious and spacious mode of travel. It has video monitors mounted above seats, gray and red airline-style seats, matching carpeting and appointments, cafeteria and dining cars, and an exceedingly comfortable ride.

Regular Amtrak riders may be growing used to seeing sleek-looking European trains these days. The Talgo was the third train shipped across the Atlantic Ocean for a U.S. demonstration in the past year.

The last two, the Swedish X2000 and Germany's InterCityExpress, were tested as part of Amtrak's efforts to upgrade service between Washington and Boston.

Later this year, Amtrak is expected to award a $500 million contract for 26 high-speed trains to replace the aging Metroliner fleet, starting in 1997.

The Spanish train's manufacturer, Patentes Talgo S.A., dropped out of the competition last month, leaving five consortiums still in the running. The problem: the Talgo is designed for station platforms two feet lower than those in the Northeast.

"We still believe there are other cities in this country that can benefit from the train," said Virginia Verdeja, spokeswoman for a Talgo subsidiary, Renfe Talgo of America Inc., which has leased the train to Washington state for $527,000.

The train's floor level is integral to its design. The Talgo's articulated cars literally lean around curves, taking them faster than a conventional train.

The Swedish model accomplishes much the same thing with elaborate hydraulics, computers and sensors, while the Talgo's passive tilt relies on a low center of gravity and a suspension system that extends from the axle to the roof of each car. Engineers described the Talgo's swing as similar to that of a pendulum.

The 172-mile-long Seattle-to-Portland run has been touted as a leading candidate for high-speed rail transportation. Currently, Amtrak runs trains at high speeds -- up to 125 mph -- only in the Northeast.

The agency hopes the modern Talgo will attract new rail customers with its amenities and potential for faster service. If interest in the train turns out to be high, it could fuel the political support needed to secure millions of dollars from the state and federal governments to upgrade the Burlington line from Eugene, Ore., to Seattle, and ultimately to Vancouver, British Columbia. "If I'm any judge, I think it's going to attract a lot of people," said R. Clifford Black IV, spokesman for Amtrak. "I think it's a wonderful train."

Curiously, the 12 Talgo cars imported from Spain's national railroad system did not include an engine. In Europe, the train's engine is powered by overhead electric lines, something the West Coast lacks. As a result, Amtrak diesel locomotives will be needed to power the train once it leaves the East Coast.

The Talgo, which carries a maximum of 201 passengers, is scheduled to depart today for the Pacific Northwest without paying customers on board. Regular service between Seattle and Portland is set to begin April 1.

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