Sunday, July 18, 1999 | 9:42 a.m.
SEATTLE -- Jean-Pierre Ruiz sees a renaissance in train travel on the horizon, and it's framed in neon.
Ruiz's company, Renfe Talgo of America, has contracts with Amtrak to put an innovative train on some of America's most popular rail lines.
That includes a high-speed run between Los Angeles and Las Vegas that Amtrak envisions could deliver thousands of gamblers from Southern California to local casinos by early next year.
The Las Vegas train already has been built and is at work on a public relations mission. The Las Vegas Talgo train left the company's plant here in late June to be displayed at a train exposition in San Francisco in July.
From there it will be recoupled in Oakland and eventually make its way down the West Coast to Los Angeles, where Amtrak will take delivery and make final preparations for its daily runs to Las Vegas.
In the meantime, Talgo is busy with another contract that has been a huge success for Amtrak and the Washington state Department of Transportation, which coordinated the project.
In January, the Amtrak Cascades began service with new trains in the Pacific Northwest, going as far south as Eugene, Ore., and north to Vancouver, British Columbia.
A month later, Talgo signed a maintenance agreement on the Pacific Northwest trains assuring the company's commitment to the long haul.
The train caught on quickly. Six months after the start-up, most of the 247 seats are full on the various runs during the week, and it's impossible to get on for weekend travel without a reservation weeks in advance.
Prices are reasonable. A ticket on the link between two Northwest population centers, Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, a distance of about 150 miles, costs $27 one way.
Ruiz, who frequently commutes by jet to parent company Patentes Talgo's headquarters in Spain, is enthusiastic about the success of the Amtrak Cascades, but he is even more optimistic about the Los Angeles-Las Vegas train because of the huge population base it will serve and the apparent demand that exists.
Amtrak discontinued its Desert Wind service in May 1997, eliminating standard passenger trains in Las Vegas. Since then, Interstate 15 has gotten more crowded and airlines have continued to add flights between Los Angeles airports and McCarran International Airport as the city forges ahead in its mission to fill 20,000 new hotel rooms every night.
Future at stake
Ruiz believes the future of train travel in the United States may depend on the success of certain target routes and the Las Vegas Talgo effort is part of the equation.
Talgo was formed in Madrid, Spain, in 1942, and it began a partnership in the United States with American Car and Foundry in 1946.
The name "Talgo" is a Spanish acronym: Train Articulado (articulated) Liguero (light weight) Goicoechea (the name of the inventor) Oriol (the name of the developer).
Over five decades, Talgo developed a series of train designs, some of which operated in the United States.
Talgo began producing train sets in Seattle in 1996. The company now operates from an office a block from the Kingdome stadium, which will be imploded next year, and a maintenance center about a mile away in the shadow of the new Safeco Field baseball stadium.
Talgo delivered the first of four train sets to the Washington state Department of Transportation and Amtrak in 1998.
The basic train set manufactured by Talgo has 12 cars, not including locomotives. Passengers are seated in 10 of the cars and one is a lounge car called the Bistro. A dining car has tables and seating for meals.
Each aluminum-skinned car is 44 feet long -- half the length of the standard U.S. train -- and weighs 18 tons. The standard U.S. car weighs between 50 tons and 65 tons.
Three features on the Talgo train are different than the standard model and contribute to the characteristics that Ruiz believes will set Talgo apart and put people back in trains:
* The height of the car above the rail. The Talgo car is 27 inches above the track while standard trains are 38 inches. While that may not seem like much, every inch higher above the track produces greater sway and less comfort for customers.
* The wheel assemblies. Most trains have four wheels in each assembly, two on each axle. There are only two wheels per assembly, one set between each car, on the Talgo, and they work independently, producing a smoother ride.
* The suspension system. The Talgo has a patented pendular tilting suspension system. Instead of relying on computer and hydraulic technology to force train cars to lean into a turn, Talgo's frame is suspended from the ceiling, relying on centrifugal force to produce a natural lean on curves.
Not only does that produce a comfortable ride, it's less expensive. Talgo's literature on the subject says, "As long as the Earth keeps spinning, Talgo passengers' cars will keep on tilting."
Formula for reliabilty
The design of the cars is a formula for reliability, Ruiz said. He said Talgo's record in the Northwest has been perfect and worldwide, the system has been "99.9999 percent reliable."
The train is rated to travel at 125 mph, but the Amtrak Cascade cruises at about 80 mph.
In Southern California, Amtrak and Talgo are hoping to offer speeds of 80 mph to keep the trip competitive with driving a car.
A design feature that has no aerodynamic advantage is one that many train buffs are talking about the most. The rear baggage car has a pair of flairing fins similar to those on old-model Cadillacs. Ruiz said they don't have any particular purpose -- but people sure do talk about them.
The innovative design cuts no corners on safety. The train meets all Federal Railroad Administration crush strength requirements and the design protects the places where most passengers are likely to be in the event of a collision.
"Sacrificial cars," like baggage carriers, are located at the ends of each train, and there are twice as many escape window exits as in conventional cars.
Because the train is connected at 11 places -- a process that takes 20 maintenance hours to accomplish -- the train is prone to stay upright in a derailment. Conventional cars connect and disconnect with greater ease, but in a derailment or collision, cars tend to climb atop each other, spin, overturn and come apart.
Inside, passengers get the comfort of a standard airplane seat -- without the seat belt. In the coach section, there's four-across seating. Seats have some tilt to them and are built with a footrest.
Tray tables fold out from seats in front of them, just as they do on planes. There's an electrical outlet for every two seats for computer and entertainment system users.
In the custom class section, seating is only three across. Seats are the same size but wider apart.
Talgo also has designed a car to meet standards established by the Americans with Disabilities Act. It, too, has three-across seating, but the aisle is wider to accommodate wheelchairs.
The "ADA car" has a restraint system for wheelchair-bound passengers and there's a wheelchair lift at the car entry. Ruiz said savvy travelers are learning that there's more room on the ADA car and are requesting seats on it.
Each car also has a pair of television monitors. On them, Amtrak officials can play videos on passenger procedures, en-route movies or project maps showing the progress of the train and upcoming station stops.
Each car has a restroom. By airplane standards, they're huge -- roughly 10 times the size of an airline lavatory.
Ruiz said Talgo and Amtrak went for ambience in their color schemes. For the Amtrak Cascades, the theme colors are copper and evergreen.
"But for the Las Vegas train, we felt we needed to be more flamboyant," Ruiz said.
The exterior is silver, blue and white. The interior in the coach section is a purple hue, while the custom-class cabin is red.
In the Bistro car, Amtrak designed a fiber-optic ceiling design depicting a map of the Northwest with lights representing the population centers. On the Las Vegas train, the Bistro car has a ceiling depicting a universe full of stars.
"Definitely a lot more flamboyant," Ruiz said. "Just like Las Vegas."
But implementing the Las Vegas run hasn't been a smooth ride.
When the proposal was first announced, Amtrak sold casinos on the high-speed Talgo and sought a guarantee of ticket sales to seal the deal. Amtrak announced plans to have the Talgo in operation by the end of 1998.
That's been pushed back twice, and the company doesn't want to commit to a specific date for operation to begin.
Gil Mallery, president of Amtrak West, the business unit that operates some of the short train runs in seven Western states, said the delay has been in negotiating engineering agreements with the Union Pacific Railroad, which operates the train tracks between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
"We haven't lost any of our enthusiasm for the project," Mallery said. "Las Vegas is a natural for rail service with 13 million visitors coming from Southern California every year."
Mallery said Amtrak is investing $28 million in track improvements to put a high-speed passenger train on the rails between the two cities. The Union Pacific, which moves freight in addition to maintaining the tracks, is leery about mixing freight with passenger traffic.
"It's fair to say that the Union Pacific has been distracted by service issues they have had nationally," Mallery said. "Their first priority is to take care of their customers, and that's freight."
Most of the $28 million in improvements is to engineer and build 20 miles of train track parallel to the existing line at Cima Hill, a steep incline just south of the California-Nevada border. The double track will allow the slower freight to move aside for the faster passenger trains.
The track upgrade also includes altering three grade crossings. Since the Talgo trains will run faster than the freights or the old Desert Wind Amtrak trains, some of the timing sequences at crossings need to be modified.
"The cost of railroading is not cheap," Mallery said. "The engineering work is under way. As soon as that is done, we can begin the infrastructure improvements."
That process is expected to take about six months.
Once those improvements are completed, Mallery said Amtrak would feel more comfortable about announcing a start-up date for the service.
But the lack of a firm start-up date is keeping the casino industry from committing to subsidizing the train by buying some of the seats. When Amtrak made its initial pitch for the Talgo service, several resorts expressed an interest in subsidizing the route, knowing that it would be another means of attracting customers.
Mallery believes when the engineering and track work is closer to completion, the casinos will sign on. But for now Amtrak has no casino commitments.
"We're continuing to talk to a couple of properties, and we're very confident casinos will want to be a part of it when the formal announcement is made that the service is a go."
Rogich Communications Group is coordinating efforts between Oakland, Calif.-based Amtrak West, federal government agencies and the gaming industry representatives. Among the casino companies that expressed an interest in the project when it was initially announced were Primadonna Resorts, MGM Grand Inc., Rio Hotels Inc., Circus Circus Enterprises and the Boyd Gaming Group.
Primadonna and MGM have since merged, the Rio has merged with Harrah's Entertainment and Circus Circus has changed its name to Mandalay Resort Group.
Boyd Gaming expressed some doubts about whether the Amtrak route could be successful without federal funding, but the company is still interested in the train concept.
Anything for tourists
"We are interested in anything that brings additional visitors to the city," Rob Stillwell, a spokesman for Boyd, said.
Amtrak still believes there is great potential in the route and is accommodating the resort industry with a schedule that is most favorable to tourist check-in and check-out times.
Mallery said the train would leave Los Angeles' Union Station at around 9 a.m. With one stop about 40 miles east of Los Angeles to pick up Riverside and San Bernardino county residents at Montclair, the Talgo would make the trip in about 5 1/2 hours, arriving just before 3 p.m., "after the rooms have been cleaned," Mallery said.
The train would leave daily at about 4:30 p.m., getting back to downtown Los Angeles by 10 p.m.
Mallery said he thinks one of the reasons for the lack of interest in the Desert Wind was that it didn't arrive or depart at convenient times, mainly because Amtrak was more mindful of the Los Angeles-to-Chicago route that it was serving.
Despite the delays that have occurred for the Nevada project, proponents say the Las Vegas Talgo has too much upside to ignore. Ruiz said the Amtrak Cascades already is the most successful route in the Amtrak system outside the East Coast intercity rail network that carries commuters.
Stan Suchan, a spokesman for the Washington state Department of Transportation, said his agency leased some Talgo equipment in 1993. Since the Talgo trains began operating, Amtrak ridership in Washington has more than doubled.
"People saw the trains and were curious," Suchan said.
A ridership survey determined a high level of satisfaction with the new trains. The survey also said most riders planned to take another train trip within a year after experiencing the Talgo.
"If you have good equipment, it is a lot easier to make people happy," Suchan said. "And the reliability of the Talgo trains was unbelieveable. They (Talgo) have an aggressive approach to maintaining their equipment."
Suchan said in the four years the Talgo trains were leased, they were not out of service a single day.
Ruiz, who considers his relationship with Amtrak to be more of a partnership than one of contractor and supplier, said his company is geared to make as many train sets as needed to meet whatever demand a route generates.
"We kind of take the 'Field of Dreams' philosophy one step further," Ruiz said. "We say, 'If you build it and they come, we'll build some more.' "