Northwest Railway Museum rescues Talgo “Bistro Car”

Feb 22, 2023, 2:46 PM
Richard Anderson, executive director of the Northwest Railway Museum, and the Talgo Bistro Car which arrived in Snoqualmie on Tues, Feb. 21, 2023. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Richard Anderson stands beneath the distinctive Talgo Amtrak Cascades ceiling map of the Pacific Northwest, which was designed by César Vergara. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) This image of the last northbound run of the Talgo series VI train in Amtrak Cascades service was captured at East Olympia by Jeff Schultz on June 29, 2020. (Courtesy Jeff Schultz) The Bistro Car arrived from Indiana via truck. (Courtesy Northwest Railway Museum) The Talgo’s unique suspension — visible on either side of the doorway in this photo — meant the cars tilted in curves, allowing higher speeds and creating more passenger comfort. (Courtesy Northwest Railway Museum) A design sketch of the Bistro Car by César Vergara. (Courtesy Northwest Railway Museum) Detailed view of Bistro Car ceiling, which features fiber optic lighting. (Courtesy Northwest Railway Museum)

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.” 

Pacific Science Center floats replacing iconic pools with meadow

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. 

Takoma and Mount Rainier are the pride of Maryland?

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.’ ” 

More from Feliks Banel: Bizarre structure in Kent is forgotten futuristic parking prototype

“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. 

Feliks Banel

living memorial...
Feliks Banel

Memorial Stadium’s success as ‘living memorial’ may have doomed it

'Living memorials' were part of an American movement to memorialize World War II as a break from the past.
2 days ago
This week 210 years ago, Lewis and Clark left Fort Clatsop and headed back home. (AP)...
Feliks Banel

Feliks: Uncovering the buried legacies of Lewis and Clark

Most people think of Fort Clatsop as the final destination of Lewis and Clark, at least one Northwest historian and author disagrees.
4 days ago
Feliks Banel

Radio Sketch: The Tonquin and despair at the mouth of the Columbia River

The arrival of the Tonquin was the subject of a live historical radio sketch performed on Seattle’s Morning News to mark the 212th anniversary
4 days ago
ad campaign...
Feliks Banel

Before it collapsed, WaMu ad campaign was the ‘Friend of the Family’

All the failing banks in the news lately remind so many around the Pacific Northwest of a memorable WaMu ad campaign.
9 days ago
“Viva! SeaTac,”...
Feliks Banel

Regional anthem “Viva! Sea-Tac” celebrates 1990s Seattle culture, good and bad

Over the past few decades, “Viva! SeaTac” has become something of an anthem for the region, at least among a certain demographic.
11 days ago
Cherry trees...
Feliks Banel

Cherry trees in front of Pike Place Market are gone

The City of Seattle removed the storied cherry trees on Pike Street between First Avenue and Second Avenue Tuesday.
12 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.
SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!
safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Northwest Railway Museum rescues Talgo “Bistro Car”