Talgo: A Train Ahead of the Curve

A story of 75 years of rail innovation, from structural inventions to the high-speed train itself.

By Spanish Railways Foundation

Fundación de los Ferrocarriles Españoles

Talgo authorities (1950) by ValverdeOriginal Source: Patentes Talgo

The Protagonists

It is not possible to explore Talgo's history without mentioning 2 of its indisputable champions: the engineer Alejandro Goicoechea (first on the left), inventor of the train; and José Luis de Oriol (on the right of the image), whose financial support made it possible. It is said that when Goicoechea witnessed an accident in 1932 involving the La Robla mail train, and saw the injuries that passengers sustained from splinters and pieces of wood flying from the coaches, he resolved to design a vehicle made entirely from metal, which would be both lightweight and robust.

Alejandro Goicoechea Omar (1942)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

Goicoechea, who worked for the La Robla Railway at the time, was very concerned that the railway was becoming increasingly unprofitable—a fact that he attributed to its lack of speed and excessive costs.

The prevailing view at the time was that safety and avoiding derailment depended on railway vehicles having a heavy axle weight and therefore a high center of gravity, when in fact this could lead to trains derailing on bends. Goicoechea proposed a radically different idea: vehicles that were lightweight, robust, and had a low center of gravity.

He presented his argument in favor of the idea on several occasions, to the management of the La Robla Railway in 1936, and to the railway company MZA in 1939, without much success. It was not until 1940 that he was able to test out his hypothesis on the La Robla Railway.

Triangular structures (1941-04-09) by Foto Jiménez (Madrid)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

1940: First Attempts

With the help of some laborers from the La Robla Railway, and making use of the remains of some old Russian trucks, Goicoechea began the construction of some peculiar-looking frames in the shape of an elongated isosceles triangle. They formed an articulated train, with the vertex of each triangle supported at the center point of the base of the preceding one, and wheels that rotated independently on the bases of the triangles. It was a kind of "guided triangle" that allowed the wheels to turn parallel to the track. No pictures of these initial structures—which were similar to tricycles—remain, but there are some of those that were later produced for the Iberian-gauge railway network.

Triangular structures system (1941-04-10) by Foto Jiménez (Madrid)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

This arrangement of the frames makes the train turn in a natural way, preventing damage to the rails when the train goes round a corner. This also reduces the risk of derailment risk is reduced, eliminates vibrations and cuts energy consumption.

The structure was effective on the narrow-gauge tracks used in the north of the country. As a result, another one was developed (see image) so that it could be adapted to the gauge width used throughout the Iberian peninsula (1,668 millimeters). This structure was used for the first test between the towns of Leganés and Villaverde (Madrid), which was a success.

Talgo: speed, safety and comfort (1958) by Patentes TalgoOriginal Source: Patentes Talgo

Main features of the Talgo system, presented in an informational leaflet that the company produced in 1958.

Talgo I prototype (1983) by Ediciones de Estudios Ferroviarios (Madrid)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

1942: Patentes Talgo is Founded

Following the preliminary tests, Goicoechea needed financial assistance to build his prototype lightweight train. This assistance was provided by José Luis de Oriol, who was interested in Goicoechea's ideas and facilitated the agreement that established Patentes Talgo as a company. Talgo is an acronym formed from the Spanish for "Goicoechea Oriol Lightweight Articulated Train." It combines Goicoechea's enterprising spirit and belief in the technological renovation of the railway with Oriol's entrepreneurship, in the context of an industrial sector that had suffered greatly as a result of the Spanish Civil War. Once the company was established, testing continued on the base structure, leading to the construction of an actual train: the prototype known as Talgo I.

Talgo I prototype. General view. (1944)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

The prototype was formed of 7 coaches and a locomotive that was no more than a converted old vehicle, adapted and repurposed in Renfe's workshops in Valladolid. As can be seen, the prototype train (or Talgo I) had a radically different frame as well as an innovative and ground-breaking exterior design.

Talgo I composition (1944)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

Talgo I prototype (1944) by Foto Jiménez (Madrid)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

Although innovative, this is not the most remarkable aspect of the new concept. The system of free wheels and short articulated cars gave the structure greater security and stability.

Talgo II composition. Side view. (1950)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

1950: Talgo II

After several years of testing, the time had come to translate the original idea of the Talgo I test into an improved version that would provide the first commercial services. However, the economic problems that were affecting Spain and the rest Europe (which was in ruins by the mid-1940s), as well as the need for the most advanced design and construction techniques, meant that Spain was obliged to turn to the United States. It awarded the contract for construction of the new train to the US company American Car and Foundry.

Talgo II composition towed by a diesel locomotive. (1949)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

The first vehicles arrived in Spain in 1950, after being developed in the United States under the supervision of Spanish engineers. They included 3 locomotives and 32 coaches, known as Talgo II.

Talgo II composition. (1950)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

The first commercial Talgo II service ran on July 14, 1950 from Madrid to Hendaye in France. It was the first train in Spain authorized to travel at a speed of 75 miles per hour, although a similar train had already been tested and found to be safe traveling at 90 miles per hour. As well as its characteristic aluminum exterior, the train had a distinctive semicircular end, which was used as a lookout.

Interior of Talgo II. Madrid Railway Museum.

First Talgo III train (1963)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

1964: Talgo III

After a careful design process, based in part on a version created by ACF for the North American market, Talgo III was brought into service between Madrid and Barcelona in August 1964. The coaches on this train were slightly longer and its structure no longer had the characteristic triangular shape. Instead, it was supported on sets of independently rotating wheels arranged in pairs, known as "wheelsets."

Talgo III composition (1964)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

Album of diesel locomotives (1966) by RenfeOriginal Source: Patentes Talgo

Talgo III RD, first tests (1968)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

Crossing Borders

The main problem for the Spanish railways in establishing international services was undoubtedly the differing gauge width on either side of the Pyrenees. Talgo, showing its capacity for innovation once again, developed a system of variable-gauge vehicles based on the Talgo III coaches, which allowed the first international Talgo (the Catalan Talgo) to be brought into service between Barcelona and Geneva from 1969. This would pave the way for the introduction of overnight services between Barcelona and Paris, and Madrid and Paris. This same system is currently used between Moscow and Berlin.

Supervising first tests of the variable gauge system at Talgo facilities in Aravaca (1967) by FARCO (Madrid)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

Catalán Talgo / Trans Europe Express (TEE) (1968)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

Overview of one of the diesel locomotives that formed part of the Catalan Talgo (Virgen de la Paloma) before installation of the automatic variable gauge.

Album of Renfe diesel locomotives (1959) by RenfeOriginal Source: Patentes Talgo

The original Talgo III design, looked after at the Railway Museum of Madrid.

Talgo Tilting train first prototype (1973)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

1978: Talgo Pendular

The features of the Spanish rail network—a consequence of the difficulties caused by the Iberian Peninsula's mountainous terrain—are a serious hindrance to achieving high speed. The action of centrifugal force on curves with a smaller radius, together with the flexibility in the vehicles' suspension, was uncomfortable for passengers when traveling at greater speeds. Talgo again came up with an innovative solution that would allow for higher speeds without affecting passenger comfort: the Talgo Pendular.

Talgo Tilting train first prototype (1973)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

As its name suggests, the system behaves like a pendulum. The body of the train tilts automatically on bends, using a passive system that partially compensates the effects of centrifugal force.

Talgo Pendular brochure (1987) by RenfeOriginal Source: Patentes Talgo

The tilting system allows speed to be increased by up to 25% on bends, without the need to modify the track infrastructure.

Talgo Tilting train (1984)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

Talgo XXI, BT locomotive (1999)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

Talgo XXI: On the Threshold of a New Century

Towards the end of the 1990s, Talgo—which until that point had focused exclusively on the production of coaches rather than locomotives—began to develop a more complete product that included a locomotive. The design of these locomotives incorporated the automatic variable gauge system, which meant that they could be used on standard-gauge European tracks as well as Renfe-gauge tracks, at a maximum speed of 155 miles per hour. This train was called Talgo XXI.

Talgo XXI train (1999)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

Given the additional costs involved in producing a prototype that used electric traction, the decision was taken to use a considerably cheaper diesel engine. The Talgo XXI was the precursor to various technological leaps taken by the company, including the variable gauge on self-propelled power heads, the high-speed running gear (over 137 miles per hour), and the use of hybrid propulsion technology.

Talgo XXI train (1999)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

In June 2002 this train broke the world record for speed achieved by a diesel train (as yet unbeaten), reaching 159 miles per hour.

Talgo 350 prototype (2000)Original Source: Patentes Talgo

Talgo 350

In 1988 the decision to build and use the new high-speed line between Madrid and Seville prompted Talgo to begin work on the production of trains capable of reaching, and even exceeding, 186 miles per hour. However, until that point, Talgo had concentrated on producing passenger coaches rather than locomotive engines. As a result, it was initially limited to modifying its coaches so that they were capable of traveling at high speed. It was not until 1998 that, in order to qualify for Renfe's invitation to tender for the contract to run the Madrid-Barcelona line, it would reach an agreement with Adtranz to develop a high-speed power head.

AVE 112 Talgo series (2010) by José Manuel LunaOriginal Source: Patentes Talgo

Currently, the AVE S102 (2003) and AVE S112 (2010) versions of the Talgo 350 are in service on all high-speed lines in Spain.

102 and 112 Talgo Series (2014) by Alfonso MarcoOriginal Source: Patentes Talgo

Inside AVRIL (2016) by Patentes TalgoOriginal Source: Patentes Talgo


One of the most recent challenges in high-speed rail systems has been accommodating increasing numbers of passengers on lines that are often full to capacity, at prices that are competitive compared with other means of transport. Talgo's latest innovation is AVRIL (an acronym for "High-Speed Lightweight Independent Wheel" in Spanish.)

AVRIL from Talgo (prototype) (2016) by Patentes TalgoOriginal Source: Patentes Talgo

Maintaining the characteristic structure of shorter coaches, and wheelsets with wheels in pairs as opposed to in sets of 4, Talgo has created a train that takes full advantage of the gauge, or available track width. The result is an interior layout similar to that of Asian trains, but with the same amount of passenger space as on European lines. This means that greater numbers of passengers can be transported, while lowering ticket prices.

AVRIL from Talgo (2015) by Gonzalo Rubio GarcíaOriginal Source: Patentes Talgo

Following the creation of a prototype, in 2016 Talgo was commissioned to produce 20 high-capacity AVRIL trains, accommodating 521 people (compared with just over 400 on previous trains). The variable gauge system—limited up to that point to 155 miles per hour—was also improved to make it suitable for installation in this state-of-the-art train. As a result, the trains will be able to run at high speed along the new lines (with standard European-gauge tracks of 1,435 millimeters), moving seamlessly onto conventional gauge tracks of 1,668 millimeters.

Credits: Story

This exhibition was created using archive material (photographic collections, plans, and documents) owned by the Spanish Railways Foundation, as well as various items provided by Patentes Talgo, to whom we extend grateful thanks for their enthusiasm and cooperation in the successful completion of this project.


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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