Trains for the unbuilt Milwaukee-Madison high-speed rail line to Nigeria

Two trains originally intended for a high-speed rail line to connect Madison and Milwaukee are heading to Nigeria. The Governor of Lagos State, in that country, was in Milwaukee on Tuesday to buy the unused trains.

The trains are expected to be part of West Africa’s first operational metro system, according to a press release.

At a public event at the Milwaukee facility of Spanish train builder Talgo, Acting Mayor of Milwaukee Cavalier Johnson welcomed Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu.

“It’s a bit bittersweet,” Johnson said after the event. “I send my congratulations to the Governor of Lagos State in Nigeria, but I’m also a little disappointed that we missed the opportunity to run these trainsets here in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.”

It’s the latest twist in a decade-long saga around high-speed rail, which Wisconsin Public Radio previously covered in the 2019 “Derailed” podcast series.

Milwaukee Alder Robert Bauman was not at the event, but said the ending was very much like the whole story.

“It’s kind of a nonsensical ending to a nonsense tale,” Bauman said.

In 2009, then Governor of Wisconsin. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, announced an agreement with Talgo to build two new trains in the state and used for a high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison. That same year, Wisconsin received $810 million for the project as part of a federal stimulus bill.

Frank Busalacchi was Wisconsin Transportation Secretary at the time.

“I certainly didn’t expect what happened,” Busalacchi said. “It was unfortunate, but I think now, as you look and see where the world is going, not just our country, where the world is going, it was the right thing to do.”

The plans died after Republican Scott Walker became governor. But by 2012, Talgo had built the trains and billed the state for them. Later that year, Talgo terminated the contract and sued the state, sparking a legal dispute that lasted nearly three years.

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Ultimately, under a settlement between Wisconsin and Talgo, the state paid the company a total of $50 million for the trains, which remained under company ownership.

“The partisanship has gotten so deep that literally Wisconsin is making decisions that are like shooting themselves in both feet,” Bauman said. “Who buys a set of cars, refuses to fulfill the contract, ends up being sued, settles down, pays another $50 million in damages, and then you don’t even get the cars?”

The trains sat idle at an Amtrak facility in Indiana for years, a lasting reminder of the dispute. They eventually returned to the Talgo factory in Milwaukee in 2019.

“I’m glad they could now sell them to someone, someone is going to use them,” Busalacchi said. “The fact that after many years Talgo has found a buyer for the trains, I mean, kudos to them.”

Around the time the trains returned to Milwaukee, Talgo spokespersons raised the possibility that the trains would find use on Amtrak’s Cascades line in the Pacific Northwest, but last year Amtrak announced Siemens Mobility would produce new trains for the line instead.

“It is what it is,” Bauman said. “They are heading to Nigeria. Good for the Nigerians.”

The first phase of the Nigerian metro system of which the Talgo trains are expected to be a part is expected to start operating later this year, serving up to half a million passengers daily in the Lagos area.

Johnson said conversations about the high-speed rail in Wisconsin haven’t gone away.

“Hopefully at some point we can still deliver on that vision of a more connected community,” Johnson said.

For more on the history of high-speed rail in Wisconsin, check out WPR’s investigative podcast series, “Derailed.”

Jose P. Rogers