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Crusader for Trains Has a One-Track Mind

February 28, 1985|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Robert J. Swan has a passion for trains.

It began during Swan's youth in Brooklyn, when he often accompanied his parents to the train station to greet visiting relatives.

"I remember the trains, with their great big drive wheels, the steam hissing, the impressiveness of it all," said Swan, 62. "I was suffused with rail travel."

That boyhood curiosity has blossomed into a full-time mission in adulthood. Today, Swan is a self-proclaimed "public transit catalyst."

A what?

"I am an expert at low-cost rail transportation," Swan explained. "The title 'public transit catalyst' just came to me. I'm the catalyst. I'm the leadership. It was simply a statement of fact. I recognized it. I assumed it."

Swan gets neither money nor much recognition for his efforts. He regularly attends Long Beach City Council meetings to espouse his ideas and advocate the expansion of low-cost rail transportation, but is largely ignored. Many council members and city employees, it seems, simply regard Swan as a gadfly.

"It is unnerving to have him constantly suggest that he's the only true person capable of guiding western civilization toward the resolution of these problems," Councilman Warren Harwood said. "His methods and tactics may so antagonize public officials as to be counterproductive."

Despite such assessments, Swan maintains he has a good working relationship with many public officials, including members of the Long Beach council.

"I am not the council's enemy, I'm their friend," he insisted during a recent interview. "I'm providing useful information that will prove helpful to them, even though their first impulse is to reject it when it doesn't conform with what they get from their staff.

"They don't grasp what I'm saying all at once," Swan said. "What I'm doing is giving the council an in-depth seminar on light rail on a week-to-week basis.

Trolley Line

These days, Swan has been prodding city officials over their indecision on the routing of a planned 22.5-mile trolley line linking Long Beach and Los Angeles. Long Beach officials have toyed with numerous proposed routes for the light-rail system within the city, but have yet to choose one.

To Swan, all the fuss seems ridiculous. Only one route, he says, is right and proper--down the commercial corridor along Long Beach Boulevard.

"This trolley is public transportation," Swan explained. "All the public transportation lines in the city are geared to the Long Beach Boulevard corridor."

It's that simple. As Swan sees it, his is the right way, the only way. No brag, just fact.

His oratorical methods are anything but typical. During one recent council meeting, Swan strode to the speaker's podium and, in his usual droll monotone, delivered a sermon laced with biblical metaphors to make a point about the routing of the light-rail line.

"We revere Moses," Swan told the council, "but because of their predilection to sin, his followers earned wanderings of 40 years before being admitted to the promised land. Starting with nine optional routes--none of which included light rail per se on Long Beach Boulevard--we, too, are wanderers who sin, who honor Baal (a false god)."

It was vintage Swan.

'Comes on Strong'

"He does come on pretty strong sometimes," said Robert Paternoster, city planning director. "But you have to respect someone with that level of commitment. And occasionally he does come up with a good idea."

Swan, a lanky man who slicks his hair forward like a raven's wing across his balding pate, lives in a cramped downtown Long Beach apartment. It is there that Swan types the numerous letters he dispatches to newspaper editors and plots mass mailings to public officials.

"I haven't had the time to work like the usual activist, with banners and placards," Swan said. "I try to educate the leaders and hope they in turn will inform the multitudes."

The walls of his apartment are lined with pictures and posters of railroad trains and trolleys. File cabinets sit next to a tidy desk. One wall is dominated by a bookshelf, which contains scores of binders filled with information on rail projects.

"Those are my materials on light rail," Swan said, gesturing to the bookshelf. "My Amtrak files are in the kitchen."

Swan strolled into the kitchen and swung open a cupboard to reveal more stacks of binders sandwiched between boxes of cereal.

Navy Pension

Swan lives on the Navy pension he receives each month. Never married, he served in the Navy during World War II, then later re-enlisted and served eight years, retiring as a lieutenant junior grade in 1956.

Between those two military stints Swan spent a year working for the old Pacific Electric Railway. It was a time that marked him forever.

The Pacific Electric operated the old Red Car trolley system and freight trains on a web of tracks running throughout the Los Angeles basin. Swan said he worked as a gateman, as a conductor and a motorman.

"It was a very formative year," he recalled.

After leaving the Navy, Swan decided to embark on his career as a voice for the improvement of rail transit. It was a lonely campaign. In the years that followed, Swan amassed his files and tutored himself on the workings of railroads.

"Other things had plenty of advocates, and loud ones at that," Swan said. "When I took this up, I was the lone advocate. At that time, leaders felt the way to go was to turn everything into buses and freeways and monorails. So I was really a voice in the wilderness."

Swan says he has been at it for more than two decades, except for a one-year stretch in 1970 when he worked in a post office.

"I feel," he said, "I'm doing what no one else can do."

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