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Trains--Tie That Binds : Rail Buffs Find Conversation, Camaraderie at the Station

August 06, 1987|ROBERT D. DAVILA | Times Staff Writer

Paul J. Max adjusted his thick eyeglasses and squinted into the glare of the evening sun. Although he had been sitting on a hard bench more than 30 minutes, he didn't mind when a ticket agent announced the 6:28 Amtrak train would be an hour and 10 minutes late pulling into Glendale.

"We're used to it," the 74-year-old retired carpenter said. "Sometimes they come in as late as one or two in the morning. We just go home and then come back."

But the relatively short delay that night would allow more time to chat for Max and his friends, who call themselves the "train watchers." As many as 12 men gather daily at the Spanish Colonial station in Glendale to witness the arrival of the Los Angeles-to-Seattle Coast Starlight.

Like the trains, the watchers do not keep a precise schedule. They arrive at the station at their leisure, some every day and others only occasionally. They "work shifts," waiting for either the northbound No. 14 train at 10:13 a.m. or the No. 11 evening train headed for Los Angeles. The Coast Starlight is the only passenger train that stops in Glendale.

A 'Watcher' for 51 Years

No one knows how the custom started--not even 75-year-old Chuck Frazier, dean of the train watchers. The Glendale man has observed trains pass through his hometown for 51 years, including days before freeways and regular air travel when 16 passenger trains in each direction stopped at the station.

"It's just something you do," he said matter-of-factly. "Everybody likes to watch trains."

The mostly over-40 men hold fond memories of riding the rails, and some worked for rail companies. But the main reason they get together is just for friendly conversation--a pastime they believe has faded from the American scene even more than passenger trains. Topics range from family to world events.

"This is a good place to sit with friends, watch the comings and goings and just talk," Max said. "Besides, people who like trains are nice people. They're friendly and easy to talk to."

Ticket agent Paul Kalman, who mans the counter alone in the evening, said the train watchers help keep an eye on the generally quiet Glendale station. He said the men stay late when lone passengers are waiting for rides.

"This isn't the best place in the world for a woman to be alone at night," Max said.

Another Amtrak agent, Phil Reiner-Deutsch, is a member of the train watchers. The Los Angeles man works at Union Station but said he enjoys watching the action in Glendale. "It's less of a circus here. These are real people," he said.

Keeping vigil with a radio that picks up the train engineers' conversations, Reiner-Deutsch alerts the others that the Coast Starlight is five minutes away. The train watchers move quickly to the track platform; although they have performed this ritual for years, each arrival carries a sense of expectation.

When the train finally comes into sight, all eyes follow it, heads turning slowly in unison until the engine and cars rumble to a stop directly in front of the men.

Few Disembark

They watch as only about 20 passengers step onto the wide platform. Some are met by family and friends, while others go directly to collect their baggage, to arrange rides or to check the schedule for buses to other cities.

"Doesn't look like too many tonight," Bill Biewener, 50, says somewhat disappointedly. He drives in from Burbank to watch the trains.

In less than five minutes, it's all over. The Coast Starlight lurches south toward Union Station, and the passengers are circling Kalman as he unloads bags from a tram. Only the train watchers remain on the platform.

After a few more minutes of conversation about particular passengers and trains in general, the men head slowly toward the station. Some wave goodby and head for their cars, but Max, Frazier and Biewener stay behind.

Frazier talks about his upcoming vacation, a three-week trip through the West and Plains states--by train.

"It's the best way to go," he says.

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