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Traveling Outside of Time

By Returning to the Days of Luxury, Amtrak Executive Brian Rosenwald Made the Coast Starlight Train a Hit With Passengers. But Will It Survive Perpetual Cost Cuts?

February 01, 2004|Lauren Kessler | Lauren Kessler is the author of "Clever Girl" (HarperCollins, 2003) and nine other books. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.

Joseph, a burly ex-Marine, is munching peanuts and gazing out the big domed windows of the Pacific Parlour Car. We are traveling on the Coast Starlight, the train that runs between Los Angeles and Seattle, a 1,389-mile trek that is arguably the most beautiful stretch of railroad in the country. I met Joseph only a few hours ago, but already I know more about him than I do about some of my closest friends. I know about his dying mother, his sister's disappearing husbands, the writing contest he once won, the six months he spent living out of his truck and his nonexistent sperm count. This is the odd and completely wonderful dynamic that occurs on long-distance trains. People who would never meet in "real life"--like Joseph and me--form brief but intense connections when they are in limbo, when they relax into that timeless stretch between here and there.

It is after dinner on the second evening of the trip. The train sidles along the Columbia River, passing through the rich river-bottom farmland north of Portland, Ore., and makes its way north to hug Puget Sound. This journey is supposed to take 35 hours, but because of a prolonged delay--typical for this train, which has earned the nickname the Coast Starlate--we have been on board close to 35 hours already and are still several hours from our destination.

Joseph starts laughing.

"You know," he says, "someone could take off from LAX right now and still beat us to Seattle." We are both quiet for a moment, munching our peanuts. I smile and shake my head. He looks over at me. "Yeah, I know what you mean," he says, although I have not said anything. "I feel sorry for them too."

In an era when every other form of long-distance transportation--by air, car or bus--is fraught with tension and aggravation, Joseph's remark speaks to a secret that Amtrak rediscovered with the Coast Starlight: It's not about when you arrive. It's about how you get there. And what was true in the 1990s, when a visionary Amtrak executive named Brian Rosenwald reinvented the Coast Starlight, is even truer now as security crackdowns are transforming air travel into an often tedious, time-consuming and unpleasant experience.

For passengers on the new Coast Starlight, there were no long lines or cramped seats, no crowded highways or bad road food. Instead, those who rode it found leisurely gourmet meals, roomy armchairs and, for first-class passengers, comfortable beds. They loved it, and they flocked to first-class accommodations in record numbers. In a few years, the Coast Starlight became a model of long-distance train travel.

Or maybe not. As often happens in large organizations, especially those with government oversight, one man's singular vision has a way of being blurred over time. As rewarding as Rosenwald's innovations have been for passengers and as financially rewarding as they have been for Amtrak, the Coast Starlight is losing some of its luster these days. It's still a remarkable journey, but Rosenwald no longer oversees the line. Whether the Starlight continues to flourish is a question that may determine the future of long-distance trains in the U.S.

The Coast Starlight was known in Amtrak circles as "Brian's Train." That's how closely he was associated with this route, how influential his leadership was, how well he knew the train and everyone who worked it, from the coach car attendants to the galley cooks to the engineers to ticket clerks in stations along the way. In the mid-'90s, a period which he now considers the high-water mark of his three-decade Amtrak career, Rosenwald was general manager of the Coast Starlight. During his nearly five years on the job, he traveled the train more than 200 times, and he has almost as many tales to tell.

His favorite begins with a truck full of mushrooms that wrapped around the locomotive of the northbound Coast Starlight on New Year's Eve 1998. The train--jammed with passengers making their way to celebrations in Portland and Seattle--was stuck between Salinas and San Jose for nine hours while a crane extricated the locomotive from the mess, and then another six hours for repairs.

This doesn't sound like a story a general manager would want to tell about his train, but Rosenwald delights in it. When he got the distress call at his L.A. office, his first thought was of the hundreds of passengers who were not going to make it to their destinations in time to mark the new year. He dropped everything, jumped on a plane to Sacramento, then caught a turboprop to Klamath Falls, Ore., where he arrived two hours before the now 15-hour-late train was due in the station.

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