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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.

He corralled the Klamath Falls ticket clerk, and together, borrowing cash from the train station till, they headed for the local grocery store, where they bought out the entire stock of champagne and every party hat, party favor and small gift they could find. When the train finally arrived, Rosenwald boarded and, with the charm and verve that are his hallmarks, proceeded to orchestrate an off-the-cuff New Year's Eve party for 320 guests. It was, he says, an affair to remember.

A voluble and animated man in his early 50s, Rosenwald looks a little like Gene Wilder, with his now-thinning but once-wild curly hair, mischievous grin and boyish high energy. He is a man with a direct gaze, a ready laugh and lots and lots of ideas. Sitting in his L.A. office at Amtrak West in 1995, Rosenwald realized he had a chance to create a train based on childhood memories of riding the great American passenger lines of the late 1950s and early '60s--the Santa Fe Chief and El Capitan--from his home in Chicago to visit his extended family in Albuquerque. Train travel, he remembered, was more than a way to get from point A to point B. A train trip should be a wonderful, memorable experience, the kind you told others about, the kind of experience you wanted to repeat.

Rosenwald was in the right place at the right time. He was in charge of a spectacularly beautiful route that served four great cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. And he had a boss, Gil Mallery, then-president of Amtrak West, who said those three little words one rarely hears from bosses, especially those in phlegmatic government agencies: Go for it.

So Rosenwald did. He re-imagined the Coast Starlight and initiated a series of dramatic upgrades, from regional specialties in the dining car to distinguished local wines (uncorked and poured, not the screw-top splits that were standard elsewhere on Amtrak) to live entertainment to fresh flowers and souvenir appreciation gifts in sleeping car bedrooms.

His greatest innovation was the Pacific Parlour Car, a separate upscale, bi-level lounge for first-class passengers. This is where Joseph and I whiled away the hours eating peanuts, watching the scenery and pitying the people who traveled by plane. Rosenwald had found several vintage 1950s Santa Fe Railway lounge cars, possibly the same as he had traveled in as a kid, and had spent more than $3 million refurbishing them. The new Pacific Parlour Cars featured upstairs lounges with mahogany-paneled walls, glass sconces, domed viewing windows, swivel armchairs, couches, banquettes and full bars, and downstairs cinemas with big-screen TVs and classic movie theater seating for 19.

The cars were an immediate success. There was--and is--nothing like them on any other train in the system. When Rosenwald added a complimentary breakfast buffet and a mid-afternoon wine tasting, first-class ridership on the Coast Starlight jumped 77%, and first-class revenue rose from $6.5 million in 1994 to $15.9 million in 2001. Passengers were getting what Rosenwald called a "land cruise experience," and they were loving it.

But Rosenwald was swimming upstream.

The National Railroad Passenger Corp. (Amtrak's official name) had been limping along since its inception in 1971 and seemed to face annual insolvency. For three decades no one had wanted to face the truth that, regardless of the success of any one train, the business of moving people requires significant public subsidies. Amtrak has never been self-supporting, let alone profitable. In fact, no national rail passenger system in the world is profitable. All depend on the largess of their governments.

The U.S. government has been particularly stingy. During the past two decades, as federal support for the national highway system doubled and funds for aviation nearly tripled, Amtrak's appropriations were slashed by one-third. This fiscal year, Amtrak's new president, David Gunn, was able to squeeze $1.2 billion out of Congress for his budget. Still, the U.S. passenger rail system remains among the least subsidized in the world.

Tension between corporate cost-cutters and what Rosenwald calls the "amenities people" had always been intense, and Rosenwald's innovations worsened it. He argued that amenities, which more than paid for themselves from higher revenues, made the experience enchanting, and that cutting them, even in tough financial times, was shortsighted. But cost-cutters thought Rosenwald was squandering resources. Managers of other routes, jealous of his success, were grumbling.

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